James F. Reed

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James F. Reed
James Frazier Reed

(1800-11-14)November 14, 1800
DiedJuly 24, 1874(1874-07-24) (aged 73)
Resting placeOak Hill Cemetery
San Jose, California
Known forDonner Party
Spouse(s)Margret Reed

James Frazier Reed (November 14, 1800 – July 24, 1874) was an Irish businessman and soldier and a pioneer in the American West, notable for being an organizing member of the ill-fated Donner Party emigration to California in 1846.

Early life[edit]

Born in County Armagh, Ireland (now Northern Ireland), Reed claimed to be of noble Polish stock.[citation needed] After the death of his father, he emigrated with his mother to the United States. Once there, his mother sent him to live with a family member in Virginia, where he worked as a clerk in the family store. In about 1825, Reed moved to Illinois, where he took an interest in mining. While living there, Reed ran several businesses and took part in the Black Hawk War[1] of 1832, serving with Abraham Lincoln.

In 1835, he married Margret Keyes Backenstoe, a widow with one daughter, Virginia Elizabeth Backenstoe, whom Reed did not adopt but who nonetheless went by the name Virginia Reed.[1] The couple married and had four more children in Springfield: Martha Jane (called Patty); James F., Jr.; Thomas Keyes; and Gershom Francis, who died as an infant.[1]

Donner Party[edit]

In 1845, Reed decided to head west to California and organized a small group, which left the Springfield area in the spring of 1846. The other members were George Donner, his brother Jacob, and their families and hired hands. Each head of household had three wagons. In addition to two supply wagons, Reed had a particularly comfortable one made for his family to ride in, which has since become legendary.[2] The Reeds and Donners left Springfield on April 14 and joined a large wagon train led by William H. Russell on May 19.

While camped in Wyoming, the Reeds, Donners, and several other families decided to split off from the main trail and take a new route called the Hastings Cutoff, which had been advertised as a shortcut across the Great Basin. They elected George Donner captain, creating the Donner Party, and separated from the other emigrants on July 20. The new route proved painstakingly slow and arduous. While crossing the desert west of the Great Salt Lake, Reed abandoned two of his wagons after he lost most of his oxen. The exhausted Donner Party finally rejoined the California Trail on September 26 near Elko, Nevada, having taken three weeks longer than the traditional route.

On October 6, while traveling along the Humboldt River, Reed quarreled with two teamsters and, in the ensuing fight, stabbed John Snyder to death.[1] One emigrant proposed hanging Reed, but after Reed's wife pleaded for leniency, the other emigrants decided to banish him instead. Reed initially refused to accept their decision but eventually agreed to go ahead to Sutter's Fort, in the Sacramento Valley, for supplies. After a difficult journey during which he nearly starved, Reed reached the fort on October 28. After two days of rest, he attempted to take provisions back to the wagon train, but deep snow blocked the way.

The early onset of winter not only blocked Reed's return but also trapped the Donner Party in the Sierra Nevada. The Donner Party members contrived makeshift shelters, hoping to soon resume their journey, but were forced to spend the winter in the mountains. They were already low on supplies and were compelled to slaughter their oxen for food. As the winter wore on, many of the emigrants starved to death, and some resorted to cannibalism.

Meanwhile, Reed, now stuck in California, tried to organize another relief expedition, but turmoil from the Mexican–American War not only disrupted his efforts but also forced him to take up arms. On January 2, 1847, Reed participated in the Battle of Santa Clara.[1] While in the area, Reed took steps to secure land for himself in Santa Clara, where he would eventually bring his family.

In early February 1847, the citizens and naval officers of San Francisco funded a rescue effort for the stranded Donner Party. Its leader was Selim E. Woodworth, a naval officer, with Reed as his second-in-command. Reed rounded up men and supplies in the Sonoma and Napa Valleys north of San Francisco Bay and headed into the mountains. Reed met his wife, Margret; his stepdaughter, Virginia; and son, James, Jr. coming out of the mountains. After an emotional reunion, Reed and his men continued on to the camp, where his remaining children, Martha (8) and Thomas (3), were still stranded. Reed led a party of emigrants out from the camps, but a severe blizzard trapped them at the top of Donner Pass for two days, during which the party ran out of food. When the storm passed, most of the refugees were too weak to continue. Reed departed with his children but had to leave the others behind. A few days later, however, another party rescued them.

Later life[edit]

Reunited, the Reed family recuperated in the Napa Valley for many weeks, where Reed served briefly as sheriff of Sonoma. In 1847, Reed took his family to revive the neglected orchards of Mission San José. He leased the orchards and in that summer gathered and dried apples, figs, pears, and quince, which he shipped to Hawaii, trading for cocoa, coffee, rice, and sugar.

Less than a year from their escape from the snow, the Reeds welcomed another son, Charles Cadden Reed. Willianoski Yount, called Willie, followed in 1850, but failed to survive his childhood.[3]

In the spring of 1848, Reed joined the California Gold Rush, finding rich diggings in the Placerville area.[4] Returning to San Jose in the fall of that year, he began an active community life. The family settled on a 500-acre (200-hectare) ranch between First Street and Coyote Creek in what is now Downtown San Jose. In 1849, Reed became the chief of police of the San Jose Police Department.[5]

Reed also became a real estate developer and speculated in mining enterprises. The subdivision of the Reed land in 1849 resulted in the naming of Reed, Carrie, Margaret, Keyes, Lewis, Martha, Patterson, and Virginia Streets in honor of Reed family members. The present-day Reed School was named after Frazier O. Reed, a grandson of James Reed's.[6] During the California statehood process, Reed was a leading proponent of a plan to make San Jose the capital of California, and he donated four city blocks to the cause.

In 1856, gold was discovered in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains, and Reed again set out to do some prospecting. Taking two of his sons, Reed leased a mining claim from Rancho Zayante owner Isaac Graham, on a tributary creek of the San Lorenzo River. The area never produced much gold, but the area near present-day Felton nevertheless became known as "Gold Gulch".[7]


Reed died in San Jose on July 24, 1874, at age 73.[8] He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.[9] His great grandson later established Reeds Sporting Goods Store, a long-term business in San Jose, which eventually closed down in 2008.

In popular culture[edit]

American Murder Song's ballad "The Cry Of The Banished Horseman" is a musical account of James Reed's murder of John Snyder and subsequent banishment from The Donner Party.[10]

The actor John Anderson was cast as Reed in the 1960 episode, "A Girl Called Virginia", on the syndicated television anthology series, Death Valley Days. Patty McCormack played Virginia Reed, his stepdaughter who proves helpful beyond her years as the Donner Party splits apart.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e Johnson, Kristin (January 31, 2006). "The Reed Family". New Light On the Donner Party.
  2. ^ Johnson, Kristin (January 31, 2006). "Some Donner Party Myths and Mysteries in Brief". New Light On the Donner Party.
  3. ^ "Reed Family: Margret Wilson Keyes".
  4. ^ Houston, James D. (1998). "More Tales From the Mines: The Bad Luck and Good Luck of James Frazier Reed". Oakland Museum of California. Oakland, CA.
  5. ^ Carr and Nunes. "Images of America:The San Jose Police Department." page 9
  6. ^ "Reed history". San Jose Union School District. San Diego, CA. Archived from the original on 2015-09-24. Retrieved 2014-03-15.
  7. ^ Koch, Margaret R. (1995). "The Gold Gulch Letters of James Frazier Reed". Santa Cruz County History Journal (2). Santa Cruz, CA: Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. p. 25. Archived from the original on December 21, 2015. Retrieved March 15, 2014.
  8. ^ Simkin, John (September 1997). "James Reed". Spartacus Educational (Updated August 2014 ed.).
  9. ^ James F. Reed at Find a Grave
  10. ^ Feinblatt, Scott (2017-08-02). "American Murder Song's Latest Album Takes on The Donner Party". OC Weekly. Retrieved 2017-10-20.
  11. ^ "A Girl Called Virginia on Death Valley Days". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved October 10, 2018.

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