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Across the Plains in the Donner Party

Across the Plains in the Donner Party by Karen Zeinert
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The story of the Donner party's disastrous journey was first recorded in diaries and letters written along the way. After the trip was completed and rumors about the party's horrible experiences began to circulate, including shocking stories about cannibalism, newspaper reporters interviewed the survivors. These published articles grabbed the public's interest, and there was a demand for more information for many years to come.

In 1891, James Reed's stepdaughter, Virginia, who was by then Mrs. J. M. Murphy, was asked by Century magazine to write an article about her experiences in the Donner party. Her story, “Across the Plains in the Donner Party,” is the most complete record written by a member of the party, and it is the foundation for the text that follows
SynergEbooks; February 2005
103 pages; ISBN 9780744306927
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Title: Across the Plains in the Donner Party
Author: Karen Zeinert
The Drivers Cracked Their Whips and the
Long Journey Began

Virginia Reed Murphy

Although I was only twelve years old when my family began its journey to California, I remember the trip well. I have every reason to do so, since the dangers and ordeals we faced were so extraordinary.

Our little band, which drove out of Springfield, Illinois, on April 14, 1846, has often been referred to as the “ill-fated Donner party.” My father, James F. Reed, was the originator of the party, and the Donner brothers, George and Jacob, who lived just outside Springfield, decided to join him. All the previous winter, we prepared for the coming journey.

One of my main concerns was encountering Indians, the very thought of which frightened me no end. But right here let me say that we suffered vastly more from fear of the Indians before starting than we did on the plains; at least this was my case.

My fear was based on tales that I had heard and loved to have repeated. Grandma Keyes, who lived with us, used to tell me these stories. She had an aunt who had been taken prisoner by the Indians in an early settlement in Virginia and had remained a captive in their hands for five years before she made her escape. Evening after evening, I would go into Grandma's room and sit with my back close against the wall so that no warrior could slip behind me with a tomahawk. I would coax Grandma to tell me more about her aunt, and I would listen to the recital of the fearful deeds of the Indians until it seemed to me that everything in the room, from the high old-fashioned bedposts down to the shovel and tongs in the chimney corner, had been transformed into Indians in paint and feathers, all ready for the war dance. When I was told that we were going to California and would have to pass through a region peopled by Indians, you can imagine how I felt.

My mother, though a young woman, was not strong, and she had been in delicate health for many years. Yet when dangers came upon her on our way to California, she was the bravest of the brave. Grandma Keyes, who was seventy-five years old, was an invalid, confined to her bed. So the car in which both were to ride was planned to give comfort. Our wagons were all made to order, and I can say without fear of contradiction that nothing like our family wagon ever started across the plains. It was a two-story wagon that some called a “pioneer palace car.” The entrance was on the side, like that of an old-fashioned stagecoach, and one stepped up and into a small room in the center of the wagon. At the right and left were spring seats with comfortable high backs, where we could sit and ride with as much ease as on the seats of a Concord coach. Under the spring seats were compartments in which were stored many articles useful for the journey. In this little room was a tiny stove for warmth, and its pipe, running through the top of the wagon, was circled with tin to keep it from setting fire to the canvas cover.

Boards running the full length of the wagon were fastened to a frame that spanned the width of the palace car, a frame that was located just above the wheels. These boards formed the foundation for a large, roomy second story that housed our beds. Our clothing was packed in strong canvas bags.

Some of Mama's young friends gave her a mirror in order, as they said, that my mother might not forget to keep her good looks. It hung directly opposite the door in the center room. Strangely enough, although we went over very rough terrain before we had to leave this wagon standing like a monument on the Salt Lake Desert, the glass never broke. I have often thought how pleased the Indians must have been when they found this mirror, which gave them back the picture of their own faces.

We also had two wagons loaded with provisions. Everything in that line that could be thought of was bought. My father started with supplies enough to last us through the first winter in California, if we made the journey in the usual time of six months. Knowing that books were always scarce in a new country, we also took a good library of standard works. We even took along a new cooking stove. Certainly no family ever started across the plains with more provisions or a better outfit for the journey.

We had many animals with us: five dogs, saddle horses, cows, and oxen. The family wagon was drawn by four yoke of oxen, large Durham steers, and the two supply wagons were drawn on three yoke each. The other animals were led or herded along as we made our way to California.

I also had a pony. His name was Billy, and he was a beauty. I can scarcely remember when I was taught to sit a horse. I only know that when I was seven, I was the proud owner of a pony and that I used to go riding with Papa. The chief pleasure I looked forward to when crossing the plains was to ride my pony every day. But a day came when I had no pony to ride. The poor little fellow gave out, for he could not endure the hardships of ceaseless travel. When I was forced to part with him, I cried until I was ill, and I sat in the back of the wagon watching him become smaller and smaller as we drove on, until I could see him no more.