O Mary I have not wrote you half the trouble we have had but I have Wrote you enough to let you know what trouble is. . . Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.
-Virginia Reed, letter to her cousin Mary Keyes, May 16, 1847
Once the survivors of the Donner Party made it out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, they dispersed into the state of California.
One can barely imagine how the horrors of their experience in the Sierra Nevada Mountains stayed with them as then conducted their lives, starting businesses, had families, lived their lives, and died far away from the mountains, settling in to the coastal region of the Golden State.
I headed down to the county of my birth, Santa Clara County, to visit California’s oldest secular cemetery, founded before the Gold Rush in 1847. This is Oak Hill Funeral Home and Memorial Park, southeast of downtown San Jose.
This is the final resting place for ten survivors of the Donner Party. About 20% of the 48 survivors are buried here.
The year 1847 was an important one for the Donner Party. This is the year that the survivors, in five groups, made it out of the jaws of death from the campsites on Donner Lake and Alder Creek to the salvation of the Central Valley at Johnson’s Ranch and then on to Sutter’s Fort.
Near the core of the old cemetery is the plot of the Reed and Lewis families in Section D which is now named the “Pioneer” section. Here lies the patriarch of the family James F. Reed and his wife Margaret.
James Reed was one of the leaders of the party and if it hadn’t been for the moment of rage that caused the death of a teamster, stabbed to death by Reed and his subsequent banishment from the party on October 6, 1846, the group might have gone done in history as the Reed Party.
The Reed and the Donner families are like a tale of two clans with two different outcomes from their ordeal in the winter of 1846-47. All of the members of the Reed family survived while the Donner family suffered the most out of any family group. All four adults and four children perished.
After visiting the graves of the Reeds and Donners I crossed the street into Section C looking for the grave of another Donner Party survivor. I looked at my map and his grave was marked as Historical Points of Interest Number 2.
Who knew finding a grave could to so difficult (I was really about to find out a little later in the morning)? There are 15,000 souls interred here, so it could be like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. I wanted to find the grave of William Henry Eddy, the “leader” of the third attempt to escape from Donner Lake to get help from Sutter’s Fort. This party of 15 was later called “The Forlorn Hope”.
On December 16, 1846 the Forlorn Hope set out from Truckee Lake (now named Donner Lake) and headed toward the summit (now named Donner Summit). The party started off as 15 and when they made it to Johnson’s Ranch there were just seven of them alive. Willian Eddy was one of two male surviors.
After an exhausted search I finally found Eddy’s unique gate, which was almost eclipsed by a larger headstone. Eddy’s grave is unique because it consists of a rock and a round, coin-like relief portrait of Eddy. A small plaque under the portrait reads: “HE LED THE FORLORN HOPE OF THE DONNER PARTY. DEDICATED MEMORIAL DAY 1949 BY THE ANCIENT & HONORABLE ORDER OF E CLAMPUS VITUS”.
I set up my sketching stool and put down the line work of Eddy’s grave. I then added some watercolor.
I had one more Donner Party grave to find and this one proved to be the most elusive. This is the grave of Virginia Reed, James Reed’s oldest stepdaughter (she was Margaret Reed’s daughter from her first marriage). She was 13 in 1846. She was at the dedication of the Pioneer Monument with her stepsister and she had written a recollection of her experience as a member of the Donner Party and had written the very well known and often quoted letter that is quoted at the top of the blog.
I had the location of her grave: Section D, Block 26, Lot 2, Grave 2. I thought this would be easy as I walked up the road. There was a buddhist funeral ceremony going on in Section B. The chimes that rang out and the chanting reminding me that this was still very much an active cemetery.
Section D had a lot of newer graves that were opulent and ostentatious, unlike the simple markers I had seen of the members of the Donner Party. I searched Section D until it turned into Section N. Then I checked my map and headed back toward Section D. In the middle of this section five guys in lawn chairs seemed to be having a tailgate party. This was very much an active and alive cemetery.
I retraced my steps again with no luck. I must have looked lost as I wandered with frustrated intent, map in hand, that I attracted a groundskeeper who pulled up in his truck and asked if I needed help.
I told him I was looking for Section D, Block 26, Lot 2, Grave 2. Her name was Virginia Reed Murphy. He told me it was back the other way near the corner. He would drive around and meet me there.
I guess he assumed I was a member of the family looking for a great great great grandmother. I walked with intent back the way I came, the chimes and chants to my left and turned right on Observatory Avenue. The groundskeeper had just pulled up in his work truck.
He pointed to a plot. To the left was a humble marker for Murphy and to the right was a fallen headstone. In between was green grass. Virginia Reed’s grave was nowhere to be seen. My search had ended in a dead end (pun intended).
“Sometimes the markers get covered up,” the groundskeeper remarked as he headed to the truck and returned with a shovel! He started poking around with the tip of the spade and he he hit upon resistance. “Here it is.” And he dug in. I advised, half jokingly, not to dig too deep.
What followed was one of those moments of miracle and wonder. A moment that is stranger that fiction.
Under five to six inches of sod and grass emerged a marker. Through the thin layers of dirt I could read the markers simple inscription: VIRGINIA REED MURPHY.
No one was here to care for her grave. All her children and grandchildren were long gone and buried. But then came along a fourth grade teacher with a passion for California history.
Here was my small gift to those who cared to look for the grave of a Donner Party survivor. Her grave must have been covered up for years and I wondered about those who had searched in vain for Virginia Reed’s grave, eventually giving up. Now, as if a historical treasure had been unearthed, as indeed it had, it was here again to be seen; To help along what Patty Reed started, that the struggles and tragedies but also the resilience and successes of the Donner Party be remembered for all generations.