When I was a kid, I remember my father taking my brother and I to see one of the big tourist sites of the Sierra Nevada town of Truckee: the famed Rocking Stone. If you visit Truckee’s Rocking Stone today, you are most likely to have the stone to yourself (sharing it with the local pigeons). The Rocking Stone was a much bigger attraction when it actually rocked. The once perfectly balanced rock stopped rocking, according to the E Clampus Vitus plaque: “The perfectly balanced stone, until recently would rock at the touch of a finger.” The plaque was dedicated on July 15, 1967! It’s hard to tell when “recently” really was.
The 17 ton Rocking Stone sits atop a much larger stone is believed to be a glacial erratic. Once the glacier retreated, the stone was left perfectly balanced, until recently.
I have always loved such historical roadside oddities; Especially when they are often times so underwhelming. The Rocking Stone proclaims that something once, very amazing, happened here. (Please use your imagination).
An early entrepreneur, C.F. McGlashan, built a tower around the rock in 1865. Also displayed with the stone were some artifacts from the Donner Party, and McGlashan’s own butterfly collection. Oh to have a time machine! This is site was also an overnight stop for the Olympic Torch during the winter games in 1960.
McGlashan’s nearby house and 1895 pavilion have since burned down.
It was long after dark when we got to Johnson’s Ranch, so the first time I saw it was early in the morning. The weather was fine, the ground was covered with green grass, the birds were singing from the tops of trees, and the journey was over. I could scarcely believe that I was alive.
The scene I saw that morning seems to be photographed on my mind. Most of the incidents are gone from memory, but I can always see the camp near Johnson’s Ranch.
~John Breen, April 24, 1847
John Breen wrote this letter once he had crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains into the foothills of California as a member of the emigrant group now known as the Donner Party.
Out of the 87 members of this doomed party only 48 survived. Most of the 48 survivors where women and children. Breen and his family were lucky. All of their family members survived.
It is unclear where Breen wrote this well known letter but is was either at Sutter’s Fort (in present day Sacramento) or at Johnson’s Ranch (near Wheatland).
Johnson’s Ranch was the first settlement the emigrants encounter once they entered California on the California Trail. They often paused here after the grueling passage over Donner Summit before heading down to Sutter’s Fort in present day Sacramento. They would camp near the banks of the Bear River.
Once the Breens came into California at Johnson’s Ranch and then Sutter’s Fort, they relocated to the mission town of San Juan Bautista.
Johnson’s Ranch was a Mexican Land Grant that eventually ended up in the hands of Willian Johnson. In 1846 be built a humble adobe house that became known as Johnson’s Rancho.
During the winter of 1847, the seven surviving members of the Forlorn Hope staggered into Johnson’s Ranch. They were a party that set out from Truckee Lake in order to get help for the ill fated Donner Party. The party got lost and of the 17, only seven made it to the ranch. The survivors that made it to included it’s leader William Eddy, and sisters Sarah Fosdick, and Mary Ann Graves.
All of the relief parties that took the remaining survivors from the Lake and Alder Creek Camps back into California, staged and departed from Johnson’s Ranch.
Today the town of Wheatland is near the location of the ranch. Nothing remains of the original ranch. Just California Registered Historical Landmark No. 493. The plaque sits in the town’s park near the railroad tracks. It reads:
The first settlement reached in California by emigrant trains using the Emigrant (‘Donner’) Trail, this was an original part of the 1844 Don Pablo Gutiérrez land grant. It was sold at auction to William Johnson in 1845, and in 1849 part of the ranch was set aside as a government reserve-Camp Far West. In 1866, the town of Wheatland was laid out on a portion of the grant.
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.
The Donner Party is associated with the lake that now bears the name of the doomed pioneer group: Donner Lake. Family groups from the Donner Party camped for the winter on the eastern shore of what was then called Truckee Lake.
The Donner family broke an axle and George Donner injured his hand while trying to make repairs on the family wagon and were forced to camp six miles away from Truckee Lake at Alder Creek.
No family suffered more than the Donner family. Out of the 16 members of the families of brothers George and Jacob Donner, only eight survived. Their family name is now immortalized in a lake (Donner Lake), a pass (Donner Pass), a state Park (the Donner Memorial State Park) and perhaps most ironically, their former campsite at Alder Creek is now named the Donner Camp Picnic Area.
If the Donner Party are hosting a picnic, I’ll take a raincheck!
This picnic area, by the side of Highway 89, was our first birding destination; a place for Grasshopper Sparrow to pick up some Sierra Nevadian lifers.
We arrived at 6:15 AM, the early birders gets the birds. We were the only ones in the parking lot and at this time in the morning, birds are the most vocal.
We started out on the trail with a wishlist of birds for this site: Cassin’s finch, white-headed woodpecker, calliope hummingbird, Brewer’s, chipping, and Vesper’s sparrow, Clark’s nutcracker, mountain bluebird, Wilson’s snipe, house wren, and green-tailed towhee.
Within the first hundred yards of the walk we heard a singing bird from a pine about 30 feet up. Grasshopper identified it as one of our target birds, the dapper green-tailed towhee!
After getting stunning looks at the towhee in great morning light, we headed down the trail and 20 yards later we checked another bird off the wishlist: a very vocal house wren.
Near the campsite of the Donner family, who camped about 15 feet above the meadow because of the heavy snowfall in the late fall of 1846, we saw other singing green-tailed towhees. The calls of mountain chickadee and western wood-pewee seemed to be the soundtrack of this site.
Further along the trail we had one of the highlights of the day, a stunning male mountain bluebird. We headed back towards the parking lot and we crossed a boardwalk over Alder Creek and we flushed a Wilson’s snipe. Another bird checked off our wishlist!
We headed north on Highway 89 and I wanted to find a very iconic mountain stream bird, the American Dipper and I knew that if we stopped at any stream running under the highway, we might have a chance to get dipper, with a little leg work of course. The first stream course that we crossed was Prosser Creek.
We parked in the pullout and headed to the creek. This looked like good habitat for American dipper. We scanned the rocks and water both upstream and down, no dipper. After we crossed under the Highway 89 bridge we encountered two very vocal spotted sandpipers. They came within five feet of our feet and acted as out “tour guides”. I suspect we were very near their nest, which is built on the ground in a depression, and were leading us away from their precious eggs.
What they really did was lead us upstream to an American dipper that was bobbing on the shore. Grasshopper got some good looks and then the dipper flew upstream.
Well we weren’t satisfied with just one look at a dipper so we headed north along Highway 89 and our next stop was the bridge over the Little Truckee River. We climbing under the bridge and on the other side was a cliff swallow nesting colony. The swallows exploded into the air!
Downstream was a massive osprey nest with a osprey perched above. There may be young in the nest but it was hard to tell from our far away vantage point.
We continued to the end of Highway 89 at its junction with historic Highway 49 at the small town of Sierraville. We turned right and headed a short distance down Highway 49, where on a fence post, we had an incredible view of a bird we had only got a fleeting glimpse of before: Wilson’s snipe.