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Natives & Immingrants

The Bad Luck and Good Luck of James Frazier Reed
by James D. Houston

James Frazier Reed is best known as a co-organizer of the Donner Party, the infamous wagon train caught in the early winter of 1846-47. That story is a saga of people pushed to the limits of human endurance and beyond, pushed there, in part, by their own divisiveness, some poor decisions, and a run of very bad luck. Reed's role in this grim, near-mythic episode has given him a place in the history of western settlement. Yet accounts of his deeds seldom include the extraordinary good luck that came to him not long afterward, luck he shared with numerous others, the settlers and deck hands and dreamers and schemers who happened, by whatever means, to be in California by 1848.

Reed was twice an immigrant. Born in Ireland, he crossed to the United States as a young boy with his widowed mother. When he rolled out of Springfield, Illinois in April 1846, he was bound for what was still a northern province of Mexico. He was then in his mid-40's, a prosperous farmer and businessman, with a wife and four young children. He had land, a home, a sawmill and a furniture shop. He also had a serious case of California Fever. In partnership with his friends, George and Jacob Donner, he left it all behind and joined the Great Migration, heading father west.

In the story of the Donner Party that has come down to us, Reed is part culprit and part hero, a capable but hot-tempered man, proud to a fault, with admirable tenacity, devotion to family and great physical courage.

His family wagon is one example of what went wrong. It was a double-decker, built to make the trip easier for Margaret, his wife, who suffered from crippling headaches. Both admired and resented by the group, it was dubbed "The Palace Car," by all accounts the largest and most elaborate vehicle anyone had thus far attempted to move from one side of North America to the other. When the trail got rough, its very size and bulk contributed to the party's slowing pace.

Reed's voice, moreover, was among the loudest in support of a shortcut being promoted that year by Lansford Hastings, the trail guide and entrepreneur. His notorious "Cut-off"-bearing south around the Great Salt Lake, rather than north-proved to be a disaster, costing them five weeks instead of saving three. It had been a communal decision to attempt this route, but Reed took much of the blame.

In early October, as they reached the Humboldt River in central Nevada, supplies were perilously low, animals were dying, days were hot and tempers short. While driving his wagon up a steep, sandy slope, the young teamster John Snyder began to beat his oxen with a whip handle. Reed intervened, and Snyder's frustration turned on him. With the butt of his whip he slashed Reed's forehead. Reed drew a knife, in self-defense. Snyder struck again, and Reed stabbed him in the chest. Within half an hour the young man was dead. Feelings against Reed ran so strong, some wanted to hang him. But others spoke out in his behalf. A compromise was struck, and he was banished.

He had to leave his family and ride on, crossing the Sierra just ahead of the early snows that trapped the rest of the party east of Donner Summit. He spent the next four months trying to get back into the mountains with relief supplies. His first attempt, in early November, was blocked by snow. Returning to Sutter's Fort, he hoped to mount a larger effort, only to be told that weather would make the mountains impassable until February. What's more-by a freak of timing-the struggle between the U.S. and Mexico for control of California was just then coming to a head. Any men he might have relied on were now riding south with John Fremont's battalion to put down the recent uprising in Los Angeles.

Sutter's advice was to petition the military commander based in San Francisco Bay. So Reed set out on horseback for Yerba Buena, via the San Joaquin and the Diablo Range. Upon reaching San Josť pueblo, he too was recruited, and played a role in what came to be called The Battle of Santa Clara, in early January 1847, the last armed encounter in northern California.

He made some allies in this campaign, which in turn opened the door for a commitment of support and resources from the U.S. military's Northern Department. From Yerba Buena he sailed for Sonoma, then crossed into the Sacramento Valley, gathering horses and men along the way. He re-entered the Sierra in late February, and this time made it through to Donner Lake. His was one of four relief parties that brought out the 47 survivors of the terrible ordeal, his wife and four children among them.

This is where the story usually ends, as they leave the mountains behind, emaciated but alive, and enter a spirit-lifting springtime. In fact, their life out west was just beginning, and Reed's luck had already begun to turn.

While his family recuperated near Sutter's Fort and later in Napa Valley, Reed served briefly as sheriff of Sonoma. But the time spent around San Josť had kindled an interest in the long fertile valley that was once a southern extension of San Francisco Bay. Having farmed in Illinois, he recognized the rich, well-watered bottomland. Ten miles north of the pueblo, at Mission San Josť, he had seen the acres of fruit frees planted by padres, now long neglected yet still bearing well. He leased these orchards and in the summer of 1847 gathered and dried pears, apples, figs and quince, which he shipped to Hawaii, trading for sugar, cocoa, coffee and rice.

In San Josť a new council of regidores was replacing the alcalde system, and Reed was among its first members, elected while he and his family still lived in tents among the fruit trees on the mission grounds. Eventually, they moved down into the Pueblo, renting what was available-a one-room, dirt-floored adobe with a stiffened ox hide for a door. Their fifth child was born there, just about the time Reed got wind of the tantalizing reports that soon would empty every California town: Gold had been discovered on the American River.

That spring he was heading again for the Sierras, where he struck rich diggings near what would become the town of Placerville. By the following fall he had returned to the pueblo, his saddlebags literally bulging. Reed had found his El Dorado and had come back home, and the famous year that would be our synonym for the western pursuit of sudden fortune was still two months away.

In December 1848, when President James Polk informed the wider world of the far west's new bonanza, James Frazier Reed was beginning his third year in California. He was 48 years old, the father of five and a pillar of the community, compared with the foot-loose argonauts who would soon pour into the region. He had already begun to invest his winnings and his considerable energy in the valley where he and his wife had decided to settle and raise their children. San Jose, he believed, could become a thriving town, a commercial center, perhaps a state capitol.

From a Californio land-grant family he had purchased a square mile of open acreage south and east of the market plaza. He planted some wheat and built a large adobe ranch house, completed in November 1849. He hired a surveyor to subdivide the surrounding land into sellable lots, as he had seen John Sutter and other entrepreneurs do near the Sacramento River. He advertised in the San Francisco papers. The map resulting from this survey, called The Plan of the Pueblo de San Josť, included the whole town, as then projected, and offered the first accurate look at the community's growth in the post-Mexican period.

In the transient and shifting social terrain of mid-century California, Reed was one of those who had come to stay. In Illinois he had been an aggressive community leader and devoted family man, and his habits had not changed. By the time the state entered the Union, the Reeds already had an established look. In her Diary of a Pioneer Girl, 14-year-old Sallie Hester recorded her family's journey from Bloomington, Indiana, to San Jose, and made this entry on June 3, 1850:

"We have pitched our tent near the house of Rev. Owens. Have met Mrs. Reed's family. They crossed the Plains in 1846. They were of the Donner Party. . . . Mattie Reed is a lovely girl with big brown eyes. She is near my own age. She has a piano, and Mrs. Reed has kindly asked me to come there and practice."

She referred to a famous square piano Reed purchased from a Boston sea captain soon after they moved into the ranch house. It had recently come around Cape Horn. Eager to head for the gold fields, the captain sold it to Reed for a thousand dollars. When it appeared on the dock in San Francisco a large crowd gathered to ponder its elegant rosewood lines. One of the first to reach these shores from the faraway eastern seaboard, it was known as "The Pioneer Piano," a feature of the Reed family parlor for decades to come.

During the Constitutional Convention, Reed led the move to have San Josť chosen as the state's new capitol, an honor that would boost civic pride and also boost the price of land, a boon for early investors like himself. Before the Constitutional Convention, he had sent letters up and down the coast. In September 1849, he rode the 70 miles to Monterey, leading a contingent of local businessmen to lobby the assembled delegates. Several towns were in the running, among them San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Sacramento and Benicia, as well as the former capitol, Monterey. To strengthen their appeal, Reed and his colleagues promised they would have a suitable building ready for the first legislature by December 15. It was a bold gesture, since the town fathers did not yet possess such a building. When San Josť (the accent was dropped in 19) won the convention's vote, the lobbyists galloped back home, with 10 weeks to make good on their guarantee.

In three years the pueblo had swelled form 700 inhabitants to around 3,000. It was a sprawl of tents and wooden shacks and small adobes, some with no windows. But on the east side of the market square there stood a recently built, uncompleted two-story adobe, originally meant to be a hotel. Forty feet by seventy, it had windows above and below, and a long verandah. When the town council offered to buy it the owners balked, and rightly so, wondering if the as-yet-unincorporated township would be able to secure the note. Reed and his colleagues came forward, securing the note, as private citizens, for the $34,000 purchase price, thus opening the way for the first session of the first California legislature to convene on time.

Or almost on time. By December 15 the ground floor of the State House was still not ready to occupy. While the Assembly met upstairs, the Senate met for the first two weeks at the nearby home of Isaac Branham. This was a minor inconvenience, compared with the weather. That season, 36 inches of rain fell in the Santa Clara Valley. On opening day, neither house had a quorum. Some roads were impassable. The square was a lake of brown taffy. Like the State House, the town was semi-built, in sudden-growth transition, short on hotels and eating places, so that some legislators slept on dining room floors, while others took rooms where they could find them.

Most California towns that winter would have faced similar discomforts (the previous fall, some delegates in Monterey had slept in tents or under trees). But in what came to be known as "The Legislature of a Thousand Drinks," there were many grumblings, and an early motion proposed that they look for a better site.

Again, James Reed spoke up, pleading for time. He offered four city blocks, enough space to house all state offices, together with 168 town lots to be sold at auction, which would in turn provide funds to build the necessary buildings. Other San Joseans followed suit, with offers of money and more land. But this time they were bidding against one of the wealthiest men in the west.

General Mariano Vallejo, former Commandante of Alta California's northern frontier, controlled more land than all the Yankees in San Jose combined. He envisioned a capitol in a town not yet laid out, which would be named for himself. To this end he offered 156 acres and $370,000 in cash. The San Joseans couldn't top it. When the issue was put to a public vote that fall, the general's proposal carried the day, and the legislature commences its leapfrog journey, from San Jose to Vallejo in 1852, back to San Jose, to Benicia, and on to Sacramento in 1854.

Reed had not lost faith in his town's future. After the legislature's first session ended, he went ahead and deeded over several large parcels "for the use, benefit and behoof of the aforesaid city of San Jose forever"-115 town lots and five squares, including St. James Square, now a historical midtown park, and Washington Square, later the core of California's first state college (established in 1857), today's San Jose State University.

The family name lives on in the 60-block grid he laid out in 1849. His "Reed Addition" is still found on city maps today, including a venerable row of streets near the university campus that keep alive some family names. South of Reed Street there is Margaret (his wife), then Virginia, for their older daughter, Keyes for Margaret's side of the family, and Martha, for their younger daughter, also called Patty, whose famous Donner Party doll, her companion during the Donner Party ordeal, has long been on display at Sutter's Fort.

James D. Houston is the author of six novels and several non-fiction works, most recently In the Ring of Fire: A Pacific Basin Journey (Mercury House, 1997). He lives in Santa Cruz in the house once occupied by Patty Reed, where he is completing a novel based upon her family's experiences during 1846-47.

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