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These letters and diaries reflect both the unique perspective of youthful optimism and the experiences common among all female emigrants. The young women write of friendship and family, trail hardships, and explorations such as visits to Indian gravesites. Some like Sallie Hester even write of enjoying the company of men, and many speculate about marriage prospects. Domestic roles did not define the girls’ trail experience; only the four oldest in this collection recorded helping with chores. As they journey through Indian lands, these writers show that even their youth did not prevent them from holding notions of white racial superiority.
Two of the selections are newly published, having appeared only in limited-distribution collector’s editions of the original series. For all readers captivated by the first Best of Covered Wagon Women collection, this new volume’s focus on youthful travelers adds a fresh perspective to life on the trail.
The Donner Party Letters Tamsen E. Donner & Virginia E. B. Reed
On March 26 and April 2, 1846, there appeared an advertisement in the Sangamo Journal of Springfield, Illinois, with the headline: "Westward, HO! For Oregon and Californiaitl[!" The ad had been placed by "G. Donner and others" and called for young men who might want to "go to California without costing them anything." They were to be hired by "gentlemen" who would leave Sangamon County the first of April. Not one word was said about women, but it is with two of the women of the party that we are especially concerned because of letters they wrote back home telling of their experiences.
The Donner Party seems early on to have been called the Donner-Reed Party because George Donner and James Reed were the principal organizers of the enterprise. The letters published here were written by two women, one from each of these families.
Tamsen Donner's letters have to do with the early part of the overland journey. She was Mrs. George Donner, and, if anyone can be called the heroine of the awful tragedy, she would be the one. The first of her extant letters was written to her sister, Eliza Poor, and it was sent back from Independence, Missouri, a major gathering place of overland parties. This letter is to be found in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, and it is with their permission that it is published here. Her other letter was published in the same Sangamo Journal as the previously quoted ad. It was in the July 23, 1846, edition of the newspaper, having been sent back from the Platte River Valley of present Nebraska. Tamsen Donner was a gracious, educated lady, a competent school teacher.
The other two letters were written by Virginia Reed, a thirteen-year-old teenager at the time of the overland journey. They are not written in a smooth, polished way, but their very naivete is part of their charm. They were written respectively from Independence Rock, in present Wyoming, on July 12, 1846, and from Napa Valley, California, on May 16, 1847. They are both located today in the Southwest Museum Library in Los Angeles. The 1847 letter, the most interesting of all, is in photostat form, the original having disappeared. It is with the permission of the Southwest Museum that they are reproduced here.
At first the Donner-Reed letters were not to have appeared in this collection. It was felt that they have been too much published and too lately. A careful study of the photostat of the Virginia Reed letter from the Napa Valley, however, led to the decision to include all four of them An examination of the photostat led to the conclusion that this letter has apparently never been published exactly as written. There seems to be an inevitable drive when a child's document is inventively spelled and erratically punctuated and capitalized to make a "fair copy" of it, and that is what has happened over and over again in this case. First of all, Virginia's step-father, James Reed, wrote over her words and sentences, emending them between the lines and adding things he thought she had left out. Then the editors of books about the Donner Party did more of the same. One transcriber of the letter marches square brackets across line after line, trying to make more clear what the child is really trying to say. In the same transcription there are also omissions of two or three words at a time that were in Virginia's own copy, and even two omissions of thirteen and fifteen words.
Here Virginia Reed's letter is published as much as possible just as she wrote it, leaving it to the intelligence of the reader to feel the full impact of this very personal message written by a mid-nineteenth-century teenage girl. Sometimes it takes a great deal of ingenuity and a powerful imagination to get at the heart of the child's story of the events of the overland journey and the tragedy in the mountains.
Virginia Reed did write another version of her experience much later in life. It is to be found in the Century Magazine in its May-October, 1891 issues. She gave this later reminiscence the title, "Across the Plains in the Donner Party (1846). A Personal Narrative of the Overland Trip to California."
Tamsen Donner was one of those who did not get to the California promised land. She died after tending a dying husband through his last days and hours in the snow-packed Sierra. A day or two after his death the icy cold took her life as well. Virginia Reed, on the other hand, lived a long life in the San Jose, California, area as the wife of Mr. John M. Murphy, to whom she was joined in marriage on January 26, 1850. She died in Los Angeles on March 14, 1921.
TAMSEN E. DONNER: LETTER I
Independence Mo. May 11th 1846.
My Dear Sister
I commenced writing to you some months ago but the letter was laid aside to be finished the next day & was never touched. A nice sheet of pink letter paper was taken out & has got so much soiled that it cannot be written upon & now in the midst of preparation for starting across the mountains I am seated on the grass in the midst of the tent to say a few words to my dearest & only sister. One would suppose that I loved her but little or I should have not neglected her so long. But I have heard from you by Mr Greenleaf & every month have intended to write. My three daughters are round me one at my side trying to sew Georgeanna fixing herself up in old indiarubber cap & Eliza Poor knocking on my paper & asking me ever so many questions. They often talk to me of Aunty Poor. I can give you no idea of the hurry of the place at this time. It is supposed there will be 7000 waggons start from this place this season We go to California, to the bay of San Francisco. It is a four months trip. We have three waggons furnished with food & clothing &c. drawn by three yoke of oxen each. We take cows along & milk them & have some butter though not as much as we would like. I am willing to go & have no doubt it will be an advantage to our children & to us. I came here last evening & start tomorrow morning on the long journey. Wm's family was well when I left Springfield a month ago. He will write to you soon as he finds another home He says he has received no answer to his two last letters, is about to start to Wisconsin as he considers Illinois unhealthy.
Farewell, my sister, you shall hear from me as soon as I have an opportunity, Love to Mr. Poor, the children & all friends.
T. E. Donner
TAMSEN E. DONNER: LETTER II
From the California Company
The following letter is from Mrs. George Donner, (one of the emigrants from this County, now on the way to California,) to a friend in this city: It is dated—
Near the Junction of the North and South Platte, June 16th, 1846
My Old Friend: —We are now on the Platte, 200 miles from Fort Laramie. Our journey so far, has been pleasant. The water for a part of the way has been indifferent—but at no time have our cattle suffered for it. Wood is now very scarce, but "Buffalo chips" are excellent—they kindle quick and retain heat surprisingly. We had this evening Buffalo steaks broiled upon them that had the same flavor they would have had on hickory coals.
We feel no fear of Indians. Our cattle graze quietly around our encampment unmolested.—Two or three men will go hunting twenty miles out from camp:—and last night two of our men laid out in the wilderness rather than tire their horses after a hard chase. Indeed if I do not experience something far worse than I yet have done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started.
Our wagons have not needed much repair; but I cannot yet tell in what respect they could be improved. Certain it is they cannot be too strong. Our preparation for the journey, in some respects, might have been bettered. Bread has been the principal article of food in our camp. We laid in 150 lbs. of flour and 75 lbs. of meat for each individual and I fear bread will be scarce. Meat is abundant. Rice and beans are good articles on the road—corn-meal, too, is acceptable. Linsey dresses are the most suitable for children. Indeed if I had one it would be comfortable. There is so cool a breeze at all times in the prairie that the sun does not feel as hot as one could suppose.
We are now 450 miles from Independence.—Our route at first was rough and through a timbered country which appeared to be fertile. After striking the prairie we found a first rate road; and the only difficulty we had has been crossing creeks. In that, however, there has been no danger. I never could have believed we could have travelled so far with so little difficulty. The prairie between the Blue and Platte rivers is abundant beyond description. Never have I seen so varied a country—so suitable for cultivation. Every thing was new and pleasing. The Indians frequently come to see us and the chiefs of a tribe breakfasted at our tent this morning.—All are so friendly that I cannot help feeling sympathy and friendship for them. But on one sheet what can I say?
Since we have been on the Platte we have had the river on one side, and the ever varying mounds on the other—and have travelled through the Bottom lands from one to two miles wide with little or no timber. The soil is sandy, and last year on account of one dry season, the emigrants found grass here scarce. Our cattle are in good order, and where proper care has been taken none has been lost. Our milch cows have been of great service—indeed, they have been of more advantage than our meat. We have plenty of butter and milk.
We are commanded by Capt. Russel—an amiable man. George Donner is himself yet. He crows in the morning, and shouts out, "Chain up, boys!—chain up!" with as much authority as though he was "something in particular."—John Denton is still with us—we find him a useful man in camp. Hiram Miller and Noah James are in good health and doing well. We have of the best of people in our company, and some, too, that are not so good.
Buffalo show themselves frequently. We have found the wild tulip, the primrose, the lupine, the ear-drop, the larkspur, and creeping holyhock, and a beautiful flower resembling the bloom of the beach tree, but in bunches as big as a small sugar-leaf, and of every variety of shade to red and green. I botanize and read some, but cook a "heap" more.
There are 420 wagons, as far as we have heard, on the road between here and Oregon and California.
Give our love to all enquiring friends—God bless them. Yours truly,
Mrs. George Donner.
VIRGINIA E. B. REED: LETTER I
Independence rock July th12 1846
My Dear Couzin I take this opper tuny to Write to you to let you know that I am Well at present and hope that you are well. We have all had good helth—We came to the blue—the Water was so hye we had to stay thare 4 days—in the mean time gramma died. she be came spechless the day before she died. We buried her verry decent We made a nete coffin and buried her under a tree we had a head stone and had her name cutonit, and the date and yere verry nice, and at the head of the grave was a tree we cut some letters on it the young men soded it all ofer and put Flores on it We miss her verry much evry time we come in the wagon we look up at the bed for her We have came throw several tribs of Indians the Caw Indians the saw the shawnees, at the caw viliage paw counted 20050 Indians We diden see no Indians from the time we left the cow viliage till we come to fort Laramy the Caw Indians are gong to War With the crows we hav to pas throw ther fiting grounds the sowe [Sioux] Indians are the pretest drest Indians thare is Paw goes a bufalo hunting most every day and kils 2 or 3 buffalo every day paw shot a elk som of our compan saw a grisly bear We have the thermometer 102°—average for the last 6 days We selabrated the 4 of July on plat at bever criek several of the Gentemen in Springfield gave paw a botel of licker and said it shoulden be opend tell the 4 day of July and paw was to look to the east and drink it and thay was to look to the West an drink it at 12 oclock paw treted the company and we all had some leminade. maw and pau is well and sends there best love to you all. I send my best love to you all We hav hard from uncle cad severe times he went to California and now is gone to oregon he is well. I am a going to send this letter by a man coming from oregon by his self he is going to take his family to oregon We are all doing Well and in hye sperits so I must close yur letter. You are for ever my affectionate couzen
Virginia E. B. Reed
VIRGINIA E. B. REED: LETTER II
Napa Vallie California May 16th 1847
My Dear Cousan May the16 1847
I take this oppertunity to write to you to let you now that we are all Well at presant and hope this letter may find you all well to My dear Cousan I am a going to Write to you about our trubels geting to Callifornia; We had good luck til we come to big Sandy thare we lost our best yoak of oxons we come to Brigers Fort & we lost another ox we sold some of our provisions & baut a yoak of Cows & oxen & they persuaded us to take Hastings cut of over the salt plain5thay said it saved 3 Hondred miles, we went that road & we had to go through a long drive of 40 miles With out water or grass Hastings said it was 40 but i think it was 80 miles We traveld a day and night & a nother day and at noon pa went on to see if he coud find Water, he had not bin gone long till some of the oxen give out and we had to leve the Wagons and take the oxen on to water one of the men staid with us and others went on with the cattel to water pa was a coming back to us with Water and met the men & thay was about 10 miles from water pa said thay git to water that night, and the next day to bring the cattel back for the wagons any [and] bring some Water pa got to us about noon the man that was with us took the horse and went on to water We wated thare thought Thay would come we wated till night and We thought we start and walk to Mr doners wagons that night we took what little water we had and some bread and started pa caried Thomos and all the rest of us walk we got to Donner and thay were all a sleep so we laid down on the ground we spred one shawl down we laid doun on it and spred another over us and then put the dogs on top it was the couldes night you most ever saw the wind blew and if it haden bin for the dogs we would have Frosen as soon as it was day we went to Miss Donners she said we could not walk to the Water and if we staid we could ride in thare wagons to the spring so pa went on to the water to see why thay did not bring the cattel when he got thare thare was but one ox and cow thare none of the rest had got to water Mr Donner come out that night with his cattel and braught his Wagons and all of us in we staid thare a week and Hunted for our cattel and could not find them so some of the companie took thare oxons and went out and brout in one wagon and cashed the other tow and a grate manie things all but what we could put in one Wagon we had to divied our propessions out to them to get them to carie them We got three yoak with our oxe & cow so we [went] on that way a while and we got out of provisions and pa had to go on to callifornia for provisions we could not get along that way, in 2 or 3 days after pa left we had to cash our wagon and take Mr. graves wagon and cash some more of our things well we went on that way a while and then we had to get Mr Eddies Wagon we went on that way awhile and then we had to cash all our our close except a change or 2 and put them in Mr Brins Wagon and Thomos & James rode the 2 horses and the rest of us had to walk, we went on that way a Whild and we come to a nother long drive of 40 miles and then we went with Mr Donner
Excerpted from Best of Covered Wagon Women Volume II by Kenneth L. Holmes. Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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