"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
She Survived an Historic Ordeal

by Don Baumgart

Two familiar words bring to mind blowing snow, freezing weather, trapped humans, and survival by extreme means: Donner Party.

George Reed and his family set their wagons on what would be a disastrous course in July of 1846 by following George and Jake Donner as they decided to take a fork in the trail leading an immigrant party toward California.

A note addressed to "All California Immigrants Now on the Road," warned that a brewing war with Mexico made the southern route too dangerous and advised crossing the mountains farther north. Even greater danger lay ahead.

In the Reed family were thirteen year old Virginia, eight year old Patty, and five year old "Little Jim." And a family member who would survive a horribly cold winter to nearly perish in a warm, welcoming fire.

The ordeal began this way: Trying to cover the last three miles over the mountains they struggled on under a full moon until friendly Indians told them snow had covered the trail, and they were lost.

Finding an abandoned cabin the Reed family joined the Breen family. "Rain poured down in the night and leaked through the roof of pine boughs," writes author Rachel Laurgaard.

"We'll have to abandon the wagons, there's no doubt of that," someone said. "If we strap our provisions to the backs of the oxen, we may be able to pack through."

Every grownup would have to carry a child through the deep snow. Patty Reed was near the head of the procession. "Finally the snow got so deep that the mule we were clinging to kept falling head first into gullies filled with snow."

The attempted crossing failed and the long winter's trial began in earnest.

Eventually spring came and the survivors crossed the Sierra Mountains and filed down into the Sacramento Valley.

At Sutter's Fort, Patty Reed's mother removed the girl's ragged clothes and, in front of a comfortably warm hearth, bathed her. Dressing her daughter in fresh clothes Mrs. Reed gathered up the tattered rags and made to toss them in the fire.

Patty stopped her and drew from her shabby dress the hidden member of the Donner Party, a companion who had helped keep the girl's spirits up through the long winter: a wooden doll with a painted face and hair.

It's now on display at the Sutter's Fort Historical Museum in Sacramento, a symbol of humanity surviving against enormous odds, known forever as Patty Reed's Doll.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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