James Frazier Reed

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James Frazier Reed

Also Known As: "Reednowski", "Reednosk"
Birthplace: County Armagh, Ulster, Ireland
Death: Died in San Jose, Santa Clara County, California, United States
Place of Burial: San Jose, Santa Clara County, California, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of nn Reed
Husband of Margaret Wilson Reed
Father of Patty Reed, Donner Party; James Reed, Donner Party; Thomas Reed, Donner Party and Charles Cadden Reed
Brother of nn Reed

Occupation: Member of the Donner Party
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About James Frazier Reed

The most successful of the Donner Party travelers. His entire family survived. They ate no flesh.

James F. Reed dominates the story of the Donner Party. He was a man of strong personality, described as intelligent and energetic but also as aristocratic and overbearing.
    Reed was born in Northern Ireland, but he was reportedly of noble Polish extraction and the name was originally "Reednoski." After his father’s death, Reed and his mother emigrated to the United States; when he was old enough "to be of some service to himself," his mother sent him to live with a relative in Virginia, who employed Reed as a clerk in his store. 

In about 1825 Reed went to the lead district of Illinois, where he began his lifelong interest in mining, and moved on to Springfield in 1831. During the Black Hawk War (1831) he joined a local volunteer militia company led by Jacob M. Early, serving with Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and James Clyman. After his return to Springfield Reed ran several businesses over the years: a general store, a starch factory, a sawmill, and a furniture factory. He also speculated in railroad contracts and real estate, and served as the U. S. pension agent for Springfield.

    According to his stepdaughter Virginia, it was James Reed who conceived the idea of going west and organized the group from Springfield. He had first thought of going to Oregon, but decided on California instead, and spent nearly a year preparing for the journey.
    One of his preparations was to have a comfortable wagon built for his ailing wife and mother-in-law to ride in. Much has been made of this vehicle, the so-called "Pioneer palace car." Although it was larger than his other wagons, there is no reason to accept George R. Stewart’s description of it as "huge" and "looming" over all the others in the wagon train. In addition to the family wagon, the Reeds had two others to carry provisions and other supplies. They took extra cattle, horses, and several dogs. With them traveled three teamsters, Milt Elliott, Walter Herron, and James Smith, and two servants, Baylis Williams and his sister Eliza.
    Along the Humboldt, on October 5, 1846, Reed became involved in a dispute between two teamsters and in the ensuing fight stabbed John Snyder to death. He was banished from the train and went ahead to Sutter’s Fort for supplies, but snow blocked the pass when he and William McCutchen tried to return to the wagon train at the beginning of November.
    Reed’s attempts to organize another relief party met with temporary failure. Most of the able-bodied American settlers had enlisted to fight in the Mexican War, and horses and provisions were also scarce. Reed participated briefly in the war, and on January 2, 1847, was involved in a skirmish known as the Battle of Santa Clara. The Americans prevailed and five days later a treaty was signed. In all Reed spent a few weeks in the area where he would later settle, and took steps to secure land for himself and his dependents.
    In February Reed led the Second Relief to the camps. He met his wife, Virginia, and James, Jr. coming out of the mountains with the First Relief in an emotional reunion. Learning that Patty and Tommy were still at the lake, and knowing that the rest of his family would soon be safe, he hurried over the mountains. As he was leading the refugees down to the California settlements, however, a blizzard set in. When the storm eased two days later, most of the emigrants had become too weak to continue. Reed took three with him, but had to leave the rest behind at what was to become known as Starved Camp. They were rescued four days later by John Stark.
    After recuperating in the Napa Valley at the ranch of George C. Yount the Reeds continued on to Santa Clara County. They settled in San Jose, where Reed was an active member of the community. Although he arrived almost destitute, Reed did well in real estate and mining ventures and the family prospered. Reed died at the age of 73 and was laid to rest beside his beloved Margret at San Jose's Oak Hill Cemetery.



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James Frazier Reed's Timeline

County Armagh, Ulster, Ireland
Age 38
Sangamon Co., IL
Age 41
Sangamon Co., IL
Age 43
Sangamon Co., IL
Age 48
Age 74
San Jose, Santa Clara County, California, United States
San Jose, Santa Clara County, California, United States