Virginia Reed, Donner Party

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Virginia Elizabeth Murphy (Reed)

Also Known As: "Backenstoe"
Birthdate: (88)
Birthplace: Springfield, Sangamon Co., IL
Death: 1921 (84-92)
Los Angeles, CA
Place of Burial: Oak Hill Memorial Park San Jose Santa Clara County California
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Lloyd Carter Backenstoe and Margaret Wilson Reed
Wife of John Murphy of Sutter's Mill
Mother of John Marion Murphy, Jr.; Thaddeus Stanley Murphy; Mary M Murphy; Lloyd M Murphy; Mattie H Murphy and 4 others
Half sister of Patty Reed, Donner Party; James Reed, Donner Party; Thomas Reed, Donner Party and Charles Cadden Reed

Managed by: Private User
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About Virginia Reed, Donner Party

Virginia was only a baby when her mother married James F. Reed, who was appointed her legal guardian on 10 September 1836. Although he did not formally adopt her, Virginia went by his surname. There was a strong bond between them and Reed did not treat her any differently than he did his natural children.

    Virginia was a noted equestrian who won prizes for horsemanship in her later years. She considered a horse her "pet of pets" and could not remember being unable ride. She had a cream-colored pony, Billy, to ride across the plains and enjoyed going out with her stepfather every day, until Billy gave out and had to be left behind.
    Virginia wrote letters to her cousin, Mary Catherine Keyes, on July 12, 1846 and May 16, 1847. These two documents, her letters to historian C.F. McGlashan, and her memoir, "Across the Plains in the Donner Party," are important contributions to our knowledge of the Donner Party. Her writing is sprightly, informal, and full of human interest. (Click here for an article about her memoir.)
    At Donner Lake, impressed with piety of the Breen family, Virginia vowed that if God would spare her family’s lives, she would become a Catholic. All the Reeds survived, and Virginia kept her promise.
    On her way down from the mountains, one of the young men helping with the relief efforts proposed to her, young and half-starved as she was. The idea was incomprehensible to her, and she refused him. (See Perry McCoon and Virginia Reed on the Myths page.)

When Virginia was sixteen she ran off to marry John Marion Murphy, a pioneer who had arrived in California with the Townsend-Stephens-Murphy Party of 1844. (See Donner Party Bulletin No. 12 for the story of her elopement.) Murphy was involved in local politics and engaged in a number of business enterprises, including real estate and insurance. After he became ill, Virginia assisted him and continued his business after his death in 1892. She became the first woman on the Pacific Coast to engage in the fire insurance business. The Murphys had nine children, three of whom died young. Virginia Reed Murphy died in 1921 at the age of eighty-seven.

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Virginia Reed, Donner Party's Timeline