May, 1846

The emigrants who would later form the Donner Party traveled with the Russell Party from Independence, Missouri to Alcove Springs in the Indian Territory, in what is now Kansas.

Map of the Trail from Independence to Alcove Springs

The dated entries below are from the diary of Hiram Miller and James F. Reed. The Diary is controversial to some historians. The existence of the diary was not known until the estate of Martha (Patty) Reed donated it to Sutter’s Fort Historical Museum in 1945. Apparently neither Virginia nor Patty revealed the diary to McGlashan. Virginia apparently did not use it as a source for her Century Magazine article in 1891. Some of the entries appear to have been written after the events, which led both Stewart and King to question it. King went so far as to suggest that some entries may have been written after Reed arrived in California, which seems unlikely.

Sunday, May 10, 1846

The Donners arrive at Independence, Missouri, as recorded by Tamsen Donner, wife of George Donner, in a letter dated May 11 to her sister Eliza Poor: I came here last evening & start tomorrow morning on the long journey.

Independence is the site of the National Frontier Trails Museum. The Museum has extensive exhibits about the Santa Fe, California and Oregon Trails and the early emigrants.

Monday, May 11, 1846

Tamsen Donner, wife of George Donner, wrote from Independence to her sister Eliza Poor:

It is supposed there be 7000 waggons start from this place, this season We go to California, to the bay of 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.

Contemporary accounts place the actual number of wagons as about 250, with about 1,500 people, headed for both California and Oregon.

Tuesday, May 12, 1846

May Left Independence on the 12th went about 4 miles and camped [This is the first entry from Miller’s diary. The Party followed the well worn Santa Fe Trail.]

The following document was found in the Reed papers donated to Sutter’s Fort Museum in 1945:

Missouri 12th May 1846

James F. Reed one of the parties agrees to give to M. Elliott for driving an Ox team and superintending the whole of His Ox team and in doing all other work usual in moving to California eight Dollars per month from this date to we land provided, the said Elliott should not stay in the Country a Year but return home to Illinois, but if he should remain in this Country tweleve months the said Reed is to pay him nothing and if the said Reed should have to pay to the said Elliott the above amt. pr mo. the said Elliott agrees to pay board to said Reed from the time he lands, at the rate pr week that is usual in the Country given under our hands the above date in presence of
Gersham Keys   James F. Reed

    M. Elliott
Also on this day, Charles Stanton, who was later to join the Donner Party, wrote to his brother Sidney.

Well what may surprise you perhaps is that I am going to start for California tomorrow I met with a good opportunity and, thinking it doubtful whether I should find anything to do in this country I concluded to go .... If you have never read Hastings Oregon & California get it and read it.- You will see some of the inducements which led me to this step I am in hopes to get through safe which I think there is little danger as we go in such large crowds that we shall be law unto ourselves and a protection unto each other

Stanton would, in fact, become a significant protector to the Donner Party.

Wednesday, May 13, 1846

13 next day travelled about 16 miles in the rain, bad roads and rainy night

Edwin Bryant describes his troubles passing the muddy road eight days before the Donners:

I did not overtake the wagon, until it had rolled, as the teamster’s expression is, about a mile from its starting-point, where I found it firmly and immoveably stalled in the mud, so far as the power of our team could be considered an agent for its extrication.

The Santa Fe Trail traveled up the Blue River from Independence, following the a portion of present Blue Ridge Road in Kansas City, Missouri.

Photograph of Blue Ridge Road

Blue Ridge Road in Kansas City, photographed 1998

Thursday, May 14 and Friday, May 15, 1846

14 15 Camped at Heart Grove Jackson County near the Indian line twenty two miles from Independence on the Big blue

The Indian line is the present Kansas-Missouri border, which heads south from the junction of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers. The Santa Fe Trail crossed the Blue River and ascended a steep hill. The ruts are preserved today and marked by a monument in Minor Park.

Photograph of trail ruts and monument

Santa Fe Trail Ruts and Monument in Minor Park, Kansas City, photographed 1998

Saturday, May 16, 1846

16 and from thir we Camped on the head of Rull Creek twenty miles from Big Blue

Miller probably meant Bull Creek. Although he makes no note of the camp site, it tremendously impressed John Breen, who wrote of it in his memoirs of 1877:

In due time we arrived at a camp called the Lone Elm, across the Missouri line. This place was thought to be the limit of civilization, at this camp we met some hunters returning with furs & they gave us some dried bufalow meat and told us that we had no idea of what we would suffer before we reached California. This prediction proved too true - At this camp was a Elm tree the only tree of any kind in sight. I shal never forget the loneliness of the scene boy though I was at time. What made the matter still more lonelir we were only one family not having yet been joined by any other parties crossing the plains that year. Still we were fairly on our way across the plains, and were afterwards joined by other parties.

Drawing of rider on horse next to elm tree

Encampment at Lone Elm

Sunday, May 17, 1846

17 the ’5 night wee Camp on the wapulusa 18 miles from the head of Bull Creek and we Camped on the plains near the a Spring 18 miles from Wapulusa

The wapulusa is the present Wakarusa, near Lawrence, Kansas. On the way to the Wakarusa, the party turned off the Santa Fe Trail onto the California and Oregon Trail.

Monday, May 18, 1846

18 and from thire wee Camped near the Creek 20 miles from plain Spring. [This was near present Big Spring, Kansas.]

Tuesday, May 19, 1846

19 and from their wee Crossed the Cau river and went about five miles and Camped

The Kaw was the name for the Kansas River, as in Kaw Drive which runs along the north bank of the Kansas River in Kansas City, Kansas. The crossing to the north bank of the Kansas River was near present Topeka.

Bryant described the crossing of the Kansas River:

The wagons were hauled as near the boat-landing as they could be by the teams, and then with their loads in them were lifted and pushed into the boats by the united strength of the men. By hard and unremitting toil the ... wagons ... were safely transported to the other side; and all our oxen, horses, and loose stock swam over, .... The fee for ferriage, per wagon, was one dollar. Two boats are employed, and they are large enough to transport two wagons each trip. The are pushed across the stream with long poles handled by Indians.

Virginia Reed remembered the crossing in her 1891 memoirs:

Nothing of much interest happened until we reached what is now Kansas. The first Indians we met were the Caws, who kept the ferry, and had to take us over the Caw River. I watched them closely, hardly daring to draw my breath, and feeing sure they would sink the boat in the middle of the stream, and was very thankful when I found they were not like Grandma’s Indians.

Grandma Keyes had told Virginia Reed stories about an aunt who had been kidnapped by Indians from the early settlement of Virginia and Kentucky and held captive five years.

At the camp on Soldier Creek the Donner-Reed party caught up to and joined the Bryant Party, as recounted by Bryant:

We were joined to-day by nine wagons from Illinois, belonging to Mr. Reed and the Messrs. Donner, highly respectable and intelligent gentlemen, with interesting families. They were received into the company by a unanimous vote.

On May 20, 1846, James Reed wrote a letter to his brother-in-law James Keyes. This letter is in the collection of the James Keyes papers of the Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield, Illinois, and is excerpted here with their permission. They also permitted Kristin Johnson to transcribe it and publish it in Reed Joins Russell Train, Newsletter of the Utah Crossroads Chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association, Winter 1997 (Vol. 8, No. 1). The discovery and publication of this letter was a tremendous accomplishment by Ms. Johnson, and an example of the potential for future original research on the Donner Party.

3 miles west of the Cansas or Caw
and about 1/2 mile East of the last Year’s encampment

20 May 1846

We arrivd here on Yesterday evening in the vicinity of the large Caravan Commanded by Col. Russle of Mo. consisting of 49 wagons, the ware too large before and on the evening before last divided and 21 wagons or familys Separated which Crossed the river before us and Kept on and intended to Camp 8 miles a head there ware Several applications made to Russle before I came up, by Gentlemen wishing to Join or in other words to be admitted to travel in the Caravan but ware universally reject as Soon as I Could get some of the hare and dust off my face I went to the encampment and had a talk with Col. Russle who I found Kind and oblidging on my application he told me that he would be glad to have me alog and immediatly convened the whole of the men in the Center of incampment and made a speech or talk to them stating at the Same time that he would vouch for me as a Gentleman that he had been well informed about me before he left Independ. and on the road Since he left after the talk Several moaved that I be admitted with my 9 wagons and the question being put carried unanimously and ther ware 5 Germans that fell in with us on the road whoes Case I represented to the Col. with a request that he put it to vote which he did and carried, Russle said that he would vouch for them on my representations, as he had full confidence in what I Said as a Gentlem He also took me asid and told me the division he wanted me to go in he said there ware Several families of the best Citizens of Mo. they are now Yoking the oxen far off and today will go about 7 miles we are all in good Spirrits Margrat and Your mother ware in low spirits on yesterdy when the understood that there ware So many rejected

I am afraid Your mother will not stand it many week or indeed days, if there is not a quick change Margrat this morning is in good hart. She was visited by several of the Caravan and Russle came with me last night to have an introduction to my family I have been talking this moment with Your Mother She says she feels very much like she was going to die one of her eyes pains her much and She is so blind that she cannot take her coffee or plate if it is set near her this morning She cannot eat anything I am of opinion a few days will end her mortal carear the Oregon waggons have gone on about Two Weeks Still ther are a number bound for that country Say Some [26]0 or [illegible] waggons Yet behind and I am informed that about 10 Californians are Yet behind the California Caravan is the largest this Year by about 26 families and I do assure You that there is no comparison between the individuals Comparing the different Cars. it is at least Two to one in favor of California there are 3 distinct Comp. for Califo. in all about 120 waggons--I See no waggons bound for Cal. that is as good as my family waggon and I have the opinion of all that has seen it here to that effect although there is fine waggon on the road ware I going to start a gain I would not chang much in the plan-- ... My dear Bro Jas I never in all my life Saw a more beautiful county, than that which we have passed through Since we left Mo. it is as rich as the best land in Sangamon and so beautifully situated that a man could make a farm to suit in all directions but timber is scarce springs in all directions although we came in a dividing ridge nearly all the time I have to close by sending our love to Lyda Mary Catharine Charles Ned Tom Henrieta Sue give my best respects to my old friends at the fancy Store I shall write evry oppertunity I may have. I remain
Very Respectfully Your Brother

  James F. Reed

William H. Russell, captain of the company, wrote to the Independence Western Expositor: Our numbers can not even yet be accurately ascertained, in consequence of the irregular manner in which they come in, but they are numerous, and cannot fall short of one hundred wagons.

Wednesday, May 20, 1846

20 and from their we Camp on prairie Creek 8 miles from the Same Creek

From here, the Trail left the Kansas River and crossed the higher ground between the Kansas River and Soldier Creek. The Trail generally follows the present Highway 24 along the north bank of the Kansas River to Walmego, then north on Highway 99 to Frankfort.

Bryant describes the day’s journey and camp:

We traveled several miles over a flat plain, in some places wet and boggy. The Kansas River skirted with timber, with a rich and extensive landscape beyond, could be seen on our left; and on our right Soldier Creek, with scenery equally attractive. ... We encamped at 3 o’clock, P.M., in a heavy rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, which had been pouring down upon us three hours. Our camp is on the high ground of the prairies, a mile from wood and water, which necessary articles have to be hauled to it in the rain and through deep mud.

Thursday, May 21, 1846

21 and from their we traveled a Bout 5 miles and Camped on prairie Creek

Bryant describes the difficulties of travel:

About noon we arrived at another small creek, the banks of which on both sides are steep, and very difficult to pass. Our wagons were lowered down by ropes, and by doubling teams, they were finally drawn out of the bed of the stream, and up the opposite bank. It was four o’clock when this was accomplished.

This technique would be essential for the Party’s later crossing of the Wasatch and the Sierra.

Friday, May 22, 1846

22 and from their wee traveled a Bowt 15 miles and Campe on the warpalore [This camp was on the creek now called the Vermillion, also known as the Little Vermillion, east of Louisville.]

Bryant describes the day’s travel: The trail along which we have traveled to-day, has been dry, compact and easy for our teams. It runs over a high undulating country, exhibiting a great variety of rich scenery.

Saturday, May 23, 1846

23 and from their wee traveled 12 miles and Camped on prairie creek

Bryant describes the exit from camp:

The ford of the small creek on which we encamped last night was difficult, owing to its steep banks and muddy channel. We were obliged to fell small trees and a large quantity of brush, and fill up the bed of the stream, before the wagons could pass over.

Sunday, May 24, 1846

24 and from their wee traveled a Bout 14 miles and Camped near a Creek on the plains

On this day Bryant commented on the progress of the wagons with surprising prescience:

I am beginning to feel alarmed at the tardiness of our movements, and fearful that winter will find us in the snowy mountains of California, or that we shall suffer from the exhaustion of our supply of provisions. I do not fear for myself, but for the women and children of the emigrants. Singular as it may seem, there are many of our present party who have no just conceptions of the extent and labor of the journey before them.

Monday, May 25, 1846

25 and from their wee traveled a Bout 10 miles and came to the Big Vermilion and Crossed and traveled a Bout 5 miles and Camped on the plaines [This crossing is near present Frankfort on the Black Vermillion as it is now called.]

Bryant describes the crossing: We reached the Vermillion about noon. The bank of this stream on the eastern side was so steep, and the ford in other respects so difficult, that we were detained several hours in crossing it.

Meanwhile, back at the Missouri River, the Graves family set out with the last party on the Trail, the Smith Party, as described by William Graves in his 1877 article in the Russian River Flag:

...till we got to St. Joseph, Missouri, where we joined a large party, some bound for Oregon and some for California. This was about the 25th of May. We crossed the river, called a meeting and elected a Captain and other officers, such as we deemed necessary in crossing the great plains.

Tuesday, May 26, 1846

26 and from their traveled a Bowt 10 miles and Camped on the Big Blue and Remained their the 27 and the twenty Eighth and twenty-ninth and thirtyeth [This camp was north of present Blue Rapids, Kansas, south of Marysville which later was a Pony Express stop.]

As noted by Miller the Russell party was delayed at the Big Blue. George McKinstry in his diary entry of May 26 says:

we found that the rains had raised the Stream some 20 feet and are now waiting for it to fall the part of our Company under Messrs Dickenson & Gordon that separated from us some few days since last night and crossed the creek and were seen some three miles ahead on the opposite side of the creek under way when we came up this evening.

In his diary entry for May 27, Bryant describes exploring a stream that flowed into the river:

This afternoon, accompanied by several of the party, I strolled up the small branch, which I have previously mentioned as emptying into the river just above the ford. About three-fourths of a mile from our camp we found a large spring of water, as cold and pure as if it had just been melted from ice. It gushed from a ledge of rocks, which composes the bank of the stream, and falling some ten feet, its waters are received into a basin fifteen feet in length, ten in breadth, and three or four in depth. A shelving rock projects over this basin, from which falls a beautiful cascade of water, some ten or twelve feet. The whole is buried in a variety of shrubbery of the richest verdure, and surrounded by small mound-shaped inequalities of the prairie. Altogether it is one of the most romantic spots I ever saw. ... We named this the Alcove Spring; and future travelers will find the name graven on the rocks, and on the trunks of the trees surrounding it.

Drawing of Alcove Spring

Alcove Spring, near Marysville, Kansas

One of the remaining marks of the passage of the Donner Party is a rock where James Reed carved his initials, and dated 26 May 1846. The rock is in Alcove Spring, outside Marysville, Kansas. According to Hill, the rock has been defaced since this photo was taken. The Spring was closed to the public due to such vandalism, but was recently re-opened, as reported by Raoul Delmare.

Photograph of Reed’s initials

James Reed’s Initials Carved in Rock at Alcove Spring

Wednesday, May 27, 1846

The party waited for the Big Blue to fall, and took the time to conduct some democracy. George McKinstry’s diary recorded the motions, which led to:

Capt Russel then resigned and the greatest confusion arose flameing speeches were made which became quite personal. Mr Ewing nominated Gov Bogges for Capt Gov declined Mr Brenham nominated Russell which was carried and accepted the meeting adjourned as soon as possible with a determination not to hold any more meetings as the Young Men were determined to do their own voting and their own fighting

Thursday, May 28, 1846

Bryant describes the efforts to cross the Big Blue:

The River having fallen only fifteen inches during the night, after breakfast the whole party capable of performing duty were summoned to repair to a point on the river about half a mile above us, to assist in the construction of a raft to ferry our wagons over the stream.

While the Russell Company waited for the water to fall, they were joined by other parties, including the Murphy family, as recalled by William Murphy in his 1896 speech at Truckee: We concluded to overtake them, which we did at the Big Blue, in Kansas, where they were water bound. Here we first met the Donners.

Friday, May 29, 1846

On July 12, 1846, twelve year old Virginia Reed wrote to her cousin Mary C. Keyes about the events leading up to this day:

we came to the blue--the water was so hye we had to stay thare 4 days--in the mean time gramma died, she became speechless 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 cut on it 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 every time we come into the Wagon we look at the bed for her.

Portrait of Sarah Keyes

Sarah Keyes

In her 1891 memoirs, a much older Virginia recounted the events:

Grandma Keyes improved in health and spirits every day until we came to the Big Blue River, which was so swollen that we could not cross, but had to lie by and make rafts on which to take the wagons over. As soon as we stopped traveling, grandma began to fail, and on the 29th day of May she died. It seemed hard to bury her in the wilderness, and travel on, and we were afraid that the Indians would destroy her grave, but her death here, before our troubles began, was providential, and nowhere on the whole road could we have found so beautiful a resting place. By this time many emigrants had joined our company, and all turned out to assist at the funeral. A coffin was hewn out of a cottonwood tree, and John Denton, a young man from Springfield, found a large grey stone on which he carved with deep letters the name Sarah Keyes; born in Virginia giving age and date of birth. She was buried under the shade of an oak, the slab being placed at the foot of the grave, on which were planted wild flowers growing in the sod. A minister in our party, the Rev. J. A. Cornwall, tried to give words of comfort as we stood about this lonely grave. Strange to say, that grave has never been disturbed.

From Katherine Wakeman Cooper’s article Patty Reed in Overland Monthly, January-June 1917:

Patty Reed says it was the greatest grief to her to have her grandmother resting alone in that wilderness, and that night she prayed most earnestly: Dear God, watch over and protect dear Grandmother, and don’t let the Indians dig her up.

Virginia was right about the assistance of the other emigrants. Bryant noted in his diary of May 29:

Last night Mrs. Sarah Keyes, a lady aged 70, a member of the family of Mr. J.H. Reed of Illinois, and his mother-in-law, died. Mr. Reed, with his family, is emigrating to California. ... The event, although it had been anticipated several days, cast a shade of gloom over our whole encampment. The construction of the ferry-boat and all recreations were suspended, ... At 2 o’clock, P.M., a funeral procession was formed, in which nearly every man, woman, and child of the company united, and the corpse of the deceased lady was conveyed to its last resting place, in this desolate but beautiful wilderness.

McKinstry also recorded the event: Mrs Keyes the mother of the wife of Mr Reed of Illinois died of consumption aged 70 had been sick for a long time .... The funeral took place this evening at 2 O’clock which was attended by every member of our Company

Virginia was also right about the grave not being disturbed. Diary entries of many later travelers remarked on the grave. According to Hill, the grave is near the old parking lot entrance to Alcove Spring, but is unmarked today.

On June 2, ex-Governor Boggs wrote a letter to the St. Louis Weekly American, which was carried back by a Shawnee Indian. The newspaper reported that: Two deaths had taken place among the California emigrants - one a small child, the child of Judge Morin, and the other a Mrs. Keys, from Springfield, Ill., quite an aged lady and, had been laboring under consumption.

Saturday, May 30, 1846

McKinstry reported the progress:

have been at work at the boats as the river falls slowly and the banks muddy the boats are launched and are now being annexed and will try to cross the first division to day about a half mile from Camp up the spring branch on the right hand fork is a beautiful spring and a fall of water of 12 feet Mr Bryant of our party has named it the Alcove Spring ... I this day cut the name of the spring in the rock on Table at the top of the falls. [According to Hill, McKinstry’s carving remains but has been severely damaged.]

Sunday, May 31, 1846

Miller’s terse notations resume: thirty first day wee Crossed over the Big Blue and Camped

Bryant records: The business of ferrying was resumed at an early hour, and continued with vigor until nine o’clock at night, when all the wagons, oxen, and horses were safely landed on the western bank of the river, ....