Co-leader of the ill-fated Donner Expedition to California in 1846.
Autograph Document Signed, one page, oblong octavo, October 6, 1851. As Administrator, Reed writes, “The within claim allowed this Oct. 6th, 1851.” The same phrase is repeated below his signature, without the day of the month filled in. Large ink stain to the right of the signature slightly affects it but detracts from appearance.
In the summer of 1846 a group of 87 emigrants from Sangamon County, Illinois decided to take a short cut to California by crossing the mountains south of the Great Salt Lake. They were led in this ultimately fatal detour by George Donner and James Frazier Reed, the latter a wealthy merchant, railroad contractor and furniture maker. In October Reed killed a member of the party and was forced to strike out on this own, leaving his family behind. On arriving at Sutter’s Fort on the Sacramento River he and William McCutchen immediately organized a relief expedition to the Bear Valley, where the emigrants were facing starvation conditions. The two men were unable to get through the snow and made no further attempts until, in mid-January, seven men and women emerged from the mountains with tales of death and cannibalism. By the time all were rescued in the early spring of 1847, half of the Donner Expedition had perished. James Frazier Reed’s family survived, however, and joined him in San Jose, where he prospered as a landowner and gold digger. “He became one of California’s first subdividers, and in 1850 his advertisements of lots for sale were appearing on the front pages of the San Francisco newspapers. He was active in public affairs, and was said to have spent twenty thousand dollars in the effort to have San Jose made the capital of the state. Later on, he suffered the usual vicissitudes of fortune…but he managed in the end to sustain himself.” (George R. Stewart, Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party)