In a moment of childhood defiance, eight-year-old Patty Reed stowed away this little dollhouse doll in her voluminous skirts and smuggled her to California.
The Reed family were coming to California in 1846 as part of the now-notorious Donner Party. Already running behind schedule, Patty had been asked by her family to discard all of her beloved toys to help lighten the load, in the hopes of traveling fast enough to get to California before the winter weather trapped them. They were not to be so lucky.
Unseasonably early and harsh winter weather trapped Donner Party in the Sierras for months, slowly starving the pioneer families to death. Patty’s father, James Reed, had been one of the leading members of the expedition until he settled a fracas between some of the wagon train teamsters by stabbing one of the men to death. Reed was kicked out of the wagon train and went ahead to California. Patty stayed behind with her mother and siblings to face the starving times.
Facing mountains of snow and months of freezing weather with no provisions, the starving settlers found themselves in an increasingly desperate situation. When people began to die, the survivors resorted to cannibalism.
Ultimately, of the 87 members of the party, only 48 survived to tell the tale.
Sutter’s Fort was the final destination of the Donner Party in California, and indeed of most of the west-bound pioneers of the Mexican-California years. John Sutter’s ambitious campaigning promoting the promise of California drew thousands across the vast emptiness of the continent’s center towards the Pacific Coast.
When news reached him about the desperate situation of the Donner Party in the Sierras, Sutter, with James Reed, arranged for rescue parties to be sent out with supplies and to attempt to bring back survivors. Sutter’s efforts to save the ill-fated expedition added to his fame and reputation, drawing ever more settlers to his domain.
Astonishingly, the entire Reed family survived the ordeal in the mountains, and went on to live a life of moderate luxury in San Jose, where several streets bear his family’s names. The 4” doll was donated to Sutter’s Fort by the family.
A copy of Patty Reed’s doll can be found, along with other artifacts from the Donner Party, at the Emigrant Trail Museum in Truckee, California, near the site where the party was snow-trapped in the winter of 1846-47.
Update January 2018: The Patty Reed doll is temporarily off display.