On April 16, 1846, nine covered wagons left Springfield, Illinois for California. Inside the wagons were 62-year-old George Donner and his younger brother Jacob, James Frazier Reed, and their families (PBS 1). Reed and the Donner brothers had already made fortunes in Illinois. The Donners were successful farmers and Reed was a wealthy Irish businessman who owned a furniture manufacturing company (Lewis 1).
As they set out, they formed a party of 32 men, women and children, including the men George had hired to help drive the big wagons (PBS 1). George Donner was accompanied by his fourth wife, Tamzene, a schoolteacher, and their daughters. Jacob and his wife Betsy also had several children (Lewis 1). Reed was accompanied by his wife, Margaret Keyes-Backenstoe, and her daughter, Virginia, and her elderly mother, Sarah (Lewis 1). Reed hoped that the better climate in the west would help improve his wife Margaret's chronic headaches (PBS 1). Based on his research, Daniel Lewis suggests that Margaret may have suffered from migraines and what contemporary physicians might diagnose as clinical depression. He believes she likely feared the toll the difficult journey could take on her family (Lewis 1).
The Donners and Reed were taking their families out west in hopes of capitalizing on the land disputes between the Americans, Spanish, English and Native Americans (Lewis 1). They were very much pioneers in the sense that they were moving out west before the land rush to Oregon that would happen in 1848 and the gold rush to California of 1849 (Lewis 1). The men believed they could increase their fortunes out west. More than likely, however, the women probably dreaded what was sure to be a long, uncomfortable, and "uncivilized" journey.
In its documentary, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) notes that the Reed's family wagon was a two-story conveyance with a built-in iron stove, spring-cushioned seats and bunks for sl...