Truckee’s History Alive brings Virginia Reed Murphy to town | SierraSun.com

Truckee’s History Alive brings Virginia Reed Murphy to town

Special to the Sun

Join Virginia Reed Murphy, survivor of the Donner Party's pioneering travails at the Veteran's Hall in Truckee on Friday, June 27 for a free Chautauqua-style evening.

The Truckee Library, the Friends of the Truckee Library and the Truckee Donner Historical Society invite all to look into the life of Mrs. Murphy.

Her father was a successful furniture craftsman, their friends the Donners successful farmers, and many in their wagon party had some education and some money. So why did they leave family and friends to take a six-month trip full of hardship and danger?

Her mother had poor health and they thought the climate in California would be better for her. The Donners had already moved several times, each time further west, so it was not unusual for them. The single men who drove the Reeds' cattle and wagons went for promises of good jobs and cheap farmland. Their hired girl, Eliza, who at 23 was considered an old maid, heard there were 100 men to each woman out there.

Everyone had their reasons.

Virginia faced unspeakable events in the pioneer journey and entrapment due to an early and severe winter in the Sierra in 1846-47. Yet when she wrote to a cousin back East, post-rescue from the snow-buried cabins at Donner Lake, she condensed it all into a simple and direct cautionary statement: "Don't take no cut-offs and get where you're going as fast as you can."

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Miss Reed married John M. Murphy, a member of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party which came through what became Truckee and succeeded in crossing the summit as the first wagon party, in 1844. Later, she became the first woman in the fire-insurance business on the Pacific coast.

Newspaperman, attorney, inventor, State Assemblyman and pillar of Truckee's developing culture, C. F. McGlashan corresponded with Virginia, among other survivors, to write and publish his early chronicle of the struggles of these emigrants, "History of the Donner Party, a Tragedy of the Sierra," published in 1880.

McGlashan's interviews with Virginia informed essential parts of this authoritative work. As well, Virginia's own article published in The Century Magazine in 1891, "Across the Plains in the Donner Party," serves as the most complete documentation of the experience written by a member of the company.

Chautauqua performer and researcher Cathryn Fairlee will tell the tale as Virginia Reed, who turned 13 while crossing the prairie. There will be time for Virginia to answer questions, as well as time to question the performer.

Cathryn Fairlee is a fifth-generation Californian, and has been performing legends, epics, myths and history for over 30 years. Her Master's thesis is on the art of traditional storytelling in China. She has served on the board of the National Storytelling Network and edits their Storytelling Magazine. Epics being her favorite genre, she sponsors an Epic Day for storytellers twice a year. When the 150th celebration of the Donner Party was held near Truckee in 1997, she was there and met the descendants. Cathryn enjoys research, leading workshops and world travel, which always leads to a story.