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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Virginia Reed Murphy

Virginia Reed was twelve when her parents and younger siblings set out for California from their Illinois home in April 1846, traveling with the George and Jacob Donner families. Most of the time she rode beside the wagons on Billy, her cream-colored pony, clad in plain, high-necked, long-sleeved “traveling dresses” of linsey-woolsey (a coarse twill fabric), and gingham aprons. On June 27, the company arrived at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, and the next day was her thirteenth birthday. For girls her age, the journey west seemed like a long picnic at first—until her wagon company decided to take a new shortcut instead of following the established trail. Other families joined them, and would share their adversities and final tragedy.

Multiple disasters followed: valuable time lost hacking a wagon road through the tangled Wasatch Mountains, livestock and possessions lost on a three-day trek across the scorching Salt Lake Desert; the loss of her step-father’s support and protection when he was banished from the wagon train after he killed a teamster in the Nevada desert. For young Virginia, this was an especially wrenching event. Her biological father was Lloyd Backenstoe, but she had been a baby when Lloyd died and her widowed mother Margret married James Frazier Reed. He was the only father she had ever known; she used his surname, and the two were close.

Now, though, the Donner Party was lagging far behind the rest of the season’s overland emigration, and became trapped in the snowbound Sierra Nevada over the winter of 1846-47. Along with her mother and siblings, Virginia was rescued from the nightmare in early March 1847, but her beloved pony Billy had already perished weeks before they ascended the Sierra. Throughout the mountain ordeal of intense cold, slow starvation and despair, Virginia was impressed by the devout faith of the Breen family, and she vowed that if God would spare her family’s lives, she too would become a Catholic. All of the Reeds did survive, and settled in San Jose.

Virginia made good on that promise when she eloped with John Marion Murphy on January 26, 1850. He was a son of Martin Murphy Sr., the patriarch of a large family originally from Ireland. The Murphy family had entered California in 1844 as members of the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party, the first immigrants to bring wagons over the Sierra. John Murphy was a decent, respectable, responsible man with the means to provide handsomely for a wife and family, but her parents were quite opposed to the match—probably because of Virginia’s age, and John Murphy’s Roman Catholic religion.

On their wedding day, the bride was sixteen and her groom—who had made a fortune in gold at the Calaveras County mining camp he and his brother Daniel had founded in 1848—was twenty-six. Both were suffused with excitement and a sense of urgency. James Reed had previously threatened to shoot John if he continued to court his daughter; Virginia had slipped out of the house after telling her mother she was going to visit a neighbor but would be back soon . . . and they couldn’t find a clergyman to marry them! In the end--with John’s friends standing guard--the couple solemnized their marriage vows before witnesses, then hurriedly mounted waiting horses that took them to an overnight hideaway. Not five minutes later, James Reed learned what was happening and gave chase, but it was too late. Virginia’s parents ultimately accepted their son-in-law, certainly after the first grandchild arrived, and perhaps sooner.

The newlyweds settled in San Jose and had nine children, three of whom died young. John was engaged in a number of enterprises, including real estate and insurance, and also involved himself in local politics. When he became ill Virginia assisted him in his business endeavors, and after his death in 1892 she became the first woman on the Pacific Coast to operate a fire insurance business.

Virginia Reed Murphy never forgot her pony Billy. She loved horses throughout her lifetime, and in her later years was a noted equestrian who won prizes for horsemanship. She died in Los Angeles on February 14, 1921. March is National Women’s History Month.

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