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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Finding Hope in a Winter Nightmare

In the severe Sierra Nevada winter of 1846–1847, while adult members of the desperate, snow-trapped Donner Party clung to their sanity with prayers and diary entries, one little girl held fast to a comforting icon from her Illinois home. Disobeying her mother’s orders to leave all parentally-unauthorized toys behind, eight-year-old Patty Reed could not resist taking a figurine from her dollhouse on the eve of the family’s departure for California in the spring of 1846. In a little girl’s eyes, Dolly was too special to be abandoned. Just under four inches tall, she was made of wood with movable arms and legs, had a pretty painted face, and wore a lovely, gauzy cloth gown. Mrs. Reed probably discovered her child’s deception early on as, presumably, Patty openly played with Dolly for several weeks—until the company faced dire circumstances. As they prepared to cross Utah’s desolate Great Salt Desert, wagon-weight became crucial. So while parents buried other non-essentials, the children were told to bury all their toys in the white salt flats. Patty complied—except for diminutive Dolly, which she hid inside her dress pocket. Patty Reed was rescued from the bitter, four-month mountain ordeal by her father in March, 1847, a rescue that was another ordeal in itself, because the survivors had to walk out. By then she had acquired wisdom beyond her tender years and must have shrewdly guessed that the relief team would have tossed her treasure away as useless weight had they known she was carrying it. Only when she was finally safe below the snow line, did Patty draw Dolly from her hiding place. Patty said, later, that Dolly’s seemingly sympathetic face had given her hope during the terrible months of the Donner Party’s winter nightmare.

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