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  • Nancy Herman

Killing and banishment: September 1846




A major turning point in the Donner Party’s story–and the definitive turning point for Virginia Reed and her family–was the killing of teamster John Snyder. The Hastings Cutoff had finally rejoined the California Trail, but the pioneers knew they were weeks behind those who had wisely chosen the California back at Little Sandy. Tempers were short by now, and one of many emotional flareups took place between Snyder and Virginia’s father, James Reed, when their wagon lines became entangled while driving their reluctant oxen up a hill.



(Virginia Reed’s father, James.)


Accounts vary to this day, but most witnesses said James Reed was acting in self-defense when he drove his knife into the popular young teamster’s chest.


Even so, party members gathered to decide on Reed’s punishment. To Virginia’s anguish, her father was banished from the party with only his horse and a few supplies.


I followed the Donner Party on Interstate 80 just west of Elko, Nevada and came across the California Trail Historic Interpretive Center, another informative stop on my journey. The staff steered me to the hill where the altercation between the two men took place. It is next to the Humboldt River a few miles off the Interstate, near Iron Point, Nevada.

(Hill near Iron Point, Nevada where Virginia’s father,

James Reed, stabbed teamster James Snyder to death.)

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