James Frazier Reed, aged 45 at the time of the Donner Party. Born in Ireland, he became a businessman and a member of the masons in the vicinity of Springfield, Illinois. He also served in the military with future president Abraham Lincoln during the American Blackhawk War. With his wife Margaret Keyes-Backenstoe-Reed, he raised three children, and his stepdaughter, Virginia Backenstoe-Reed. Disliked by much of the party for his wealth and his ethnicity, he was often portrayed as overly-refined and aristocratic, though he is also known to have been caring, methodical and intelligent.
In Springfield, Illinois, three large families decided to try and make their fortunes out West. Only several hundred white people had successfully done so. This was before the big expansion to move out to Oregon in 1848 or before the Gold Rushes of California in '49. They would be settling in land that was in dispute under the Americans, the Spaniards, English and Indians.
These three families were the families of George Donner, Jacob Donner, and James F. Reed. George and Jacob Donner were brothers, and knew James Reed by reputation. The Donners were farmers, and Reed was a businessman, who owned a furniture manufacturing company.
George Donner had been married three times, and his oldest children had grown up and married, while his others wives had died. He himself was in his sixties, but was still strong and able to have children. His current wife Tamzene was an intellectual schoolmistress, and their daughters were simple but educated country-folk.
Jacob and Betsy Donner were slightly younger than George and Tamzene. They had several children, and a few from previous marriages still living with them.
James Reed was an Irish widower with no children, and had married a widow named Margaret Keyes-Backenstoe with a daughter named Virginia. He was a relatively cheerful though polite man.
However, Margaret Reed was a troubled woman. Her previous husband had died of cholera, and two of her three brothers had died recently. Margaret's mother, Sarah Keyes, was still alive, and about 70, though she only had one son and her daughter left in the world, and was slowly dying from tuberculosis. Margaret suffered terrible headaches, which were probably migraines, and in general had poor health. In modern times she would probably be classified as a person suffering from extreme depression, and it is very possible she greatly feared what the journey could do to her family.
In fact, few women probably looked forward to moving out west. The journey would be long, uncomfortable, and uncivilized to a lady of the day. Furthermore, the idea that settlers traveled in big cozy wagons was embellished. Only one person rode in the covered wagons, and that was usually the patriarch of the family, often the only person strong and capable enough of driving large and foolish pack animals. This was because there simply was no room for people. Generally speaking, wagons could only hold a few essential pieces of furniture and supplies.
The Oregon Trail officially started at Independence, Missouri, and moved along the Platte River in the Midwest, over the Rocky Mountains, up thru Utah, Wyoming and Idaho, and then down the treacherous Columbia River to Oregon City, in the fertile Willamette Valley, but in this case the settlers would split from the trail in Idaho, and emigrate to the Sacramento River Valley. This meant that they would cover about 1,500 miles, and the women and children would do so on foot.