1846: William Frazier to James Frazier Reed

This letter was written by William Frazier (1812-1885), the son of Irish immigrant James Anderson Frazier (1780-Aft1846) and Martha Rankin (1790-1869). William married Susan Massie Lewis (1828-1904) in November 1847.

William’s brother, John W. Frazier (1810-1853), was a farm and hotelkeeper in Bath County and Rockbridge County, Virginia. John married Elizabeth S. Moore of Winchester, Virginia on 4 June 1845, as mentioned in this letter. John owned and operated two mineral springs resorts — Bath Alum Spring and Rockbridge Alum Spring. He didn’t purchase the latter property — a noted antebellum spa complex — until 1852 and he died before he could make many improvements to the complex. It was William Frazier, John’s younger brother, who stepped in and took over the completion of the large hotel and perimeter cottages at the resort, and managed the property until it was ultimately sold in 1880.

James F. and Margaret Reed of the ill-fated Donner Party

The letter was addressed to James Frazier Reed (1800-1874), a native of Ireland.  His mother’s maiden name was Frazier, and she was no doubt related to William’s father. Mrs. Reed, and her son, James, came to America when he was a youth, and settled in Virginia. He remained there until he was twenty, when he left for the lead mines of Illinois, and was engaged in mining until 1831, when he came to Springfield, Sangamon county, Ill. He served in the Black Hawk war, and at its termination returned to Springfield, where he engaged in mercantile pursuits, made money, and bought a farm near the latter city. He was for several years engaged in manufacturing cabinet furniture at a point on the Sangamon river, seven miles east of Springfield. He employed a large number of men, and a village grew up there, which, in honor of his first came, was called Jamestown. He was married, in 1834, to Mrs. Margaret W. Backenstoe, whose maiden name was Keyes, a daughter of Humphrey Keyes.

This letter was sent to James F. Reed just months before Reed joined George Donner and his brother Jacob Donner, along with their families and hired hands to join a large wagon train led by William H. Russell headed to California. It was on this overland journey that the Reeds and the Donners and a few other families decided to separate from the other California-bound emigrants and take the unproven Hastings Cutoff, electing George Donner  to be their leader.

While traveling on the California trail along the Humboldt River, Reed quarreled with two teamsters and killed one with a knife, leading to his banishment from the party. It was Reed that rode ahead of the wagon train to Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley seeking supplies for the caravan, and who later organized the rescue of the ill-fated Donner Party after they were stranded by snows in the High Sierra Mountains.

Stampless Letter


Addressed to James F. Reed, Esq., Springfield, Illinois

Staunton [Virginia]
7th January 1846

Dear Friend,

I think it was in the latter part of July 1843 that I had last the pleasure of seeing you, after so long an absence that neither of us at first sight knew the other. I having in the meanwhile grown up from boyhood to mature age & you having advanced from early manhood to middle age with a young & growing family around you. Truly as we grow older, Time flies on rapid wings.

Page 1

At my father’s request, I write to enquire about the business which took me to Springfield and as to the prospect of its early settlement. You will remember that you wished the note drawn payable two years after date with interest from date, but as I had no authority to extend it such a length of time, nor indeed to extend it at all, yet I took the responsibility of drawing at one year and also promised you that I should use my endeavors to make it the same to you as if it had been drawn at 2 years, by seeing to it that you should be not troubled about it till after the lapse of that period of time. I have more than redeemed my promise for it is now about two years & a half since the bond was taken, & this is my first communication to you on the subject. My father, anxious to close all his outstanding business is specially anxious to wind up this debt, so remote from Virginia. Please write me promptly in reply to this and inform me of your arrangements for paying it off — and whether you cannot purchase & enclose to me by mail a draft on one of our Atlantic cities — or even on some one of your Illinois or other western members of Congress.

I retain most pleasing recollections of Springfield and of your kindness to me whilst there & of the hospitality of your family. It would give me great pleasure to take another tour thro’ the West more leisurely that I was then able to take it — but as we grow older business increases its trammels upon us, & leaves little time for more pleasure.

Page 2

But it has been so long a time since you left — I was going to say your native state, for Virginia almost seems like your native place — that you are fairly entitled to treat yourself to a visit. You spoke of doing so the summer following the one in which I saw you, but the third summer will soon be here & still you have not made the visit. When may we look for you?

My brother John was with me a few days ago (New Year) hiring hands for his farm. He has bought out old Sam. Blackburn ¹ of the Wilderness so that he now owns all the former pros sessions of Gen’l. Blackburn in Bath County! John lost his first wife shortly after my return from the West in 1843 — and was married again this summer. His second wife is a Miss [Elizabeth] Moore from near Winchester. So you see he has beat me twice.

With my best regards to your family & hoping to hear from you soon, I remain as ever your friend, — William Frazier


¹ General Samuel Blackburn (1759-1835) served in the Revolutionary War with the Virginia Forces. By war’s end, he was a general and for his services he was awarded 850 acres in Madison County, Ohio. He earned a degree at Washington College in Tennessee after the war and taught school in Georgia where he met and married Ann Mathews, the daughter of Georgian Governor, George Mathews. He served in the state legislature in Georgia for a time but later removed to Bath County, Virginia, where he owned a plantation and represented Bath County in the Virginia Legislature. By the terms of his will, Blackburn manumitted all 35 of his slaves upon his death provided they were sent to Liberia — all transportation expenses to be paid out of the estate.


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