Sarah Keyes, Donner Party

A 70-year-old hits the trail

Travel on the road west was difficult for the strong, dangerous for the unprepared, and frequently fatal for the infirm. Many of the latter, however, displayed the fortitude of spiritual giants. One name on the roster of that courageous company might be that of Mrs. Sarah Keyes.

April 23, 1846: Sangamo Journal (Springfield, Ill.)


The company [Donner-Reed] which left here last week, for California, embraced 15 men, 8 [5?] women, and 16 children. They had nine waggons. They were in good spirits, and we trust, will safely reach their anticipated home. A company have left Putnam county, consisting of 16 males and 7 females, for Oregon. John Robinson, one of the first settlers of Madison County, was one of their number. A Chicago paper states that some forty persons will leave Rockford this spring for the same destination.

Sarah Keyes

In the winter of 1845-46, Mrs. Keyes, now 70 years old, was not surprised when doctors told her that her health was such that she had only a few months to live. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the end, Mrs. Keyes vowed she would use whatever strength remained in her in an effort see her son one more time — a son who had emigrated to Oregon several years earlier.

A son-in-law agreed to let her accompany him and his family; word was sent to the son in Oregon to meet his mother at Fort Hall in Idaho. But the reunion was not to be. Mrs. Keyes died only a matter of days after the wagon train left Independence, Missouri. During the early morning hours of May 29, 1846, Mrs. Keyes was buried near the Big Blue River in present-day Kansas.

The death of Mrs. Keyes was undoubtedly commented upon and remembered by other members of the train, and under other circumstances might have become part of the folk lore of the trail. Sadly, the name of Mrs. Sarah Keyes was all but lost to history when the party with which she had commenced the trip west subsequently encountered one of the most fearsome experiences in trail history — a tragedy that forever attached the name of the train’s leaders to Donner Pass.