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Sarah Graves

Sarah Graves was born in Dearborn County, IN on January 25th, 1825, the Daughter of Franklin Ward Graves and Elizabeth Cooper. Sarah originally did not plan to accompany her parents on their emigration to California. But just before they were ready to depart, she realized she couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from them and thus joined the Party. She and her fiancé Jay Fosdick were wed just prior to leaving for the West, with their honeymoon spent crossing the plains. There are stories of Sarah staying up at night when it was Jay’s turn to stand guard. 

 Jay and Sarah were both members of the Forlorn Hope along with her sister Mary Anne and father Franklin. Sarah was the protagonist in Daniel James Brown’s novel, Indifferent Stars Above.  Jay did not survive the journey to Johnson’s Ranch and perished in Sarah’s arms just past the New Year, 1847. Sarah was forced to once again see a member of her family cannibalized in order to save the other s in the party [her father Franklin has perished on Christmas Day a few days earlier]. Sarah was one of the five women of the Forlorn Hope, all of which survived the ordeal.

After reaching Johnson’s Ranch on January 17th, 1847 and spending time to rejoin her remaining family members and recover, she settled in the upper Napa Valley, where she taught the area’s first school under a brush shelter.

In 1848 Sarah married William Dill Ritchie, who like his father, Col. Matthew D. Ritchie, had assisted with the Donner relief. Six years later Ritchie was caught in possession of stolen mules and lynched near Sonoma, despite his protestations of innocence. Once again Sarah was left a widow, this time with two little boys to care for (George Gus “Leet” and Alonzo “Lon” Perry). Sarah had a third son who died young.

In 1856 she married her third and final husband, Samuel Spires. They had four children together, Lloyd, William, Eleanor and Alice Barton. Her third marriage was happy, but relatively brief. Sarah died suddenly of heart disease at the age of 46 on March 28th, 1871 in Corralitos, Santa Cruz, CA, leaving six children.

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  1. Steve Menez

    I am so thrilled you are retracing this route. My fascination of the Donner story started in the early 1990s after watching the PBS special on their story. It was rekindled in 2015 after reading numerous Donner party books and diaries. I was extremely interested in the route the rescue parties took out of Truckee Lake(Donner lake). I drove all over trying to find areas they came through. I drove back to Casper Wyoming and retraced the route all the way back to Nevada, I found the spot where the “parting of the ways” was, where the Reeds, Donner’s and others left the main trail to take Hastings cutoff, the start of all their trouble. I drove my truck over the muddy, snowy dirt roads over Hastings pass in late November. If I would have got stuck, I would have spent the winter out there as nobody drives those roads after the first snow hits. My quest was worth the risk. I saw so many land monuments that I had read about in their journals. Those traveling the overland trail used them as directional markers. Split Rock was one of them. You could see it for 60 miles from their trail.
    I have spent the night in the snow out at Alder Creek near the George and Jacob Donner’s campsite, 7 miles back trail from the the main encampment at Donner lake. I’ve hiked over Donner pass multiple times in deep snow to feel the climb they used to get out of their snow prison camp at the lake. I’ve spent 22 years pro/am bicycle racing and hiked 1000 miles of the PCT. So I love pushing the limits while reliving history outdoors.
    My next Donner adventure is to kayak from Johnson Ranch(wheatland) to Sutters fort. As you know, once the wearied emigrants were nursed somewhat back to heath, the went on to Sutters Fort by rivers. Bear River to Feather River to Sacramento River. I’ve mapped it out. Somewhere around 30 miles. Have to do it in the rainy season as the Bear river gets low soon after spring. You all are invited if you want. Planning for spring 2021.

    So when I read you guys were doing this, I was extremely excited for you and a bit jealous. Have a safe trip. I might drive up to see you towards the end. I have a book written about Johnson Ranch.
    I also have papers of a proposal to Congress for money to make the very trail you are taking down to Johnson Ranch.

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