Songs “Across the Plains” Lyrics

A Song Cycle based on Virginia Reed Murphy’s  memoir “Across the Plains in the Donner Party: A Personal Narrative of the Overland Trip to California”


  1. I’s Only Twelve But I Remember It Well
  2. Platte River Valley (instrumental)
  3. Billy: A Treasure So Kind
  4. Please Mr. Hastings
  5. Twenty Wells, Utah
  6. Oh How the Wagon Wheel Becomes It
  7. Humboldt Sink
  8. Starvation Suite (instrumental): i. Come the Night, The Dreaded Snow ii. Thirty-six iii. “Are you men from California, or do you come from Heaven?”
  9. Reunion
  10. Never Take No Cutoffs
  11. That Was All So Long Ago

I’s Only 12 But I Remember It Well

I’s only 12 but I remember it well

Misfortune etched in my mind

Of perils and hardships a tale I could tell

Of scoundrels and men who were kind

The morning we left Missouri, our life

A cold wind blew from the west

We loaded our wagons, trusting the Lord

In his infinite mercy we’d rest

Our wagons were drawn by oxen and steer

With provisions for six months a-journey

Little did we know, our fate was foretold

And our sufferings would triple their earnings

My mother was weak, declining in health

My good father he was a builder

In the darkest of hours my mother grew brave

And fought off what wanted to kill her

The stories we heard from old Grandma Keys

Of Indians, their dreadful crimes

I listened enraptured, my back to the wall

And feared encountering their kind

But at Caws River, Kansas, they ferried us across

I prayed they wouldn’t sink us midstream

Watching them close, scarcely drawing a breath

But some things are not what they seem

By late end of May our dear Grandma Keys

Gave out what life she was saving

A coffin was hewn from a cottonwood tree

John Denton, he done the engraving

Platte River valley shone emerald green

Wildflowers I gathered by hand

The waters ran clear, shallow and wide

Our wagons rolled ‘cross the land

Mr Hastings claimed a new route was found

Running round the southern Salt Lake

His cut off would shave near 300 miles

So the cut off we voted to take

We later found out Bridger and Vasquez

Who shouted their praise for the route 

Were employed by Hastings, a fact undisclosed

And left us troubled with doubt

Icy wind blew again from the west

We flinched at the slap to our faces

I turned to look back at the trail we’d carved

But the Lord’s hand covered our traces

We gotta move on, away from the life

We’ll cherish in memory at last

The sun’s run off, darkness has come

And loneliness is coming on fast

Platte River Valley: On the Wagons (instrumental)

Billy: A Treasure So Kind

When I was a child, a mere seven years old

I was gifted a treasure so kind

A pony named Billy, a beauty he was

Far across the plains we’d ride

We ranged and explored, Billy and me

A new world spread o’er the plains

Wildflowers I gathered and gave to my Ma

A pretty way to help ease her pain

Just one friend to pass the time

Who listens when your singing don’t rhyme

Just one friend in lonely times

Who just might sing along sometimes

We encountered the Sioux near Fort Laramie

They’s enchanted by Ma’s looking-glass

Desired my pony, were bargaining hard

With buffalo robes and ropes of grass

Beaded moccasins were laid at my feet

Made signs they wanted a trade

Father just smiled and shook his no

My Billy was a promise he made

Just one friend to pass the time

And listens when your singing don’t rhyme

Just one friend in lonely times who

Just might sing along sometimes

But then came a day with no pony to ride

The poor fellow’s heart must have failed 

Endless travel he couldn’t endure

We left him alongside the trail

I cried for hours, till I was ill

My sad heart broken and sore

From the wagon I watched him grow smaller and smaller

And then I could see him no more.

(From the gathered George Harlan arises. Upstage left Lansford Hastings emerges. Emigrants greet him enthusiastically, gesturing at relevant pages of the guidebook, imploring Hastings to assist. At the end of Harlan’s narrative, Hastings points definitively and confidently to back of the auditorium, and all eyes follow hopeful and grateful)

“From Laramie we kept on to Fort Bridger, where we halted for three days. Here we met a man named Lansford Hastings, who had written the book Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California. He had just come from California, and professed to know all  about the proper way to get there. He got all the emigrants together, and recommended that we leave the old trail and make a cut off from Bridger to pass round the south end of Salt Lake, and strike the Humboldt River one hundred and fifty miles above its sink. He said we would thus save three hundred miles of travel, it being that much nearer than the way by Fort Hall….”

Please Mr Hastings

James Reed:

Please Mr Hastings will you show me the way?

Going to California there can be no delay

We don’t mean the Tao Te Ching

And this ain’t a Frampton song

Would you please Mr Hastings if you please

Get us ‘cross the Plains before the freeze?

We heard about the Cut Off yesterday

With August round the bend we couldn’t wait

Hastings’ men wore southern smiles

Said we’d shave three hundred miles

Get on the trail now and don’t be late…

Virginia Reed:

O Momma this don’t feel right…

Coyotes used to cry in the twilight

Haven’t heard a thing last two nights

Donners, Reeds, Murphys heading west

McClutchen, CT Stanton, and the rest

Forty miles and we’d be through

Desert dry, Salt Lake blue

Heartily believing we were blessed

It seemed the hand death was on the land

Forty turned to eighty through the sands

Not a living thing was seen

Thirsty horses getting mean

We hadn’t figured dying in the plan

O Momma this don’t feel right…

Coyotes used to cry in the twilight

Haven’t heard a thing last four nights

Now Mr Hastings what the hell did you say?

Ain’t no cut-off we can see but suffering and delay

We don’t even pray no more 

Our foolishness is plain

Mr Hastings when you’ve got the time

Shove this cut-off where the sun don’t shine

Twenty Wells, Utah

John Breen:

Beyond Twenty Wells, when the third night fell

Could we survive? No one could tell

Barren wasteland, piercing cold…

Oxen tumbling, crazed by thirst

Unhitch the wagons, spared the worst

We laid our heads upon the desert floor

Suddenly in the scream of night

Fatigue was banished, turned to fright

Young steer charged unforgiving

Reed drew his gun, holding a child

The beast turned east, red eyes wild

Darkness swallows up another prayer

Cold day broke, a three dog night

Losing fast the will to fight

Reed then forged ahead for water

Abandoned the wagons, too hard to bear

Our cattle gone we knew not where

Margaret wrapped her shoulders in a shawl.

Eight hundred miles from California…

Divided our provisions, what little we had

What we didn’t need, or couldn’t carry

We buried in the earth for another day 

Onward we rolled, time rolling away

Hope we fluttered like a thread in the wind…

O How the Wagon Wheel Becomes It

Virginia Reed

Upon a poor stage, a tragedy unfolds

Fort Hall Trail we arrived

Humboldt River in our eyes

The trail too steep, ascending a hill

Oxen struggle with wagon loads

But in John Snyder no mercy showed

Beating his cattle senseless, whipping them sore

My father tried appealing

To end the animals’ suffering

O how the wagon wheels roll

O how the wagon wheels roll

Hard words flowed from John Snyder’s tongue

Then with his whip he leaps below

And strikes my father a violent blow

Father reeled blinded, bloodied from the gash

Snyder lifted the whip again

Mother ran between the men

Father cried out, but it was too late

The whip had fallen on his wife

Then father drew his hunting knife

O how the wagon wheels roll

O how the wagon wheels roll

Snyder fell back, father rushed to his side

Blood gushed from father’s wound

And mingled with his dying friend’s

A few moments later, Snyder lay dead

Father asked me to dress his wounds

While snow fell on the afternoon

The Donners held council, determine father’s fate

Many proposed a lynching

Father stood unflinching

O how the wagon wheels roll

O how the wagon wheels roll

Exile in the wilderness, the company decreed

Die of slow starvation

Or murdered by Indians

Banishment he refused, pleading self-defense

Until mother urged him

To think upon his children

Food he could find at John Sutter’s fort

Return for their salvation

Keep them from starvation

O how the wagon wheels roll

O how the wagon wheels roll

Without food or arms, to unknown country gone

My father walking all alone

Far away from love and home

After dark we followed, Uncle Milt and I

Guns, food, ammunition

To ease his condemnation

Crying I begged father to remain by his side

To this he would not listen

Unclasping my arms round him

Returning then to camp, my mother in distress

Young ones to her clinging

Hopelessness was singing

In that hour a woman was born…

Humboldt Sink

I’m gonna tell you just one more time

Hell is closer than you think

See the river just disappear

My friends, that’s the Humboldt Sink

South around the Rubys, worn down to the core

Papa done killed a man back at Gravelly Ford

Exiled to the wilderness to even the score

Sixty-eight days of  heartache and pain

We followed the river west

So much lost with every mile gained

With forty more, no time to rest

You think the Devil’s done with you?

Dip your tin, take a drink

The bitter river flows soundlessly

And dies at the Humboldt Sink 

The Paiutes spoke some English, what little they knew

Joined us all for the night, and shared some stew

Morning comes the oxen gone, and Grave’s shirt too

Now we remember old Grandma Keys

And the words she held so true

Turn your back on one of their kind

You get what’s coming to you

Snow melt in the spring forms a lake

So pretty makes you blink

But when you wait September’s end

All you get is the Humboldt Sink

Starvation Suite (instrumental)

i. Three Miles from the Summit, October 28, 1846 (Donner-Reed party winter in the Sierra)

ii. Thirty-Six (a silent elegy for the thirty-six souls who perished that winter)

iii.ii. “Are you men from California, or do you come from Heaven?” (first words spoken to rescue party reaching the survivors, February 19, 1847)

Come the Night, the Dreaded Snow

Virginia Reed

Come the night, the dreaded snow

Whirling flakes, their icy glow

Three miles from summit, we turned back

An Indian stood under the trees

Seemed to know that we would freeze

Wrapped himself in blankets, watched all night

Every Christmas I go back to Donner Lake…

The cattle killed, preserved in snow

How long we’d eat, we didn’t know

Snow was falling, falling without end

A rescue party, Forlorn Hope

Fifteen brave climbed the slope

Set off to California to save the rest

Of those brave and strong of heart

Only seven made John Sutter’s Fort

Horrors endured no pen will ever tell

Winter fierce and Christmas near

For the starving no comfort here

Mother then revived our failing souls

A few dried apples, some tripe so lean

A piece of bacon, scattered beans

A feast she saved for her own

We watched the cooking carefully

Mother said “Children, eat slowly

For this one day you can have all you wish.”

Every Christmas I go back to Donner Lake…

J Quinn Thornton

“On January 9th Mr Eddy gathered some grass nearby…to sustain…his wasted body, the almost extinguished spark of life. On the following morning they staggered forward, and toward the close of the day…they arrived at an Indian village. The Indians seemed to be overwhelmed with the sight of their miseries. Proverbial as they are for their cruelty and thievish propensities, they now divided their own scanty supply with the emigrants. The wild and fierce savages who once visited their camps only for the purpose of hostility; who hovered around them upon the way; who shot their cattle, and murdered their companions; who actually stood upon the hills, laughing at their calamity…now seemed touched with the sight of their misfortunes; and their almost instinctive feeling of hostility to the white man, gave place to pity and commiseration. The men looked as solemn as the grave; the women wrung their hands and wept aloud; the children united their plaintive cries to those of their sympathizing mothers. One hurried here, and another there, all sobbing and weeping, to obtain their stores of acorns…. While they were eating these the Indian women began to prepare a sort of bread from the acorns, pulverized. As fast as they could bake them, they gave them to the starving emigrants.”


The rescue party lightened its packs by caching bread and meat in the trees

But reaching the cache, we learned that animals had destroyed it

Once again, starvation stared us in the face…

Father brought ten men. One called out, “Is Mrs Reed with you? Tell her Mr Reed is here.”

Mama fell to her knees in the snow while I tried to run

There are no words…

Yes, it’s you, now I believe it’s true

I prayed in my heart, my dream of seeing you

Troubles and tears will pass

I want our strength to last

To build our life in this land so vast

Nightmares will come, I want you by my side

I’ll reach out my hand, please will you be my guide

When I grow old and gray

And feel I’m losing my way

Remind me when I saw you, at last, that day

Yes, it’s you, now I believe it’s true

I prayed in my heart, then I was seeing you

Troubles and tears have passed

I know our strength to last

To give our children a Christmas at home at last

Yes it was you, I’ll always believe it’s true

I know in my heart, my dream is here with you

Never Take No Cutoffs

Oh, Mary 

I’ve not wrote you half of the trouble we’ve had 

But I have wrote you enough to let you know what trouble is. 

But thank God 

We are the only family that did not eat human flesh. 

We have lost everything, but I don’t care for that. 

We have got through with our lives. 

Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody. 

Remember, remember…

Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can…

That Was All So Long Ago

That was all so long ago, but Spring arrived at last

Once under snow at Donner Lake, hard times now have passed

And Sacramento valley, as wide as all the world

Would give us life, a home at last, and memories for a girl

Napa Valley afternoon, in shade we stopped to rest

A lovely little knoll I found, and wandered by myself

Wildflowers I gazed upon, and oh so many trees

And in the branches high above, the birds would sing for me

The blessed sun a smile

A benediction pure

How could we have come this far

Without His guiding hand?

I felt so near to God that day, His breath upon my cheek

My kisses flew to heaven’s light, all in thanksgiving

I heard Papa calling me, “Daughter, where’ve you gone?

Come child, we’re ready now, sing for us a song.”

The friends we love, and friends we lost

Remembering us home.


Lyrics written and credit goes to Tim Corrigan.