Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Replica of Patty Reed's Doll Celebrates the Courage of a Pioneer Girl

Patty Reed
A Few Years After the Tragedy
Image Courtesy donnerpartydiary.com

     Most people with an interest in Western American History, have heard about the Donner Party tragedy of 1846. Through a series of mishaps, wrong choices and pure bad luck, a Wagon Train of emmigrants, running late after taking Hasting's Cutoff to the California Trail, found themselves stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They were halted in their tracks by the onslaught of one of the worst winters on record. Earlier, as they approached the base of the mountains and knowing well what might lay ahead, it was agreed that everything deemed unecessary should be tossed to lighten the load on the wagons. Even the children were told to leave their toys and that's where this story begins. Nine year old Martha (Patty) Reed could not bear to throw away her little doll she called "Dolly" and secretly tucked it in her dress.

The Original "Dolly"
Photo Courtesy Sutter's Fort SHP
What a Sweetheart !

An Original Mid 19th-Century Peg Doll
Similar to "Dolly", Note the Details
Image From Online Auction
     After the entrapment was certain, the pioneers needed every ounce of courage and determination to face their pending fate. During the worst of what would follow, Patty Reed's love for her little "Dolly" helped her through the months of near starvation and kept her from despair. In the end, 41 people died and 46 were rescued.

     Patty was one of the lucky ones and ended up living a full life in California to the ripe old age of 85. During her entire life, she never parted with her little "Dolly" and in the end, generously willed it to the State of California. It's been one of the most visited relics at Sutter's Fort State Historic Park in Sacramento since the 1940's. It left the State briefly in 1996 to be featured as part of the Smithsonian's "1846 Portrait of the Nation" exhibit. That's how important this tiny doll is. California 4th graders who read Rachel Kelley's "Patty Reed's Doll, The Story of the Donner Party" and are lucky enough to visit the Fort, consider seeing the tiny plaything as the high-point of their trip.

My Replica "Dolly"
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

Another View, Note the Hair
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

     My wife has always been fond of  Patty's little peg-doll "Dolly" and her history, which is all the motivation I needed to surprise her with a replica.  A peg-wooden or peg doll is a category of historic dolls based on a construction detail that involves tiny wooden pegs to hold the joints of arms and legs. In the past I had made a couple of similar dolls but I wanted this replica to be as faithful to the original as I could make it. After a visit to the Fort, I learned a little more about the doll's details, having a chance to see her from the side. I'm still unsure if her head is Papier Mache and molded or just carved wood with a coat of Gesso. I decided to go with the gesso, as the doll's clothing hides the evidence of a shoulder plate ala a molded head. The only other info I had is that she is 3 1/2" to 3 3/4" long depending on who you believe. She is a funny little thing with her ungraceful clubby arms and her simple garments but her appeal is undeniable and her importance to our history unquestionable. I hope the viewer enjoys the way my replica turned out. My wife certainly does.


  1. Jim,
    How wonderful of you to carve this wee doll for your wife. That's a sign of a good man. I'm a wooden doll collector and wondered if you considered carving these dolls to sell to others? My group is getting ready to read the book that Dolly narrates about the Donner party and I would love to have one of your carvings. I don't know how to get in touch with you other than to leave this comment. I also enjoyed your other blog entries - I enjoy your approach to history.

    1. Greetings Ashdoll,
      Thanks for the kind words. I really appreciate it. I'm sorry to tell you that these days, I don't have the time to make more Dollys. Maybe some day I will. I'll give it some thought.