The Grave of Sarah Keyes
on the Oregon Trail

by William E. Smith

May, 1936 (Vol. 5, No. 2), pages 208 to 212
Transcribed by Elizabeth Lawrence; digitized with permission of
the Kansas State Historical Society.
NOTE: The numbers in brackets are links to footnotes for this text.

IN APRIL, 1830, more than 100 years ago, the first wagons passed over the Oregon trail.[1] Sixteen years later the ill-starred Donner party toiled along the trail across Kansas, to meet disaster in the winter snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Here forty-two of the ninety died from starvation and cold, and a portion of the remainder barely kept alive by subsisting on human flesh.[2]

     The parties composing this caravan left Independence, Mo., about May 1, 1846. A short distance out of Independence it consisted of the following: Sixty-three wagons; one hundred nineteen men; fifty-nine women; one hundred ten children; bread stuffs, 58,484 lbs.; bacon, 38,080 lbs.; powder, 1,065 lbs.; lead, 2,557 lbs.; guns, 144; pistols, 94; 700 head of cattle and 150 head of horses. This was an unusually large caravan and later divided itself into two or three trains.[3]

     After crossing the Kansas river the company was increased by two. A Mrs. Hall, the wife of one of the immigrants, gave birth to twins. On the morning of May 19, a new census of the party was taken and it was found to consist of ninety-eight fighting men, fifty women, forty-six wagons, and 350 head of cattle. Two divisions were made for convenience of marching. On this day nine wagons from Illinois belonging to Messrs. Reed and Donner and their families joined.

     The caravan moved slowly, seldom more than fifteen miles per day, and on May 26, 1846, the band of immigrants reached the Big Blue in what is now Marshall county, at what is called Independence crossing. The river was very much swollen and they were forced to remain at this camp from May 26 until nine o'clock p.m. on the 31st, when the wagons, oxen and horses were safely landed on the west bank. Because of the continued high water a crude ferry boat, named Blue River Rover was constructed by making dugouts of large cottonwood trees. Two of these dugouts were framed together so that the wheels of the wagons rested in the canoes. Lines were attached to both ends and the raft was pulled back and forth by hand.

     While the emigrants were waiting to cross the river they were saddened by the death of Sarah Keyes, whose grave as it is today is described in this paper. Their activities of these few days are well depicted by Edwin Bryant in his Rocky Mountain Adventures, on which this article is principally based.

     On the 26th the women washed clothes and some of the men fished, one catch being a catfish three feet long. There had been some contention among the leaders of the caravan, and the evening of that day was given over to a public meeting in an effort to prepare a system of law for the purpose of preserving order. The day had been delightful, nothing disagreeable had happened, perfect harmony prevailed. After sunset a new moon appeared above the tree tops to the west of the camp, but later, however, a terrific thunder storm and heavy rain came up. Of this, Mr. Bryant says:

     A terrific thunder storm roared and raged, and poured out its floods of water throughout a great portion of the night. But for the protection against the violence of the wind, afforded by the bluffs on one side and the timber on the other, our tents would have been swept away by the storm. The whole arch of the heavens for a time was wrapped in a sheet of flame, and the almost deafening crashes of thunder, following each other with scarcely an intermission between, seemed as if they would rend the solid earth, or topple it from its axis. A more sublime and awful meteoric display, I never witnessed or could conceive.

     The morning of the 27th was clear, cloudless and peaceful, just as we have seen it many times in Kansas after a thunderstorm. The rain caused the river to rise several feet. Mr. Grayson, who was a member of the party, and others went out to search for bee trees and they returned with several baskets of honey.

     It was on the morning of May 29, 1846, when Mrs. Keyes died. Mr. Bryant says:

     Last night Mrs. Sarah Keyes, a lady aged seventy, a member of the family of Mr. J. H. Reed, of Illinois, and his mother-in-law, died. Mr. Reed, with his family, is emigrating to California. The deceased Mrs. Keyes, however, did not intend to accompany him farther than Fort Hall, where she expected to meet her son who emigrated to Oregon two or three years since. Her health, from disease and the debility of age, was so feeble, that when she left her home she entertained but faint hopes of being able to endure the hardships of the journey. Her physicians had announced to her that she could live but a short time, and this time she determined to devote to an effort to see her only son once more on earth. Such is a mother's affection! The effort, however, was vain. She expired without seeing her child.
     The event. . . cast a shade of gloom over our whole encampment. . . All recreations were suspended, out of respect for the dead, and to make preparations for the funeral. A cottonwood tree was felled, and the trunk of it split into planks, which being first hewn with an axe and then planed, were constructed into a coffin, in which the remains of the deceased were deposited. A grave was excavated a short distance from the camp, under an oak tree on the right hand side of the trail. A stone was procured, the surface of which being smoothed, it was fashioned into the shape of a tombstone, and the name and age, and the date of the death of the deceased were graved upon it.
     At 2 o'clock P.M., a funeral procession was formed, in which nearly every man, woman and child of the company united, and the corpse of the deceased lady was conveyed to its last resting place in this desolate but beautiful wilderness. Her coffin was lowered into the grave. A prayer was offered to the Throne of Grace by the Rev. Mr. Cornwall. An appropriate hymn was sung by the congregation with much pathos and expression. A funeral discourse was then pronounced by the officiating clergyman, and the services were concluded by another hymn and a benediction. The grave was then closed and carefully sodded with the green turf of the prairie, from whence annually will spring and bloom its brilliant and many-colored flowers. The inscription on the tombstone, and on the tree beneath which is the grave, is as follows: "Mrs. Sarah Keyes, Died May 29, 1846; Aged 70."
     The night is perfectly calm. The crescent moon sheds her pale rays over the dim landscape; the whippoorwill is chanting its lamentations in the neighboring grove; the low and mournful hooting of the owl is heard at a far off distance, and altogether the scene, with its adjuncts around us, is one of peace, beauty and enjoyment.
Mr. Bryant described the Blue at Independence crossing as a stream about one hundred yards wide, with turbid water and strong and rapid current. When he saw it it was in flood time. He mentions a small spring branch which empties into the Blue just above the ford. He followed up this small branch, he says, about three quarters of a mile from the camp, where he found a spring of water, ice-cold and pure. From the shelving rock projecting over a basin a beautiful cascade of water fell some ten or twelve feet. This spring was named by them, "Alcove Spring," and many names were graven on the rocks, and on the trunks of trees surrounding it.

     On March 16, 1930, the writer visited Independence crossing. The river was normal and the crossing was about fifty yards wide, with a gravelly bottom on the east side. Numerous floods had left a high bank on the west side. I am informed that this crossing was used a great deal up to the flood of 1903. The small stream emptying into the river just above the ford is still there, although at the time I visited it, it was dry. I followed the little creek up to Alcove Springs, which is about one half mile from the crossing, practically due east. No doubt the spring has changed considerably since Mr. Bryant saw it in 1846. No water was running over the ledge. The stones upon which the names were graven had broken from the ledge and had been washed down the stream a short distance. There were two very fine springs coming out of the ground on the east side. The following names and dates were engraved upon the rocks:


Engraved by Edwin Bryant

May 28, 1846


May 26, 1846

     The small stream is called Alcove Springs creek. The grave of Sarah Keyes is between Alcove Springs and the crossing, as nearly as I can judge, about half way or a quarter of a mile from the springs and a quarter of a mile from the crossing. It is located on a sloping hill on the north side of Alcove Springs creek, about fifty yards from the wagon road. It is on the side of the bluffs and this ground is still virgin prairie, used for pasture. The grave is beside an oak tree, which now consists of three trees growing from the same stump. They are not very large, being about one foot in diameter in the largest place, although the stump from which they sprang is about two and one half to three feet thick. Apparently the parent tree was blown or cut down and these sprouts came up from the stump and grew together at the base and formed three trees. The stone which was fashioned into a headstone is still standing, the upper portion rounding. Apparently all markings are obliterated; neither did I find any markings on the tree as described by Bryant. This, however, is not strange, as eighty-four years had passed and the markings would have long since been grown over.

     Independence crossing, the grave, and Alcove Springs are all in the southeast quarter of section thirty-one, Elm Creek township, in Marshall county. They may be easily reached by automobile, by driving to Blue Rapids, taking the Marysville road from there, and after crossing the Big Blue, taking the first road to the left and driving up the river to within two miles of Shroyer. This wagon road passes very close to the crossing and one can drive into the pasture, by the grave, and up to Alcove Springs.

     One can only hazard a guess why this was called Independence crossing. Presumably it was named for Independence, Mo., where those traveling on the Oregon trail in the early days outfitted themselves for the journey across the plains. The Donner party named Alcove Springs. The early writers on the Donner party often referred to this grave as being near Manhattan, and in the Kansas City (Mo.) Star of Wednesday, June 11, 1930, in an article, "Death Takes the Last Survivor of the Donner Party," the following appears: "On May 29, Grandmother Keyes died and she was buried under a big oak tree where was later the city cemetery of Manhattan."

     This of course is not true, as this grave is located about eight miles south of Marysville and about fifty-two miles north of Manhattan.

     It may be of interest to know that Sarah Keyes was a great-aunt of James Madison Harvey, governor of Kansas in the early 1870's. Two sons and three daughters of ex-Governor Harvey still reside on the one hundred sixty acres preëmpted by him in Riley county in 1859.


1. Joseph G. Masters, Oregon Trail Memorial Association Centenary Celebration (Pamphlet).  Return to reading

2. C. F. McGlashan, History of the Donner Party, p. 236.   Return to reading

3. Edwin Bryant, Rocky Mountain Adventures, p. 2.   Return to reading

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