The beginnings of my search for the first piano to come to California

My search for the first pianos to come to California.

This research project came into being unexpectedly. My daughter, Rachel, had seen an advertisement in the AAA magazine about a Donner Party hiking weekend (October 2010) and suggested it would be a fun adventure. We had a wonderful time – guided walks, lectures, re-enactments – and we were so fascinated by the experience that we planned a weekend trip to Sacramento to visit the state archives and see for ourselves some of the actual documents written by members of the expedition. We were spurred on particularly since we had found out during the hiking weekend that there was one English member of the ill-fated 1846 journey and he was John Denton from Sheffield. Since my maiden name is Denton and I attended Sheffield University in England it seemed appropriate to find out more about my name-sake.


So during our rummaging through the boxes in the California Room of the state archives – polite rummaging, that is, in plastic gloves – we came across a bill of sale for a piano signed by James Frazier Reed in 1849. After the Donner Lake ordeal Reed had settled in San Jose and purchased a piano for his daughter, Patty. In the months following our discovery I was to find out that that piano made the journey through the Santa Cruz mountains not once but three times. Patty eventually married Frank Lewis and settled in Zayante (Felton). She also ran a hotel in Santa Cruz (now named the Edgewater Motel) and two hotels in Capitola. She claimed that the piano she had in Capitola was one of the first pianos to come to California and that got me thinking . . . is that true? Which WAS the first piano to arrive in the Golden State?

So began two years of research traveling the length and breadth of the state and emailing much further – to Mystic Seaport, to Germany, and – though I haven’t yet (August 2012) – Mexico and Russia. I found a few old newspaper clippings discussing the subject but the journalists were relying on previous accounts: no one was looking at primary source material. I decided to divide my research into two parts – one: following up my interest in the Donner party (‘party’ always seems rather inappropriate!) connection, and two: finding how, why and where the first pianos came to California.




The Donner Party connection

It soon became apparent that Martha Jane (aka Patty) Reed who claimed to have one of the first pianos that came to California had a lot of connections with my local area (the South San Francisco Bay) and Santa Cruz county in particular. This made the research very immediate since I live in Santa Cruz.

I found her marriage and death records at the county records office in Santa Cruz. She married Frank Lewis on December 25th, 1856. She died at home at Twin Lakes, July 2nd, 1923 from cerebral apoplexy and was buried at Oakhill Cemetery, San Jose. Soon afterwards I came upon a small, thin book on a shelf at San Jose State library (or was this Santa Cruz library?) as I just browsed through the shelves. It claimed to be an account of Frank and Patti’s wedding at Zayante and was called Hazeldell Charivari by Tom P. McHugh. Tom McHugh was a journalist in Santa Cruz and UCSC are supposed to hold his papers but I think they are not available. The book describes in detail the wedding ceremony. One of the attendees was Isaac Graham. In further research I found that he’s a very colorful character. In fact Peter Lassen, after whom one of my family’s favorite areas was named, sold his property in Zayante to Graham. Graham also took part in the Bear flag rebellion. Saw mills in Henry Cowell state park and Fall Creek belonged to Graham. In 1841, California’s first water-powered sawmill was built at the junction of Bean Creek and Zayante Creek by P. Lassen, Isaac Graham, J. Majors, and F. Hoeger.

Graham Hill road is named for him (and I always thought it was after the English Formula one racing driver!). Graham supplied lumber for the Brown House in San Francisco(not found on the national historic register). He was a gambler. His wife left for Hawaii. Bennett and Graham had a feud for 3 years. When Graham died his lawyer, Stanley inherited the Zayante ranch. He was ‘exiled’ from San Jose. Has map of Reed property 1862 named ‘Welch Farm’ on the river Zayante.

From her death certificate I found that she lived in the twin Lakes area of Santa Cruz, and I eventually discovered her address and one chilly December day I went over there to take photographs. After she died the house was lived in by her son Frazier Lewis, who was a candy maker – rather a telling business for the son of a woman whose fame rested on her fellow travelers dying from starvation and their resort to cannibalism  made them notorious. After Frazier died the house was occupied by an art gallery and then James Houston and his wife, Jeanne Wakasuti, moved in. She still lives there (Aug 2012). I wrote to her and her daughter who is volley ball coach at Cabrillo College answered. There used to be an old piano at the house but it wasn’t Patty’s she told me. James was a notable historian and author and his wife was interned at Manzanar and wrote the book about it ‘Farewell to Manzanar’ from which a documentary film was subsequently made. My family had visited this Japanese internment camp about 15 years ago and it made a big impression on us. In July 2012 Sarah and I returned to the camp which has a new visitors’ center and many of the building are being restored. It’s fascinating. I couldn’t get Sarah away even after 4 hours of exploring in the temperatures in the upper 90’s. When James moved in there was all sorts of Donner memorabilia still in the house and he subsequently wrote a book about the Donner party from Patty’s point of view.

In the Santa Cruz Sentinel June 27th, 1946 there appeared the following article (I got this from the Capitola Museum lady – Carolyn Swift) ‘Lewis Piano of 1849 Sent To Museum In Sutter Fort. A piano which came around the Horn in the gold rush was sent last week, from Santa Cruz to the Sutter Fort museum of California at Sacramento.

The piano for years has been at the home of Frazier and Martha Lewis at Twin Lakes. Its history is well authenticated; it was the second piano[1] to come around the Horn to California.

It was made in Albany, N.Y., by E. P. Burns[2]. It made its trip with a Captain Wilson (of the schooner) who played it during the voyage.[3] In San Francisco[4] he sold it to James Frazier Reed of the Donner party who took it to San Jose in November, 1849.

In 1855 squatters took possession of Reed’s land in San Jose and he and his wife moved to Felton where Isaac Graham gave them use of a cabin which they named Hazel Dell, until they moved to Ocean View Avenue in 1860[5] Reed took it back to San Jose but it 1882 Mrs. Martha Jane Lewis Lewis (sic) brought it back to Santa Cruz.

The death of Mrs. Lewis at Twin Lakes in 1944 and of her brother, Frazier Lewis[6] last year, left it with other relics to the Sacramento museum.

Other relics which went to Sutter’s Fort with the piano were a circular table on which the seal of the State of California was designed, a doll prized by Mrs. Lewis when, as little Patty Reed of the Donner party, she carried it across the plains and through the hardships in the Sierras, and Mrs. Lewis’ wedding dress.’[7]

I contacted the Sutter’s Fort museum and eventually was granted access to the warehouse of the state museums. On our way to Donner Lake for our second annual hike, October 2011, were we allowed to visit the piano.


Another article in the Santa Cruz Surf (which I think I forgot to date) called ‘A Pioneer Piano’ with no author:

‘In the parlour of the Sea Side Home stands a piano which is supposed to be the first one that came to this state. It was made in Albany, NY by E P Burns and brought around cape Horn in the fall of 1849 by Capt Wilson, and was put together on the schooner where its delightful strains helped to vary the monotony of the long voyage. It was regarded as a great curiosity when it arrived in San Francisco and crowds flocked to see the instrument and listen to its melody. Cpt Wilson was seized with the gold fever and sold it to Mr J F Reed (the father of Mrs Lewis) for $1000. This gentleman brought it to San Jose on Nov 4th, 1849 where it remained a number of years. When Mr Lewis removed to this city (SC) in 1856 he had it conveyed here in a vehicle drown by oxen by way of San Juan and Watsonville.

This ‘pioneer’ piano enlivened the surroundings with its music for several years when Mr Reed, returning again to the ‘garden City’ it crossed the mountains in 1860, remained there until 2 years ago, when in charge of Mrs Lewis it returned to this city (SC) and has since occupied its present position at the home.

In style it is what is known in the parlance of the piano trade as a square, rather plain in finish, unostentatious in appearance and made of rosewood. It has not lost its pristine sweetness of tone through age as was evidence yesterday afternoon when a SURF representative listened to some of the old time airs that Mrs Lewis kindly reproduced. So highly was this piano respected for its early associations that for the last 5 years it was in San Jose it was omitted from the assessor’s roll, that official facetiously remarking that as old men are exempt from paying poll tax, why should not this instrument be free from taxation on account of its age and valuable services.’

From Nancy Jenner curator of California state parks: The information that you have is correct—the piano is made of rosewood, it’s a square pianoforte, manufactured by Burns.  Although our early cataloguing information incorrectly states that the inscription says “F. P. Burns” it has been corrected to “E. P. Burns.”

Patty Reed’s collection was donated to the Fort in 1946—this was her wish, to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of her family’s ordeal by donating her collection to Sutter’s Fort. This piano came to the Fort at that time.

Because Patty had already passed away, the curator was not able to confirm all details with her, but it has always been asserted that this is the piano mentioned in the bill of sale that is currently held at the State Library, dated 1849.

Our information lists the dimensions of the piano as  92.5cm x 82.5cm x 185cm (36 7/16in. x 32 1/2in. x 72).  The earlier square pianos were smaller than the more common ones from 1870s and 1880s, so the size is appropriate for piano of the era.  The legs are also diagnostic—most of the later pianos had the rococo, cabriole

I’m attaching a photo of Patty’s piano, a clipping from our file regarding the donation, and a scan of a sketch in the accession file (I would ask that you do not publish or otherwise reproduce or distribute the images without our permission, they’re just for the purpose of your research).

Unfortunately, I have no knowledge of any available images of the interior of Hock Farm, or of the interior Fort from the period when it was occupied by Sutter

And finally—because of where the piano is stored, I have no authority to grant you access.   The curators of that section have said that the piano is inaccessible, and that the project they’re working on is going to go on for some time.  I have a meeting with them next week—I’ll ask for an update.’

Well, the curators might have been telling us that the piano was inaccessible but persistence paid off as the photo shows: Rachel and I in the warehouse with Patty’s piano!

In a Santa Cruz newspaper dated Sep 19, 1921, I found more information about the piano – It was moved to Felton via S Juan and Watsonville Road and then down to Ocean View in Santa Cruz near where the E O McCormick house stands near the golf links. (McCormick was the manager of the South Pacific Coast Railroad). In 1860 they used Mr Jim Simpson to take it to San Jose via the Mt Charley Road. In 1882 it was taken by rail to Capitola. It was later moved by auto truck to Twin Lakes.’ I haven’t had much luck trying to find Jim Simpson. There is a John Samsann aged 33 from FR in the 1850 Santa Cruz census, and a James Simpson from England in the 1860 census (a woodman).

InMore Tales from the MinesJames Houstonwho lived in Patty’s house, wrote the following account of the piano: ‘In the transient and shifting social terrain of mid-century California, Reed was one of those who had come to stay. In Illinois he had been an aggressive community leader and devoted family man, and his habits had not changed. By the time the state entered the Union, the Reeds already had an established look. In her Diary of a Pioneer Girl, 14-year-old Sallie Hester recorded her family’s journey from Bloomington, Indiana, to San Jose, and made this entry on June 3, 1850:

We have pitched our tent near the house of Rev. Owens. Have met Mrs. Reed’s family. They crossed the Plains in 1846. They were of the Donner Party. . . . Mattie Reed is a lovely girl with big brown eyes. She is near my own age. She has a piano, and Mrs. Reed has kindly asked me to come there and practice.”

She referred to a famous square piano Reed purchased from a Boston sea captain soon after they moved into the ranch house. It had recently come around Cape Horn. Eager to head for the gold fields, the captain sold it to Reed for a thousand dollars. When it appeared on the dock in San Francisco a large crowd gathered to ponder its elegant rosewood lines. One of the first to reach these shores from the faraway eastern seaboard, it was known as “The Pioneer Piano,” a feature of the Reed family parlor for decades to come.

Reed’s home in San Jose

Reed’s home in San Jose stood at the junction of 3rd Street and Margaret for 30 years and was demolished to make way for the 280 freeway in December 1972.[8] A photograph of the home with seven members of the Reed family in front of it can be found in ‘A Donner Miscellany” edited by Carroll D Hall. Many of the street names in San Jose are named after members of the Reed and his wife Margaret’s families. See ‘signposts’ by Patricia Loomis. Also ‘Santa Clara County Ranchos’ by Clyde Arbuckle, 1968. When Rachel and I went to see Patty’s grave at Oakhill cemetery in San Jose close by was the grave of Clyde Arbuckle and though at that time we had never heard of him I took a photo of his gravestone. On further inquiry he was San Jose’s leading historian for many many, years. There’s a map of the 1860’s showing Reed’s ‘reservation’ at the corner of Reed street and First Street. His residence address in 1870 was 675 Third Street.[9] In the first municipal election Nov 29, 1847 Reed was one of 6 men elected to the town council. ‘In 1849 a 12 man police force was organized to maintain law and order, Reed was its chief.’[10] Reed’s account book (1848-1850) covering the expenses for the building of his home are held by the California state library. I wonder if there’s any mention of the piano in them since he bought the piano in 1849. By 1856 the Reeds were well established but it would see that Reed was always eager for adventure. On May 30th he and his 2 sons, James Jr and Thomas crossed the Santa Cruz mountains, writing a letter to his wife. It was hand carried to her in San Jose with the ‘politeness (of) Captn Isaac Graham.” Known as the Golf Gulch letters they were in the possession of Robert O Lincoln of Santa Cruz in the 1950’s according to Margaret Koch’s piece in the Issue 2. Where are they now? See Sentinel jan 10th 1965 p4 for interview and photo with Lincoln. Got it on Aug 22. The letters tell of his plans to settle on the banks of the San Lorenzo river for 3 years to see if the gold digging by hydraulic method would be profitable, and he even asks Margaret to send him $200 to cover the cost of ‘removing and getting provisions until we see whether there can be anything made.’[11] However, nothing came of the scheme, (according to Koch) though we don’t know why.

In the daily Surf May 2, 1890, 3:1 ‘Mrs Lewis of Capitola was agreeably surprised yesterday by a souvenir gift from her daughters, in honor of the day (ed Mayday). A fine nugget, of symmetrical shape, found by Mrs Lewis’ father, James Reed in 1848, had been made into a pin, from which was pendant a bear, made of rough gold attached to a bar of polished gold on which was inscribed simply the two dates, ‘1846-1890.’ James Reed returned from prospecting to San Jose. Could his decision to move to Felton have been sparked by the squatters taking possession of Reed’s lands in San Jose in June 1855[12]? Did he infact move to Felton at that time? Patti married IN FELTON on Christmas Day, 1856 in a cabin that belonged to Isaac Graham. I thought it was a double cabin and James lived in one half and Patty and Frank in the other – or did they just use the cabin for the wedding ceremony?


The piano itself.

The Pioneer piano was made at the workshop of Francis Putnam Burns. He was born in Galway, New York, Feb 6, 1807. He learned cabinet making and studied piano making with John Osborn and in 1835 he opened his own business. According to Alfred Dodge, he went to great pains to impress upon his workmen ‘ that a piano is a work of art, requiring the most painstaking efforts, without regard to time consumed in its construction. While producing most elegant and durable pianos, Burns did not accumulate wealth.’ His business passed on to his son, Edward M. Burns[13]. This all indicates that the piano that Reed purchased was a well made instrument. This diagram is from Nancy Jenner at the state park archives.

According to Houston:From a Californio land-grant family Reed had purchased a square mile of open acreage south and east of the market plaza. He planted some wheat and built a large adobe ranch house, completed in November 1849.- the document of sale of the piano that we obtained from the state library is dated November 16th 1849! However, the confusion remains: was Allen T Willson a sea captain, and did Reed purchase it in San Francisco?

I found early censuses of San Jose.

The first, dated June 30th, 1860 lists Frank Lewis of Massachusetts, aged 31, with wife Martha J, 21 of Illinois, and Kate L, 2 years and Mary one month.

The second, dated August 1st, 1870 has James F Reed, aged 69, farmer from Ireland, value of his real estate $120,000 and value of personal estate $3,000. He is living with son Charles, 22, b Cal and Thomas K, 27 b Illinois. Also listed at the same dwelling is Frank Lewis, 41, farmer, Martha J (keeping house), 32, Margaret, 10, Frank K, 8, Mattie,6, and Frazier, 4. They have a housekeeper, Eliza Gorden (56) from Canada East, John Meade, 39 Irish farm laborer, Hoe Ah, 58 laborer from China and Kate Lewis (12) b California. I presume this was misplaced in the list.

1880 First Street, San Jose shows Martha is now a widow, aged 42, keeping house with daughters kate and Margaret, 22 and 20 working as seamstresses, son Frank is 18 and lives off his own means, daughter Mattie 16 works in a glove factory, Franzier 14, Carrie E, 9and Susan A 6. Presumably the boarder William Patterson , 49 who works in the mines does the ‘man’s work’ in the household. Both his parents were born in Ireland. He himself was born in Pennsylvania. There are 3 other boarders and 2 Chinese, one a cook and one working outdoors. Thomas Reed (36) is a teamster from Ireland. Next door lives Charles Reed and his family.

1890 Haven’t found her

1900 She’s in Soquel

1910 She a boarding house keeper in Soquel, aged 72, living with children Martha, Margaret, James, (farmer and poultryman)Caroline and Susan and her brother Thomas aged 67, and a Chinese cook.

In 1920, she’s 81 and living in Branciforte with children Martha, James, Caroline and Susan and a Chinese cook. At the far left of this photograph, taken about 1890, is the Lewis
House, a hotel operated by Donner party survivor Patty Reed Lewis. James owns a candy store.











From The surf, 02-27-1884 3:3 – A pioneer piano. In the parlor of the Sea Side Home stands a piano which is supposed to be the first on e that came to this state. It was made in Albany, New York, by E. P. Burns, and brought around Cape Horn in the fall of 1849 by Capt. Wilson, and was put together on the schooner where its delightful strains helped to vary the monotony of the long voyage. It was regarded as a great curiosity when it arrived in San Francisco and crowds flocked to see the instrument and listen to its melody. Captain Wilson was seized by gold fever and sold the piano to Mr J. F Reed (the father of Mrs Lewis) for $1000. This gentleman brought it to San Jose on Nov 4th, 1849, where it remained a number of years. When Mrs Lewis removed to this city in ’56, he had it conveyed here in a vehicle drawn by oxen by way of San Juan and Watsonville.

This “pioneer” piano enlivened the surroundings with its music for several years when Mr Reed returning again to the “Garden City” it crossed the mountains in 1860, remained there until t years ago (ed 1882), when in charge of Mrs Lewis it returned to this city and has since occupied its present position at the Home

In style it is what is known in the parlance of the piano trade as a square, rather plain in finish, unostentatious in appearance, and made of rosewood. It has not lost its pristine sweetness of tone through age as was evidenced yesterday when a SURF representative listened to some of the old time airs that Mrs Lewis so kindly reproduced. So highly was this piano respected for its early associations that for the last 5 years that it was in San Jose it was omitted from the Assessor’s roll, that official facetiously remarking that as old men are exempt from paying poll tax, why should not this instrument be free from taxation on account of its age and valuable services.’

The Sea Side Home

Surf Jan 15, 1884, 2:2

‘No place was ever more fittingly named this, which combines the pleasures of a resort, the quiet of a retreat, and the comforts of a home. With a broad balcony facing the bathing beach, and an ambuscade of flowers protecting every window and shedding fragrance into every room; the street cars and both railroads within one minutes walk, and an elevation that secures exemption from dust and annoyances, there is nothing to be desired by way of location. The year ’83 was the first full season of the proprietorship of Mrs Frank Lewis, who is making the place not only a lovely spot, but an attractive home has secured an unprecedented patronage. New cottages were built and a considerable sum of money expended in improvements within the year. During the summer the ‘Home’ was thronged with guests, many of whom tarried twice their expected time. It is altogether probable that ‘all engaged’ will be announced at an early date the coming season and that those who wish to secure rooms at this most homelike of homes, will be compelled to apply early.’ On the same page as the Sea Side house advert in the Hotel and Boarding House directory is the Travelers Guide to the South Pacific Coast Railroad. Trains took 4 hours to reach San Francisco, and 1 ¾ to reach San Jose. Or you could go on the Southern Pacific Railroad via Watsonville(1 hour), again reaching San Francisco in 4 hours.

In the Surf or Sentinel July 6, 1888 – Charming Summer Resort

‘Mrs Frank Lewis, late of the Sea Side Home, Santa Cruz, takes this method of informing her friends and the public, that she has taken the commodious hotel at Camp Capitola, together with the cottages, grounds, skating rink etc., etc., which will be put in first class condition for the entertainment of guests, summer and winter, with all the comforts of home, and those who have been her guests heretofore know what this means. For terms, (which will be moderate) address the proprietoress at Soquel, Camp Capitola, Santa Cruz Co.’

From the book, The Grand Hotel, Capitola by Gordon van Zuiden and Carolyn Swift, ‘Hotel Capitola faces the sunrise and the Bay of Monterey. Its broad verandah is floored with concrete, because sometimes, in a storm, the breakers dash their spray over the steps, and up to the windows. The lobby is a spacious room where, by a crackling wood fire in a broad-throated fireplace, you can sit and watch the ebb and flow of the tide, the path of steamers, the spouting of whales, the sporting of the sea lions, and the restful vista of the mountains beyond. Every seat in the dining room has a view of the bay and the garden. Three sides of the bowling alley are glass. Every guest chamber gives a glimpse of romantic scenery, either mountain or marine.’

‘For many years the annual re-union of Mr Hihn and his pioneer friends took the form of a barbeque and basket picnic. Latterly as pioneers diminished in number the date has been shifted to a celebration of his own birthday by a dinner at the Hotel Capitola. During the eating hour the Capitola orchestra, composed of Mr Geo B franz, violin and musical director; Mr S J Tully, clarinet, Mr M Solano cello, Mr J L Becker, piano, rendered a musical program which included Polonaise Militaire by Chopin, a secection form Bizet’s Carmen, the Jolly Brothers Waltz by Vollstedt and Anona Intermezzo by Vivian Grey. Mr Hihn was presented with a box of home-made candy from Mrs Frank Lewis. ‘ rom F Ahihn and his Santa Cruz County Pioneers compiled by Stanley D Stevens. Aug 17, 1903 – source Santa Cruz Surf, 1903-08-17 2:1-3

Patty’s timeline

1846-7 overland and stranded at Donner Lake

1849 James Reed purchases a piano

1850 She has a piano in San Jose

1860 San Jose census

1870 San Jose census

1880 First street, San Jose census

1883 proprietor of the Sea Side home

1888 Proprietor of Capitola hotel

1890 haven’t found her on the census but article about the celebration of Mayday at the Capitola hotel


1910 boarding house keeper in Soquel

1920 Branciforte census

1923 Death at Twin Lakes


[1] Where is the first?

[2] This should be F.P. Burns

[3] Nowhere else can I find a reference to him being a captain

[4] The transaction was done in San Jose. The original document say Allen T Willson of Puelbo San Joe

[5] Punctuation missing so could mean 2 different things

[6] I thought he was her son

[7] No name on the article



[8] San Jose and its Cathedral, p 37 by Marjorie Pierce, 1990

[9] Editors’ note p 30, Santa Cruz county history journal ed by Stanley D. Stevens, Issue 2, 1995

[10] ditto

[11] Ditto p 28

[12] Surf or Sentinel, Sept 9, 1921

[13] p287 Pianos and their Makers, Alfred Dolge, 1911


  1. Jeff Marcus

    Where are the pictures described in the text?

    • hmcreativelady

      They appear to have disappeared into cyberspace! Thanks for alerting me to this problem on the site. If there’s a specific image you are looking for I will send it to you.

      • Katreen

        Thank you for your amazing research! The time, energy and love that went into your search came through beautifully! I would love to see the pictures that went along with your journey into the life of Patty Reed. My daughter and I are studying her, and were so surprised to find out that she lived near us just a century ago (we live in Ben Lomond). We were thinking about finding and visiting her home sites and hotels. Did you find any addresses where these dwellings still exist? I’d love any info and pictures you can share. Thank you again!
        Katreen (

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *