Photo of Patty Reed's DollPatty Reed’s Doll is not currently on display at Sutter’s Fort SHP.

In 2020, the artifact known as “Patty Reed’s Doll” was removed from public display for conservation work and for a period of purposeful rest. The 4” tall hand-carved wooden doll was secretly carried by 8-year-old Patty Reed when she and others were rescued from their winter camp at Donner Lake in March 1847. The prized doll – which Patty called “Dolly” – is the most well-known artifact of the ill-fated Donner Party incident.

More than 70 years of nearly continuous display at Sutter’s Fort has taken its toll on “Dolly.” The painted features of its face are faded, wooden limbs are splitting, and the fragile dress is disintegrating. According to preservation experts, a pattern of extensive rests and limited exhibition is the best way to preserve the doll far into the future.

Protecting the state’s most cherished cultural resources requires a delicate balance of making objects available for viewing and appreciation, but also protecting them from the cumulative and irreversible damage caused by light, heat, and shifting humidity. Light is particularly damaging, causing pigments to fade and textiles to become brittle. Conservators have recommended carefully budgeting the amount of light to which the doll is exposed.

Sutter’s Fort SHP is determined to extend the “lifetime” of the doll for as long as possible, while also making it available for viewing and appreciation. These practices will allow the doll to tell its unique story not only for today’s visitors but also for future generations.