A team of athlete-researchers from Northern California plans to retrace the route of members of the doomed Donner Party who made a break for safety while stranded in the Sierra Nevada during the terrible winter of 1846-47.
The four veteran trail runners, who spent seven years pinpointing the traces of the lost escape path, are scheduled to leave Donner Lake on snowshoes Dec. 16 and arrive five days later at a historic site 90 miles to the west. The Forlorn Hope Expedition will cross the same steep, rugged landscape as did the members of the Forlorn Hope party. The 15 people in that group left their companions entrapped in the mountains while they went for help at the nearest California settlements. Seven emaciated survivors reached safety 33 days later.
“As I’ve read the account of the Forlorn Hope and then travelled in their footsteps it has only galvanized my belief this might be the greatest endurance trek in history,” said Tim Twietmeyer, a five-time winner of Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and one of the four team members. The pioneers had to fight the weather, starvation and the confusion of being lost in the wilderness. He said the Forlorn Hope’s “combination of desperation, yet unwavering desire to save the families back at (Donner Lake), forced them to make choices they’d never forget.”
Extreme journey revisited
The pioneers’ 1846 hike led to starvation and frostbite, murder and cannibalism. The modern team hopes to draw attention away from the macabre aspects of the story to focus on the endurance and fortitude of the ordinary people involved who were facing extraordinary challenges.
Twietmeyer and team member Bob Crowley have been “ultra-running” on back-country trails for more than four decades. The pair believe they have plotted the 90-mile course taken by the Donner escape party. They share a passion for narrative history, especially epic tales, Crowley said.
They initially set out to find portions of the trail, a task that led them to deeper research into history, topography and archeology. They became most interested in the stories of the people involved in the original journey and the mind-numbing obstacles that they had to overcome.
A doomed wagon train
The story of the Donner Party is a tragic icon of American history. The men, women and children were among about 1,500 people who left their homes in the East and Midwest in the spring of 1846 and set off on a more than 2,000-mile walk across the continent. The emigrants aimed their ox-drawn wagons at the setting sun in the hope of finding a better life in California, which was then Mexican territory.
The Donner Party was formed on July 19, 1846 on the west side of the Rocky Mountains when pioneers from several families voted to take an unproven “cutoff” that they believed would get them to California faster. They elected George Donner as their leader. But the alleged shortcut added 125 miles and weeks of travel to their trip. By the time the party reached the future site of Reno during the last week of October, early storms had blanketed the Sierra in deep snow.
On Oct. 31, the 81-member group reached what is now Donner Lake and could advance no further. They were already short on food. Their remaining cattle were lost — buried, standing in the snow. By mid-December, some of the pioneers were dying in their makeshift tents, lean-tos and cabins. A relentless series of storms swept through the Sierra. The mountain would not let them go.
A desperate dash to safety
“Fair & pleasant…froze hard last night & the Company started on snow shoes to cross the mountains. Wind S.E. [and] looks pleasant.”–– Diary of Patrick Breen, while entrapped at Donner Lake, Dec. 16, 1846.
When the storms abated in mid-December, the 15 strongest people set off on a hike to the nearest settlement. The snowshoe party members expected to reach Sutter’s Fort (now Sacramento) in about a week. They crossed elevations rising up to 7,000 feet, with snow more than 25 feet deep in drifts. They wore hand-made snowshoes and were equipped with handfuls of dried meat, the clothes on their backs, wool blankets and an axe.
Within days, a blizzard and a cascade of events caused the party to become lost. Of the 15 members, only seven arrived 33 days later at the Johnson’s Ranch settlement near present-day Wheatland, CA. They were emaciated, frostbitten, hypothermic, and exhausted. And they were haunted by the knowledge that they were forced to commit cannibalism in order to survive and that one of their number had murdered two Native Americans who had been helping them.
Later writers dubbed the snowshoe party the Forlorn Hope, a term originally used to describe military missions with almost no hope of success. The Donner Party’s long-term campsites at Donner Lake and nearby Alder Creek have been investigated by archeologists several times beginning in the 1980s, but the Forlorn Hope group’s route has remained a matter of mystery and speculation for 174 years.
Truth in the terrain
Crowley said after seven years of research and walking segments of the 90-mile course, he and his partners are “85% sure” that they will be following in the original party’s footsteps. The researchers pored over contemporary accounts, topographic maps, and satellite photos. Most importantly, they explored each segment of ground.
“Our fundamental guiding principle was ‘the land is equal to or more important than the book,’” Crowley said. Field research yielded many answers to conflicting data and provided missing pieces of the puzzle.
“We applied common sense when standing where the Forlorn Hope stood, seeing the (relatively) identical terrain… and tried to put ourselves in their state of mind.” The party members were cold, miserable, starving, physically broken, delirious, despondent, angry and afraid, he said. Those factors would alter the logic they might otherwise follow in decision making.
Crowley, Twietmeyer and two accomplished ultra-distance female runners – Jennifer Walker Hemmen and Elke Reimer – are scheduled to set off from Donner Lake’s Donner Memorial State Park on shoeshoes on Dec. 16, the 174th anniversary of the original group’s departure. Unlike the Donner Party members, who were nearly helpless against the extreme conditions, modern trekkers will be equipped with the latest wilderness gear and be tracked by GPS signals. Still, it won’t be a cakewalk.
“I recently did a 30-mile navigation race in the North Fork just a few miles from the route of the Forlorn Hope. It took us 15 hours to complete, meaning we were often traveling at less than one mile an hour, even with only 15 minutes of rest for the duration. The worst and best part of the Forlorn Hope’s journey must have been the emotional strain of knowing how many lives had already been lost, and how many more would be if they couldn’t succeed.”– Jennifer Walker Hemmen, Forlorn Hope Expedition.
Ghosts of the Donner Party
The modern trekkers are better equipped, but the mountains are still as steep, the winter as cold and the terrain as treacherous. They won’t be lost or starving, but they will be moving fast over icy, broken ground.
“The four of us are a strong group with a lot of experience behind us, not only in the endurance world, but also in the mountain world,” Reimer said. “In efforts such as these, it’s our mental strength that will be the primary factor, much the same as the Forlorn Hope party.” She said the original party members, and what they endured, will be on their minds during the journey.
“We will reflect on their experience every step of the way, honoring their struggles and feeling very grateful to have modern-day equipment,” she said. “The final push to the finish will be an emotional one for all of us, and I know I speak for the team when I say we are all honored to follow in the footsteps of the Forlorn Hope party.”
Lessons of the past
Bill Oudegeest, a board member of the Donner Summit Historical Society who has assisted Crowley and Twietmeyer throughout the project, said that while the Donner Party’s tribulations are well known, the 33-day ordeal of the Forlorn Hope is an equally compelling tale.
“The most memorable part of both stories is the cannibalism,” he said. “For most people, there the story ends, leaving out the heroism and human nature fighting the elements. There is so much more, and these four athletes want to change the narrative.”
He said he hopes the athletes’ trek across the formerly lost trail will bring the story back to the to the public’s attention “and, with it, the real story about these amazing people who risked their lives for their families.”
Opportunities for education
To Crowley, the macabre angle of the party’s cannibalism of desperation is a footnote. The focus, he said, should be on “the perseverance, passion and grit… the motivation, ruggedness and resilience of these ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary feats and who embodied the core characteristics and tenets that became the backbone of America.’”
“In the North Fork (of the American River), the combination of soft snow, undergrowth, hidden cliffs and relentless uphill terrain makes it almost impossible to imagine how much willpower the surviving members had to have to continue up. The terrain gave them no clues as to whether they were hopelessly lost or on their way to ‘California’ until long after they had battled up the ridge to see the first view of the Sacramento Valley.”– Jennifer Walker Hemmen, Forlorn Hope Expedition.
The Forlorn Hope Expedition hopes to partner with federal, state and local entities to create a learning center for children and adults dedicated to the Forlorn Hope, Donner Party and American pioneer history. They’ve created a website with details about the expedition, maps, history and instructions about how to track the expedition team in real time.
NOTE: Reno News & Review editor Frank X. Mullen is the author of “The Donner Party Chronicles,” (1997, Nevada Humanities Committee), a history of the Donner Party’s journey. Mullen has appeared as a Donner Party expert in programs on the History Channel, the Weather Channel and other television networks.