By Bill Oudegeest, Donner Summit Historical Society
On December 16th, presuming the weather cooperates, four extreme athletes will leave Donner Lake on snowshoes to cross the Sierra in a reprise of the 1846 winter journey of the Donner Party’s Forlorn Hope.
The original Forlorn Hope story is compelling. It’s a story of hardship and heroism and a story of human nature under extreme stress. They fought terrible conditions as they left Donner Lake for California in a quest to find rescuers for their families and friends. The odds were again them, exposed to the Sierra winter with little food, already worn by the transcontinental trip, and dispirited after six weeks at Donner Lake. They faced trouble from the start and quickly things went downhill. The fought storms, cold, starvation, exhaustion, death, and decisions we can’t imagine making, from just whether to go on to deciding to survive on human flesh.
The 2020 reprise of the Forlorn Hope is compelling too but in a different way. Modern equipment and clothing, enough food, accurate maps and satellite views, resupply, communication, and a solid knowledge of the route make the trip an exercise in conditioning, planning, logistics, and research. It is that last item, research, that sets this extreme event apart from other extreme events.
The challenge is to discover the route of the Forlorn Hope. And in doing so discover the people who engaged in one of the greatest endurance feats in history.
Modern trail sleuths use old diaries and maps to get a general idea of a route. Satellite imagery can help spot possible trail remnants. Then trips to the field can validate desk research.
On the ground the sleuths look for ruts, moved rocks, branches and rocks piled up at steep inclines or declines, and evidence on trees of ropes or chains. Then outcome the metal detectors and trowels to turn up artifacts as small as boot nails. It can be tedious work and often there is no pay off. At other times there is great satisfaction.
That’s all pretty straight forward, maybe even obvious, because lots of emigrants following one after the other and re-using the routes year after year, can leave enough evidence to delineate trails.
Divining the route of the Forlorn Hope though, is an entirely different story.
There were only seventeen in the group when they left Donner Lake and only seven were alive when they arrived in California. Since the route was used only once and only by a few, there was little impact on the land. A substantial portion of the route was over snow which left no impact at all. Because they carried little with them, they didn’t have artifacts to lose to leave behind for future generations to find. They did not keep diaries, except for Eddy’s abbreviated notes, because they were desperate and interested in survival, not plotting a route.
The Forlorn Hope did relate the horror of their more than four-week journey in contemporary interviews, but those reports are all second-hand and things get lost in translation. Finally, one must consider human nature. The group had just been through the most horrific experiences watching family members die and being relegated to eat human flesh, one of the greatest of civilized taboos. They could be reviled for that. One can imagine that as they realized they were safe, and as they were beginning to tell their stories, they must have made some pacts keep some things back; they had reputations in a new land to make. It would be hard to bear the opprobrium that would accompany accusations of cannibalism. We can only imagine the conversations those seven survivors had as they recovered and the rescue missions were organized. If some things were kept back, then the reports made from the interviews will have less to guide modern investigators.
Those are all problems in figuring out the route of the Forlorn Hope which was lost a good portion of the time, knew none of the landmarks, and sketched no maps. How did our team, the Forlorn Hope reprise of 2020, estimate what their route should be?
Our explorers, Bob Crowley, Tim Twietmeyer, Jennifer Hemmen, developed their route after an immense amount of research. It was a journey that was seven years of research for some of them. They assembled a library of accounts, listed here. With that basic knowledge they headed out into the field, making dozens of exploratory trips to spot the major points the original accounts listed: where the fateful wrong turn into the North Fork American River Canyon was made, where the climb was so steep they had to pull themselves up by roots, where they could view the Central Valley from a ridge top, where Charles Stanton died, and where maybe, the Native American settlements were.
Matching the secondary source information from original interviews to actual geography turned up inconsistencies among sources about geography and pointed out obvious impossibilities. Trips into the field noted clear errors by modern authors. Our 2020 group also researched the weather at the time, the phases of the moon and the time of year. They tried to factor in hunger and exhaustion. Then they used common sense and let the land take them.
The original Forlorn Hope was exhausted every day and starving almost every day. They were cold and wet, inside from perspiration and outside from rain and snow. They got frostbite. They were miserable and some were dying. They had no maps and no knowledge of the geography. In that context, facing those extremes, faced with choices, they made decisions on their route. For our team, trying to match their 2020 route to the 1846 route, decisions also had to be made with no forensic evidence. Here they let themselves be guided by the land making the best guesses among many possibilities while trying to put themselves in the place of those long-ago pioneers.