Q&A Expedition Team

Q&A Expedition Team

Lead by Bill Oudegeest

Q1: Examples of inconsistencies among sources?

A: Example #1 – Sun December 20th: Sinclair (Eddy’s journal) reports 8 miles travelled this day. Reed’s diary reports 4 miles. Eddy reports Stanton disappearing this day. Reed does not report his disappearance until the next day. Mary Ann Graves reported, On the morning of the fifth day out, poor Stanton sat late by the camp-fire. The party had set off, all but Miss G., and as she turned to follow her father and sister, she asked him if he would soon comeHe replied that he should, and she left him smoking. He never left the desolate fireside. The “fifth day out” is December 20th. This matters greatly because it both determines where Stanton perished (not where the current market sign is located near Cascade Lake) and the distance, timing and circumstances for the next few days which include the fateful mistake to turn ESE down into the slope of the NF of the NF American River verses NW up and over hill towards Emigrant Gap and Bear Valley.

A: Example #2 – Wed December 30th: Dan Rosen, in his DonnerPartyDiary.com quoting Sinclair’s account from Eddy determines, “Four or five miles travel down the canyon from The Camp of Death would have brought the party to near present Giant Gap at the upper end of the Iowa Hill ridge.” That is not possible. The top of the eastern edge of the Foresthill Divide (referred to by Rosen as “Iowa Hill Ridge”) is about 10-11 miles from Camp of Death location on the western side of the NFAR; and “near present Giant Gap” is another 4 miles beyond that. Rosen further states, “Iowa Hill is about 2,900 feet high, and rises 1,500 feet above the east bank of the North Fork of the American River. From there it is possible to see the Sacramento Valley.” We’ve been all over that area and have yet to find a spot where one can clearly see the Sacramento Valley. It is obscured by the mountains on either side of the NFAR as the river bends 90 degrees to the south. 

Additionally, they had yet to cross the North Fork of the American River (they did so on January 1, 1847).  

Thirdly, Thorton gives the date for the first day of travel from The Camp of Death as December 30th, and recounts only one travel day: “They encamped, late in the afternoon, upon the high bank of a very deep canon. From this point they could distinctly see a valley which they believed to be the valley of the Sacramento.” Rosen interpreted this as seeing the Sacramento Valley from a point near Giant Gap and/or Iowa Hill. Problem is they, a) weren’t across the NFAR yet, b) we’ve tried to see the Valley from both “near Giant Gap” and “Iowa Hill”. Given the terrain that would be impossible. Terrain blocks the possible view in both locations (unless you go WAY out of your way to hike the very edge of the NFAR Canyon near Giant Gap to grab a obscured glimpse of the Sacramento Valley), c) Thorton’s timeline is logical and we have confirmed the timing in the field, mileage, terrain and descriptions match our field research AND we actually got a clear and obvious view of the Sacramento Valley after leaving our estimated COD location and climbing out of Burnett Canyon to atop Sawtooth Ridge. << See photo to left.

View of Sacramento Valley from Sawtooth Ridge
Photo: Bob Crowley

Rosen simply was confused by the various accounts which could only be sorted out by physical field surveying and putting the pieces together logically and with sight verification. For the record we LOVE Dan Rosen and he has been an enormous help and supporter all along our project. This example just illustrates that even the best of the best can get tangled up in all the conflicting accounts until one applies logic and physical field verification. Dan is darn right most of the time!

Q2: Obvious impossibilities?

A: See example #2 above. We’ve so many more that contend with where Camp of Death is located, where climb out of NFAR occurred, where they went and how long it took to move along the Foresthill Divide back down to NFAR, where Fosdick died, deer was hunted, Luis and Salvador perished, locations of Nisenan settlements, etc.

Q3: Clear errors by modern authors?

A: There are many examples of factual errors, many explainable if the work was written without in-the-field survey. Again, nothing can substitute for combining the field work with that of historical records and then applying common sense, logic, reasoning to arrive at a rationale. 

Not that either of us are cynics – quite the opposite – but we found that enduring the chipping away at the preponderance of written material available, combined with diligent field work really helped us gain confidence in our conclusions. I guess we make up for our lack of formal training in academia and research with persistence and dogged determination to find answers – skills we’ve acquired over the years in our careers and ultra-distance trail running. 

We are reluctant to “call out” authors – in the spirit of mistakes are made and when those after us discover ours they will treat us (hopefully) with similar kindness ;-).

Q4: Besides the source research, the field trips, what else did you look at besides weather, phases of the moon, time of year?

A: Simple answer: We considered: 

  • Mental state (compromised ability to think logically, process information),  
  • Physical state (starvation, frostbite, injured feet and legs), and
  • Emotional state (fear, despondency, anger, forlorn). 
  • Forward progress in terms of mileage taking into consideration the prior mentioned factors and conditions (deep snow – crusty or softened, any sunlight from which to dead-reckon navigate, steepness and terrain difficulty (i.e. boulders, slippery shale, leaves, pine needles, climbing over obstacles (logs, downed trees, manzanita, white thorn, blackberry bushes, across streams, over snow bridges, tree wells, etc.), 
  • surrounding alternatives (i.e. ravines, gullies, saddles, passes, existing trails (game trail or otherwise), access to resources (water, lumber for fire, shelter from wind/storms, ability to forward or backwards to sight for hoped for (Bear) valley in former, see if Stanton was coming in latter)
  • Common sense and logic – following the easiest, least taxing route, never turning back, always hoping for “reveal” of what they were told to look for around the next bend

A: More detailed answer – A key takeaway of our seven-year project is that understanding the land must be equal to appreciating the word. We therefore, endeavored to spend as much time as possible in the field, treading upon the ground, seeing the landmarks, experiencing the conditions and observing the views of the Forlorn Hope. Nature never misleads, the landscape remains true leading the beholder to imagine the beauty – and horror – that the Forlorn Hope must have experienced. 

The Word: We studied and considered as many sources as possible that shared any clues regarding the Forlorn Hope. This includes: first-hand account diary (Eddy), first-voice accounts (Eddy, MaryAnn Graves, Wm. Foster) told to several sources (Sinclair, Thornton, Bryant, etc.), second-hand diary(s) including Patrick Breen, J.F. Reed, Edwin Bryant, etc., newspaper reports, articles, journal articles, accounts from several first, second, third and fourth relief party members, accounts from several people present at Johnson Ranch upon Forlorn Hope survivors arrival. Then onto dozens of academic papers, novels, historical fictions, edited notes upon prior accounts and diaries, etc. And finally pages upon pages of maps spanning from the mid-1800s to the 21stcentury generated by hand drawing to satellite rendered and everything in-between.

The Field: We began with a rough estimation of the possible routes based upon the above preliminary research. There were several postulated paths, each requiring thorough in-the-field study to determine the feasibility. We broke the Forlorn Hope trail into three distinct categories: 1) confident/well-established, 2) medium/highly likely, 3) WTHK/suspect [WITHK = Who In The Heck Knows!]. Based upon our schedules, availability, weather and degree of difficulty, we took on each section of the trail piece-by-piece. Our goal was to either confirm what had been written/reported prior, or determine flaws in written accounts – thus adding this to the list of “future returns” after we further researched the discrepancies. We returned to these sights, sometimes several times, until convinced we’d eliminated all other possible logical routes. Then we explored the highest likelihood route in detail. 

Camp of Death Site – Burnett Canyon Photo: Bob Crowley

An example of this is our determination of where we believe the Camp of Death is located – or pretty darn close; the precise spot possibly will never be known [unless one day we invite cadaver dogs to come and scour a few square acres near our determined location]. We started with five theoretical routes regarding the possible location based upon the written research. Utilizing maps, several field trips and scrubbing the written accounts by comparing and contrasting and applying the above filters, we slowly eliminated each possible location, narrowing to two. We then did further research both in the word – and field to ultimately conclude we were likely very close. This included coming at the “puzzle” from several aspects and seeing if they all vectored upon the same location (which they remarkably did!).

Factors for the location of Camp of Death considered included:

  1. Primary and secondary descriptions of the location
  2. Mileage reported
  3. Weather recorded, blizzard, high winds, no visibility
  4. Inability to dead reckon (due to weather)
  5. Starvation (4-6 days); Physical condition, weariness, hypothermia, injuries to feet
  6. Emotional state: they were lost, starved, angry, frustrated
  7. Human nature to follow the easiest path; especially given above conditions and circumstances
  8. Terrain in deep (10’-15’) snow
  9. Shelter from winds (leeward side), access to water
  10. Access to dry wood for fire (and mix of green to build fire platform and seasoned dense wood to burn slow and long)
  11. Terrain and sight-lines described surrounding the camp

Taking into account all of the above factors and by process of elimination using on-the-ground field surveying to evaluate up to six other possible routes, we found a place on the western slope of Burnett Canyon, about halfway up the hillside, that fit the criteria very well. 

The accounts of the Camp of Death include several recollections of the fire platform (which unbeknownst to the Party they’d build over a snow bridge on top of the stream) built in the first night burning through the snow beneath and plunging into the stream 15 feet below, thus extinguishing their fire. 

There are few streams within Burnett Canyon (three to be exact). The stream that formed the canyon at the base has cut a sharp and deep “V” with either side of the banks extremely rocky and steep; unsuitable for any place to camp, especially with 14 people. That left two other streams to consider. After extensive field surveying, the only viable stream was to the south on the west bank. It possessed all the necessary characteristics for a possible place to camp for such a large party: flat and large area, over the stream, protected from the wind and storm, easy access to wood, located in a place fairly easy (and logical to be brought to based upon the terrain contours). 

There were other similar locations up and down this stream but none as logical. 

In the next section we show an example of our applied methodology and rationale in the story entitled, “Finding Life at the Camp of Death”.

Q5: Can you give an example of the land leading you or leading you away from what the sources or some sources might indicate was the route?

A: Where The Forlorn Hope went after their fateful error of following the contour of the land SE down the throat of the North Fork of the NF of the American River verses heading NW towards Emigrant Gap and Bear Valley is a good example. When you head out into the field and locate yourself about where it is highly likely they made the “wrong turn”, it is an “aha” moment. As one stands there near Carpenter Flats at the end of Six Mile Valley, the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork of the American River (EFNFNFAR for short ) bends southeast. It cannot help itself since it helped carve the canyons upon which it flows millions of years ago. All the terrain beside the EFNFNFAR wants to tip downward sloping to the east-southeast. It’s much easier to “go with the flow” and follow this subtle, gentle slope downward in the hopes that the purported canyon edge overlooking a deep and steep broad valley is just around the bend. It is possible by then, the Forlorn Hope interpreted the downward slope as not just the easiest way forward, but the logical. They likely had been told by Stanton days before to be on the lookout for the description above and given the weather conditions (white out, no sun, blizzard) and having no guide, starving and afraid, the party would simply take the easiest route that resembled the description. 

And so down they (and you) gently go, mile upon mile, almost unaware that you are entering a trap with no return. They questioned whether to turn back to no avail. They were committed to move onward. And the terrain reciprocates by inducing you further and further into her snare; one of which Tim and I have rarely experience more brutal. Let it be said, it is nasty in the north fork! Beautiful but brutal. And then Mother Nature, has entrapped you, she throws steep, unruly, thick forested, wild canyon after canyon under your feet. 

The above brief description is where we ultimately concluded the Forlorn Hope journeyed. And within the bowels of this devilish place is the Camp of Death. This was after eliminating four other possible routes – all of which were substantiated by several prominent authors, interviewers of the survivors, accounts from survivors and mapmakers.

The research never stops…even in the field! Photo: Bob Crowley

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Bill Holmes

    Your work is commendable. I wish I were in good enough shape to join you on this adventure. I need to have one of you contact me about your finish line at Johnson’s Ranch. I’ll explain when we talk.

    Thank you!
    Bill Holmes

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