On the second day of their voyage through the punishing Sierra mountain range in December 2020, the four team members of the Forlorn Hope Expedition woke to find six inches of snow had fallen on their tents and was still falling. They made oatmeal on their camp stoves and hustled to get moving. The previous day, they had covered ground that a group of pioneers in the winter of 1846–47 had needed a week to accomplish—and they would ultimately traverse 100 miles in five days, versus the 33 days it took the pioneers to go the same distance. Both parties departed from the east end of Donner Lake on Dec. 16, with 174 years between them. The difference? Parkas, plenty of daily calories, tents, state-of-the-art snowshoes. And, most importantly, a researched path.
“This is not a re-creation or re-enactment,” says Bob Crowley, a member of the 2020 expedition. “It’s a reprise. Our main thrust is to honor those ordinary people looking for a better life in California, who suffered from bad luck and bad karma.”
The original Forlorn Hope members had set out from the larger Donner Party—a group of emigrants traveling from the Midwest to California across rugged terrain—in a desperate bid to get to shelter and food at Johnson’s Ranch (in what is now Wheatland). The ranch was then the largest outpost between Fort Bridger in what is now Wyoming and Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento.
Harrowing details abound of that band of 17—the youngest only 12 years old—who traveled with nothing but what they could carry. The sole person who knew the way out, Charles Stanton, succumbed to snow blindness and exhaustion. He sat to smoke his pipe, never again rising. When going forward seemed impossible for the 1800s emigrants, thoughts of those left behind, starving, proved inspirational. “Mary Graves said she couldn’t go back to hear the cries of her little brothers and sisters,” says Kristin Johnson, Donner Party historian and author. “She sort of reminded everybody of what they were doing this for.” For 36 hours, huddled under a dome of blankets, the emigrants sat through a blizzard. They drew lots to kill someone for food but couldn’t bear to follow through. Af`ter six days without food, they turned to the bodies of four who had perished, weeping as they ate. Later on the way, William Foster suggested murdering Luis and Salvador, two Native Americans from Sutter’s Fort pressed into service as rescuers, for food. Tipped off, Luis and Salvador escaped in the night but were tracked by their bloody footprints and shot. Only seven survivors made it to Johnson’s Ranch, assisted by Nisenan Native Americans in the final stretch.
Crowley and fellow 2020 expeditioner Tim Twietmeyer sleuthed for seven years to determine the pioneers’ steps, combining a love of history and trail running. (All four participants in the 2020 expedition are ultra-distance athletes.) “We assumed there was a map,” Crowley says. “But there didn’t appear to be anybody who knew where they went.”
The two created a spreadsheet for each day of the earlier trip, looking at contrasting accounts of the trail. As an ultrarunner, Crowley knows what it’s like to hallucinate from exhaustion and posited that the trekkers would have always chosen the path of least resistance: downhill, including a wrong turn that cost them days. Crowley believes his and Twietmeyer’s course is 85% accurate.
One reason it’s hard to retrace a route with 100% accuracy is that the 1846–47 route was on snow that then melted. But people have made efforts to reconstitute the route, as well as that of the larger Donner Party. In the 1920s, amateur historian Peter Weddell mapped and marked the Emigrant Trail with wooden signs, most of which are now gone. In the 1940s, trails enthusiast Wendell Robie nailed signs to trees while on horseback. “They’re so danged high nobody took them down,” says Crowley. Others have been erected by local groups.
However, not all signs are trustworthy. One purports to mark where Charles Stanton sat down for that last draw on his pipe. “No one has claimed it,” says Crowley, perhaps because it’s incorrectly placed. Nonetheless, the 2020 expedition paused there to read a poem Stanton wrote his deceased mother.
Johnson’s Ranch—the group’s final stop, which saw 100 wagons in 1849—is itself a transitory marker. The remote ranch, which sits on private land, is slated to become a housing development. Bill Holmes, project manager at the Wheatland Historical Society, Trails West and Oregon-California Trails Association, hopes that at least its historic sites can be preserved. Those include the location of the adobe where the original Forlorn Hope received first aid, the Bear River crossing, a hotel site, remains of Camp Far West—a military outpost created to protect Gold Rushers —and its cemetery, and two miles of wagon train ruts. The ranch and hotel sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s important to hold onto these precious few pieces of the original emigrant trail that exist,” says Holmes.
Over the years, he and interested buddies Bart Johnson and Joe Waggershauser have hired archaeologists, brought out cadaver dogs and engaged a master’s student to design interpretive panels. Holmes works with the National Park Service and the National Forest Service to ensure they know where the landmarks are, “but there’s lots of turnover,” he says. A guerrilla historian, Holmes cut up a redwood table to create signs that he installed at Johnson’s Ranch—without permission. “When we put up these signs, we’re kind of sending a signal: ‘We’ve got your signs up; where’s your road?’” He designed a public access road, parking lot and one-mile trail connecting the sites that could be established if the ranch owner agrees. “So far he hasn’t said no,” says Holmes.
Like their predecessors, the modern expedition faced trouble. Landowners reneged on access, leaving them homeless one night until they placed frantic phone calls. Falling snow soaked their clothes, “a little hint” of what the prior folks endured, says Crowley.
For Twietmeyer, the worst obstacle was whitethorn—“a miserable shrub with thorns.” It grows after fire, and it caught their snowshoes and tripped them. “Every 10 minutes, we’d hear [fellow expedition member Elke Reimer] yell, ‘Man down!’” he says. Bison and cows chased them, a circumstance the starving 1800s party would have welcomed.
Fording the American River mid-thigh in icy water made Reimer think of her historic counterparts in petticoats, musing, “Are you going to strip down to nothing to have dry clothes on the other side, or deal with freezing clothes so heavy and cold?” She battled toe cramps and heel blisters, but she notes that the first trekkers’ footwear actually disintegrated. “We thought of them the whole way.”
The 2020 group carried tribute cards with an image and biography of each Forlorn Hope emigrant. At Johnson’s Ranch, they laid them on the ground at the adobe site, constituting a reunion of sorts for the people who never returned. “We felt a presence with us and a responsibility to finish the mission,” Crowley says.
Descendants of almost every survivor have contacted them. Crowley hopes the expedition website, forlornhope.org, can forge further connections.
The team took an approach to the Donner Party that is empathetic rather than ghoulish, and reprising the route provided some insight into the horrors the 19th-century travelers encountered. As 2020 expedition member Jennifer Walker Hemmen says, “Until you lie down in the snow in cotton and wool, there’s no way to understand.”
Erika Mailman is a historical novelist and freelance writer.