Donner Party’s Forlorn Hope reprise
Special to the Sierra Sun
On Jan. 17, 1847 Wm. Eddy, supported by two Native Americans, knocked on the door of a small cabin at Johnson’s Ranch (near today’s Wheatland). Seventeen-year old Harriet Ritchie opened the door and burst into tears at the sight of him. He was emaciated, exhausted and barely alive. The trail of his bloody footprints would enable people to find Eddy’s six companions on the trail behind him. These seven were the only ones who survived the thirty-three day trek across the Sierra in the middle of one of the coldest and wettest winters.
So ended the greatest human endurance feat in history. It set in motion the rescue of the Donner Party survivors at Donner Lake. Most everyone has heard of the Donner Party and the salacious stories of cannibalism and the wrong turns, bad decisions, dissension, mendacity, murder, accident and unbelievable hardship. The story of the Donner Party is also the story of the very best of the human spirit, amazing courage and heroism. Few know the part of the Donner Party story that encompasses the heroic Forlorn Hope party.
The Forlorn Hope party
The lure of new lives, land and opportunities was strong in 1846 and the Donner Party joined in the migration. Mistakes, trouble, evil and bad luck followed along with them so that when they arrived, at what would later be called Donner Lake, on Oct. 31, winter had already set in. They must have been terrified, faced with the immense Sierra looming overhead. Some members of the party tried to get over the pass right away but failed. The snow was too much and people were dispirited and exhausted. They were trapped with little food and no shelter. Some had absolutely nothing, having had to leave their belongings behind in the Nevada desert.
The party hurriedly built shelters but those must have offered little protection against the storms, the cold and the accumulating snow. As the winds howled before the snow fell and almost buried the shelters, the sides must have shaken. All the people inside could do was bury themselves in filthy blankets and pray. Little could any of them know that in a few weeks they’d be trying to eat the cow hides they’d thrown over their shelters. There were escape attempts but they all failed.
Then on the 16th of December 1846 seventeen people made another attempt. The two without crudely made snowshoes turned back leaving fifteen to challenge the Sierra in winter. Four were fathers and three were mothers. They’d left their families behind. How far was it to Sutter’s Fort? They’d been living in the snow for one and a half months and had little shelter and little protection. Now they’d be out in the open with only a few blankets.
Walking on the snow had been hard at the camp at Donner Lake. Now they would have to fight the deep snow for miles each day for days with little rest and little food. Leaving their families they certainly worried about their own children left back at camp and whether they would survive. Could others be trusted to care for them? Could the Forlorn Hope bring back help? The decision to leave a child behind and face starvation was unpalatable but how could one bear not to try to escape and get help in California?
It took thirty-three days and eight deaths before the Forlorn Hope reached California and the so needed help. Their tenacity set the rescue of the Donner Party in motion.
This year, four extreme athletes, Bob Crowley, Tim Twietmeyer, Jennifer Hemmen and Elke Reimer will follow the trail of the Forlorn Hope. It has taken seven years of research, both literary and physically, to ascertain what was the most logical of the misguided and desperate route the 1846 party took. This reprise will be a tribute to the original Forlorn Hope’s story, their courage, perseverance, and their sacrifice as they beat the elements undertaking the greatest endurance feat in history.
The four athletes will be leaving Donner State Park at 7 a.m. on Dec. 16, 174 years after the original event. Their approximately 100-mile route will take them up and over the eastern Sierra at Donner Pass (7,057 feet), across the high chaparral, into and across the daunting North Fork American River canyon and down the foothills to the northern Sacramento Valley. With support, plenty of food, modern equipment, many exploratory trips under their belts and maps, the modern group intends to take five or six days to cover the 100 miles to Johnson’s Ranch. A true combination of extreme sports and history.
To get more information and/or to follow the team, visit http://www.forlornhope.org.
Bill Oudegeest has had a house on Donner Summit for more than forty years. He is a retired public school teacher and administrator and one of the founders of the Donner Summit Historical Society. He writes and edits the Donner Summit Heirloom, has published two books on local history, written a variety of pamphlets and exhibits, leads hikes, and more.
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