Of the 15 who left, seven survived.
While the Donner Party has remained a capstone piece of history for anyone exploring the Truckee/Tahoe region, one of its most captivating, dark, and yet inspiring chapters has been largely overlooked. In the dead of winter 174 years ago, 15 brave souls formed a group called Forlorn Hope and embarked on a 33-day, 100-mile rescue mission through the Sierra Nevada in the frigid cold of a powerful winter to find help for the starving members of the Donner Party.
Storms in October and early November 1846 had blanketed the region in more than 10 feet of snow and the wayward Donner Party travelers were stranded in camps near Truckee. According to the first book ever written about the trek, “It was certain death for all to remain in camp, and yet the first attempt had shown that it was almost equally certain death to attempt to reach the settlements.” In spite of this, the small group set out and combatted deep snow, hypothermia, starvation, macerated feet, frostbite, fatigue, hallucinations, mental and emotional strife, and lost over half their members — all of whom they consumed in complete desperation.
Attempting to put yourself in the footsteps of people so near the brink of sanity and survival is an almost impossible task, but that’s what four endurance athletes — Bob Crowley, Tim Twietmeyer, Jennifer Hemmen, and Elke Reimer — will do this December.
For Crowley and Twietmeyer, what started as a project to add more depth and complexity to their ultrarunning experience became a seven-year obsession with the route taken by Forlorn Hope from Donner Lake to Johnson Ranch in the foothills of the western slope. Their goal was to retrace the exact route taken by the party and commence their own six-day journey on the same day as the original group, Dec. 16. Here’s the crux, though — no living soul knew the route, and it had never been fully documented.
“There’s a reason it’s taken us seven years,” said Crowley, adding they originally assumed that in over 170 years somebody must have mapped out the route. But, nobody had, and all they found were historical snippets here and their hinting at where the path might have gone — most of them in conflict with one another. Through an exhausting process of checking and double-checking every source they could unearth; cooperating with over nine historical societies, state parks, and museums; and even interviewing the descendants of authors like C.F. McGlashan who first wrote about the party, the time-worn trail eventually began to materialize.
Through the scientific method of their research and countless trips into the field to see the terrain for themselves and cross-checking it against historical sources, Twietmeyer and Crowley say they feel confident they have about 85% of the trail dialed in. Unfortunately for them, and far more unfortunate for Forlorn Hope many years before, is that one detail they are 100% certain of: a wrong turn the group made that took them into the canyon of the North Fork American River.
Instead of following the Emigrant Trail closely, down the drainages of the South Fork of the Yuba and Bear rivers, “they [accidentally] dropped into probably one of the steepest river drainages in California,” Twietmeyer said. It was likely this mistake that made the roughly 10-day trip they had anticipated last over a month — and they had started with barely enough food for six days. In stark contrast to the modern luxuries that will be used by the expedition team this year (such as ultra-light snowshoes, Gore-tex, nutrient-packed trail meals), Forlorn Hope set out with some measly scraps of food, homemade snowshoes, and one wool blanket each.
“These guys weren’t training to go 100 miles in 33 days. They were forced into this deal in probably some of the most rugged terrain and weather you could put together, and they’d already been at the lake for six weeks, decaying,” Twietmeyer said.
During their time in the North Fork drainage, making only a few miles a day facing incredible adversity, the group lost its oldest member and instigator of the expedition, Franklin Graves, on Christmas Day. He was followed by four more men who perished due to hypothermia, snow blindness, and exhaustion; and two Miwok guides, Luis and Salvador, whose demise is the subject of some speculation.
“Luis and Salvador died. That, we know,” wrote Crowley in an email to Moonshine Ink. “There is strong speculation that [group member William] Foster found them near death along a [creek] near the Bear River and shot each with a bullet to end their life. Foster never admitted nor was he tried for the act.”
Every member who perished was consumed by the survivors, but even this desperate act was almost not enough to bring the party to salvation. After the group gave up, unknowingly just six miles from rescue, William Henry Eddy, who kept a simple diary throughout the journey, continued on to Johnson Ranch where he found the help that eventually saved the Forlorn Hope party and what remained of the families back at Donner Lake.
“The one thing we’ve loved about this story is that we didn’t think the Forlorn Hope folks got the credit they deserved for saving everybody back at the lake. Had they not made it out, probably all those families would have perished,” Twietmeyer said. He adds that in a cruel twist of fate, Eddy’s wife and daughter passed away within days of each other back at Donner Lake as he was making a final push to the ranch.
After facing incredible suffering, the death of loved ones, starvation, cannibalism, the killing of their guides, and so many other haunting experiences, the survivors of Forlorn Hope were reticent to speak of their ordeal. The first book on their venture wasn’t written until 30 years later, by Truckee editor C.F. McGlashan. For this and other reasons, Crowley says the majority of material written regarding the expedition is suspect and required cross-checking dozens of sources for every single date and event in order to find a reliable narrative. As the events of the group’s journey started to come into view for the runners-turned-historians, so did the personalities of the people themselves.
“We’ve been in their footsteps from time to time; it makes the hair stand up on our arms to think about it,” Crowley said. “We really have shifted from [when] all of our attention was on discovering the trail. All of our attention now is on discovering the people because they are amazing.”
A quote from Mary Graves, also known as the “belle of the Donner Party” and a member of Forlorn Hope, describes some of the motivation the surviving group members found when debating whether to turn back to the lake or follow the Miwok guides further into the mountains. She wrote, “I told [the guides] I would go too, for to go back and hear the cries of hunger from my little brothers and sisters was more than I could stand. I would go as far as I could, let the consequences be what they might.”
The runners will carry “tribute cards,” each with a photo and details commemorating one of the 15 members of Forlorn Hope and use them daily to reflect on the courage of the pioneers. For the expedition members, their run is not a reenactment of the original party’s journey, but a tribute to the group and tenacity of the human spirit and what people will go through to protect each other. To them, even the simple and undisputed fact of who lived and who died speaks volumes — while all but two of the men succumbed during the trek, every one of the five women survived.
“With the exception of Franklin Graves — and he was 58, by far the eldest, and he perished on Christmas Day — all the other people that perished, all the men, had no relatives back at the lake,” Crowley said. “All of the people that survived weren’t only surviving for themselves, they were surviving for their family members.”
The athletes will be starting from Donner Lake on Dec. 16 — follow the journey and see the tribute cards at forlornhope.org.