The exact route of the 1847 Donner relief group has been lost to history. After eight years of research by two of the athletes (Bob Crowley and Tim Twietmeyer) – who last year retraced the path of a Donner Party escape group known as the Forlorn Hope – has pinpointed the probable trail through the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada. The group aims to craft a historically-accurate map of the initial Donner Relief Party and explore the multi-dimensional personas of each of the relief members including their histories, characters and motivations.
The route takes them from Johnson Ranch near Wheatland, Calif., on February 14 and ends at Donner Memorial State Park at the Pioneer Monument on February 18.
Several related events are open to the public:
- Thursday, Feb. 17, Donner Ski Ranch, Donner Summit: The four athletes, taking on the personas of four of the rescuers and in period costume, will be part of a panel examining the tragedy at the high camps and the story of the relief efforts. The athletes will be portraying William Eddy, Reason “Dan” Tucker, John Pierce Rhodes and John Stark. Historians and other luminaries will play related characters.
- Friday, Feb. 18, the Pioneer Monument and Museum at Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee, Calif. The four athletes, after having traveled on snowshoes, will arrive at the Pioneer Monument at noon, on the same day the original group reached the entrapped pioneers in 1847. Initial presentation at the Pioneer Monument is open to the public. A presentation/panel discussion with the athletes and historians is scheduled from 2 to 3:30 p.m., but has been sold out.
Media interviews with the athletes may be arranged for Feb. 18 at Donner Lake. More information about the trek and the public events can be found on www.forlornhope.org and on the Donner Relief Expedition’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/371977447411728.
The Doomed Pioneers, 1846-47
The Donner Party was a group of families who left their homes in a wagon train in 1846, bound for an American settlement in California, which was then Mexican territory. The pioneers thought they were facing a four-month, 2,000-mile walk across the continent to a better life in the Promised Land. Instead, a detour on an unproven “shortcut” on the California Trail and early snowstorms in the Sierra Nevada stranded 81 men, women and children at what is now Donner Lake with some left near Alder Creek.
The families were entrapped for four months in the ever-deepening snow and about half died. Many of those left at the lake resorted to cannibalism, eating the human flesh of their companions who had died at the lake, in order to survive. The Forlorn Hope party had to resort to the same thing since neither group had food. The story has become a tragic icon of the nation’s westward expansion but it is more importantly a testament to the heroism of the will to survive and of the men who risked their lives to rescue strangers.
Frank X., Mullen Jr., author of the “Donner Party Chronicles: A Day-by-Day Account of a Doomed Wagon Train,” said the athlete’s research and retracing of the rescuer’s trail is a significant contribution to the history of California. Sensationalism, myths and legends have grown around the story for 175 years, he noted.
“Even this long after those horrific events, we are still learning things that give new insight into the story,” Mullen said. “Researchers locate long-lost documents and archaeologists unearth artifacts. The members of the Donner Relief Expedition 2022 are serving as foot soldiers for historians – they are traveling the paths of the people who made history and seeking the truth on the ground where the long-ago events occurred.”
Details of the route:
The modern relief group includes Bob Crowley, Tim Twietmeyer, Jennifer Hemmen and Elke Reimer. In this year’s Donner Relief Expedition, the two men and two women will travel atop deep snow, slog over muddy drainages and cross raging rivers. They will have to deal with similar conditions that the 1847 rescuers faced, but they will have the advantage of modern outdoor gear.
Bill Oudegeest, a board member of the Donner Summit Historical Society and has worked with the team since their first expedition says, “[The story] is about heroism, tenacity and self-sacrifice – not just for family but also for strangers. It’s about the very best of the human spirit and so the story is an inspiring counterpoint for our cynical time.”
The team will leave Johnson Ranch on Feb. 14, 2022, at 7 a.m. After 30 miles, the trekkers will arrive at the Emigrant Overland Trail in Auburn/Grass Valley. Day 2 has its own challenges as the athletes will hike 25 miles and have to go down Steep Hollow, across a river and up the other side. That’s the spot where the horses of the 1847 relief party were sucked under logs as they crossed the river, nearly drowning some of the rescuers. On Day 3, the team will travel 22 miles in snow shoes to arrive at Rainbow Lodge. Day 4 is another 18 miles to Donner Ski Ranch, just before Donner Pass. The Donner Relief team members will arrive at Donner Memorial State Park at noon on February 18, exactly 175 years after the first seven rescuers arrived at the high camps.
“The project is about the will to survive and bring back those left behind,” Bob Crowley said. “Our team will honor the grit, determination and selflessness of the seven rescue members. It is about people risking their lives to save others.”