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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Forlorn Hope Re-enacted

On this day 174 years ago—December 16, 1846—seventeen poorly provisioned people set out across the snow-blanketed Sierra Nevada on makeshift snowshoes to find help. They were members of the Donner Party, a wagon train company that by then, with some additions and losses along the trail, was comprised of 81 men, women and children. Early snowstorms had closed the pass by the end of October, and the company was trapped in the mountains near a small alpine lake. Stuck in sub-zero temperatures with dwindling food supplies, their situation was growing more desperate with each passing day.

On the first day out, December 16, two of the seventeen snow-shoers turned back: a thirty-year-old teamster and an eleven-year-old boy. The remaining fifteen, later named “The Forlorn Hope,” crossed Donner Pass on the second day and trudged on. Given that the distance to the Sacramento Valley was approximately 90 miles, they should have reached safety in about ten days, but the little group got lost in the snowdrifts that covered the peaks and chasms. Thirty-three days after they started, after enduring snowstorms, privations and unspeakable horrors, the group’s leader stumbled below the snow line into Johnson’s Ranch at Bear Valley, 40 miles east of Sutter’s Fort. Only seven of the fifteen were still alive.

Brimming with heroism and villainy, the story of the Donner Party remains the most sensational and haunting in the annals of western migration.

This year, to honor the Forlorn Hope, starting today a team of experienced endurance athletes and winter hikers (history enthusiasts all), are undertaking a never-before attempted, 100-mile winter crossing on foot across the Sierra Nevada from Donner Lake to Wheatland, the former location of Johnson’s Ranch. Their route will take them up and over Donner Pass, into and across the treacherous North Fork American River canyon, and down into the foothills. The team, which anticipates five or six days to complete the expedition, also expects deep snow and frigid temperatures.

Why are they doing this? To better ascertain and map the believed historical route and location of campsites used by the Forlorn Hope, the conditions and obstacles they encountered—and to better appreciate the character and motivations of the individuals who made this desperate trek in 1846. Re-read the Donner Party history and follow the story of the 2020 Forlorn Hope Expedition at

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