Expedition Findings Rationale
Our primary goal is to discover the best of our abilities, the trail of the 1st Relief Party from the east Johnson Ranchero (Wheatland, CA) to the east edge of Donner Lake ~95 miles east and then reprise the entire journey as an expedition team of four, commemorating the 175th anniversary of the rescue of the Donner Party.
Research of the 1st Relief Party trail presents several obstacles of note:
- No forensic evidence
- Class 5 Approximate Trail (trail is obliterated or unverifiable that its location is known only approximately)
- Minimal primary sources (diaries, journals, survivor accounts)
- Historical revisionism –
1. Unconscious (clouded memory, distressed state, unfamiliar territory [lost]) and
2. Conscious (protecting one’s reputation, uncomfortable topics [i.e. cannibalism] which resulted in murky recounting of the journey by survivors)
- Sensationalism, historical fiction with expanded liberties taken on the ‘imaginative reconstruction’ of historical events and personages for reasons of self-aggrandizement, article or book sales, ego, etc.
- Challenging accessibility to postulated route(s) due to rugged wilderness, disruptions (roads, pipelines, railroads, mining, forestry, dams and reservoirs, buildings, fires, etc.) and inability to traverse private lands
We have relied foremost upon extensive in-the-field surveying and first-hand observation, putting ourselves in the place of the pioneer, as Olive Newell stated, “the emigrant experience.” We have taken into consideration not just the landscape, but the mitigating conditions that would alter one’s path;
- being on foot (opposed to with wagon or horse),
- impact of snow on covering trails and altering and flattening terrain,
- weather, daylight, moonlight,
- terrain (steepness, density of forest, rocks, boulders, proximity to water and game (to hunt),
- vegetation growth,
- vistas (for unobstructed broad views, covering (slippery, mud, snow),
- physical, mental and emotional debilitation which undoubtedly mitigated one’s ability to think and act logically at times.
We complement our field work with rigorous research utilizing primary sources and credible secondary sources based upon persistent attention to details and unadorned facts, thoroughly researched printed histories, digital sites and a preponderance of related resources and links. A full bibliography accompanies this document in Appendix A.
We’ve applied trail discovery methodology and research tools similar to that of Don Wiggins, noted trail researcher and member of the Oregon California Trail Association (OCTA) since1989. Wiggins’ research process is described as, “…gathering as many emigrant diary accounts as possible that described in any way the trail segments being investigated. …Then he would identify similarities and discrepancies among the various descriptions, arranging them – really, as clues – in some kind of sequential order that would reveal the course, direction, and location of the trail segment under investigation. Taking these eyewitness clues into the field showed Wiggins where to look for trail remains, topographic features, and route directions.”
We also adhere to the research principles found in the OCTA Mapping Emigrant Trails Manual (MET Manual) including: “the closer in time the evidence is in relation to the trail under investigation, the more reliable that evidence becomes.” Thus, the prioritization of emigrant diaries and eyewitness accounts of trail location, over all other types of later trail evidence.With all of the above said, there is one major difference between trail research for wagon trains and those on foot: the hiker will follow the path of least resistance and exertion while maintaining a proper bearing towards the destination. And when lost, this premise becomes precedence. Therefore, although we have tried to utilize many of the methodologies and techniques offered in the MET Manual, we remained steadfast to applying common sense and the path of least resistance when encountering vague or conflicting facts.
A key takeaway of our seven-year project is that understanding the land must be equal to appreciating the word. We therefore, endeavored to spend as much time as possible in the field, treading upon the ground, seeing the landmarks, experiencing the conditions and observing the views of the Forlorn Hope. Nature never misleads, the landscape remains true and it remains in the eye of the beholder to imagine the beauty – and horror – that the Forlorn Hope must have experienced.
These are our research tenets:
1. Always presume you’re wrong.
2. Accept nothing as the whole truth or fact.
3. Be thorough, detailed, then thorough again.
4. Behaviors and routes of those on foot differ greatly from those with wheels or hoofs.
5. Snow is a game changer: no trail to follow, flattens landscape features.
6. Understanding the land must be equal to appreciating the word.
7. Remain steadfast to applying common sense and the path of least resistance when encountering vague or conflicting facts, especially if the party(s) in question were lost.
In summary, through the task of trail discovery, we have become enamored with the souls of the the Relief Parties; their history, characteristics, behaviors and motivations. Thus, our research expanded well beyond the deep body of work pertaining to the Donner Party to include genealogy, anthropology, archeology, psychology, entomology and culture. This is reflected in the bibliography attached.
We commenced field research in 2013, after reading Daniel James Brown’s The Indifferent Stars Above published in 2009. The intrigue of mutually combining our sport of ultra-endurance trail running with our passion for American history was irresistible. We quickly began seeking additional novels about the Donner Party, with particular interest in the Forlorn Hope and then the various Relief Parties.
When schedules allowed, we would venture into the field to see in person the trails which captivated us from our reading. Soon we realized our passion was becoming a bit of an obsession – and a project was hatched: discover the 1st Relief Party trail, and then completing the entire journey ourselves in the winter, to honor and commemorate this distinctive feat of survival and endurance. We will depart from the Johnson Ranchero on February 14th and arrive at the east edge of Donner Lake on February 18th, 2022, the 175th anniversary of the 1st Relief arrival.
After years of consuming most of the well-known and respected historical fictional novels and first-person accounts on the topic, we turned to creating a spreadsheet with trail clues in the form of terrain, notable landmarks, places of interest, etc.. This enabled us to compare and contrast various accounts of the 1st Relief’s daily movements across the 14-day journey. It became apparent immediately that these resources did not agree on several critical factors including mileage, weather, timing of locations, purported route, key events and terrain.
We took to thoroughly researching and then headed to the field to investigate the feasibility of each thesis. Over and over we found solace in “seeing is believing” – or not. The majority of the options fell apart once extracted from the page (or satellite imagery or topographic maps) and witnessed first-hand by attempting to retrace the purported route.
In some cases, the postulated route was easily debunked by simply seeing the impracticable likelihood anyone – in tremendous fitness or distress – would dare venture following these courses. It made absolutely no sense. We became more and more confident in and reliant upon our own experience and common sense: when on foot, one will take the path of least resistance and/or easiest route while maintaining the bearing to the destination. And when lost, this premise becomes precedence.
We narrowed each conflicting set of possible route segments down to two final most likely candidates. Then we’d return to the research digging for additional clues that might sustain either path. Then back to the field for another look, sometimes in different conditions (i.e. snow) since the landscape transforms itself when blanketing with deep snow. Some otherwise obstacles such as rivers and streams become easily passable while other challenges emerge on steep slopes and the speed one can propel oneself. In addition, navigation significantly changes as the white snow flattens the terrain’s contours and blinds the eyes.
To illustrate the application of field surveying to validate, or in some cases debunk secondary sources, below are a couple of examples of the latter we implemented during our initial research for the Forlorn Hope Expedition.
Example #1 – Debunk
In Saving the Donner Party and Forlorn Hope by Richard Kaufman, PhD (2014), in Chapter 9, on pg. 81 Kaufman states:
On December 30th they started down the canyon past the confluence of the East Fork of the American at Euchre Bar, and arriving at the huge cliffs of Giant Gap. Night comes early in the mountain canyons, and they had made only four miles with foot wraps over frost bitten feet, but the slushy ice indicated that they were descending to a lower altitude and warmer temperature. The following day on the 31st they traveled six more miles down the river trail.
Parsing from the previous paragraph, there are several issues:
- “On December 30th…”: Numerous primary sources indicate the remaining ten members of the Forlorn Hope did not reach the shore of the North Fork of the American River until January 1, 1847 (not December 30th)
- “…they started down the canyon…”: this infers there is a trail along the North Fork of the American River all the way to Giant Gap which is several miles downstream. There is no such trail. We have been up and down that portion of the North Fork of the American River on the east and west sides and can report a) there is only a trail between Humbug Bar and Euchre Bar which was constructed after the Forlorn Hope had passed for mining ,b) downstream from Euchre Bar there is nothing but sheer rock cliffs and rapids, no trail, c)no one could have tried to bushwhack as the terrain is too steep and treacherous, d) besides, numerous primary accounts indicate the party ascended the eastern slopes of the North Fork of the American River, reaching the canyon edge by day’s end; which is located along the Foresthill Divide at today’s Elliot Ranch Road.
“…past the confluence of the East Fork of the American at Euchre Bar…”: There is no “East Fork of the American River”. There is the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork of the American River which flows into the North Fork of the North Fork of the American River several miles north and east of Euchre Bar on the North Fork of the American River. Therefore, there is no such place where the EFNFNFAR meets the NFAR. To further compound the error, Kaufman mislabels the North Fork American River as “East Fork American River” in the map within the book on pg. 78 and shown below (which also shows an impossible location for Camp of Death):
- “…arriving at the huge cliffs of Giant Gap.”: Giant Gap isn’t a cliff but an imposing ridge that emerges from the canyon floor and angles sharply east and up some 2,000’ above. The “Giant Gap” refers to the more prominent feature which is the gulch to the east of the ridge (called Giant Gap Gulch).
- “Night comes early in the mountain canyons…”: at this time of year (January 1st) the days are short everywhere; there’s nothing specific about being in the canyon because the sun is traversing so low in the southern sky, thus already setting by the time the west ridge of the canyon would block the light. On January 1, 1847 the sunset was 5:02pm, 8 minutes longer than the shortest daylight day of the year, December 20th.
- “The following day on the 31st they traveled six more miles down the river trail.”: As stated earlier, the date is incorrect, there is no river trail and it is highly unlikely they would have traveled six miles in a day given their physical and mental condition at the time (which Kaufman points out by saying, “…with foot wraps over frost bitten feet…”).
It can be seen from above this is an example of multiple erroneous facts in a single paragraph. Without diligent field surveying in this area, it may have been assumed these facts were all indeed correct, which would have drastically changed the timeline, whereabouts and Forlorn Hope Trail.
Example #2 – Confirm
In Ordeal by Hunger, George R. Stewart (1936, revised 1960), in Chapter XV, on pg. 149 Stewart states:
On that day, the last of the year, they were following down a great ridge. The side-slope, covered with snow, was steep and dangerous, and so working gradually along and crossing side-ravines, they probably without much climbing got to the top of the ridge. On either side a great canyon lay; there was no way but straight ahead southwestward along the narrow crest. Then suddenly they had a view. Instead of seeing only more mountains they looked ahead down a long reach of the gorge to distant ridges standing out darkly, not snow-covered, and then beyond the ridges through the clear, wintry air they saw—at last—a broad plain, stretching off green and flat. No mountain meadow that! It could be nothing but the long-sought valley of the Sacramento.
Stewart makes a detailed, logical and ultimately convincing case as to why he believed the Forlorn Hope became lost at the west end of Six Mile Valley and began to follow the gently southeastern sloping terrain of the North Fork of the North Fork of the American River. Ultimately this leads them to Sawtooth Ridge beyond Burnett Canyon and it is there they catch their first glimpse of what they’d been hoping to see for 15 days: “the long-sought valley of the Sacramento.”
We have spent significant man days across hundreds of miles the eastern and western portions of the North Fork of the American River canyon, Six Mile Valley, Burnett Canyon, North Fork of the North Fork American River, Sawtooth Ridge and Blue Canyon. What is key here is the “glimpse” the party had of the lush and green Sacramento Valley, giving them both hope and despair (because it was still so far away). Because of the numerous terrain obstacles and the snaking direction of the North Fork American River, there are very few places to actually catch a glimpse of this remarkable sight. And the most logical place is at a certain spot along Sawtooth Ridge – which would have been accessed via Burnett Canyon.
Stewart knew this because he himself visited the area several times to perform field surveying.
The photo above is that critical view captured during one of our field survey trips.
Although we accessed as many maps concerning the Donner Party and Overland Trail as possible, the 1st Relief would have followed a route to the Lake following the conventional Overland Trail route backwards. However, because of the rain which produced sloppy mud and dangerous river crossings and then the 100 year snow which made scaling the canyon walls impossible with 50 pound packs, the 1st Relief decided to stay low and follow the Yuba River all the way to Yuba Bottoms (near today’s Troy Road). Thereafter, they followed the traditional Overland Trail to the Summit Valley and up and over Donner Pass to the Lake.
Map credit: Bob Crowley and Tim Twietmeyer
Again, we were tracing the steps of those on foot, rather than the wheels of those with wagons – or for that matter even with horses.
Notable maps we utilized included Charles Graydon’s Trail of the First Wagons Over the Sierra Nevada, 1986 and subsequent revised releases, with USGS topographic maps and photographs and diary accounts to verify the trail location.
We also utilized several digital maps provided by members of OCTA and the BLM.
T. H. Jefferson, Map of the Emigrant Road – Independence, Missouri to San Francisco, California, 1849
A.L. Kroeber, 1925 – Handbook of the Indians of California, which provided detailed insight into the likely locations of the several Nisenan (Maidu) settlements located along the Bear River between Colfax and Wheatland, CA – which the Forlorn Hope would have stayed and been provided food and guides to complete their journey.
Dr. Earl Rhoads, Maps of Emigrant Trail, Verdi, Nevada to Summit Valley, Cal. as marked and traced by P.M. Weddell of San Jose 1920-1952.
Daniel M. Rosen, Donner Party Diary
John H. Skinner, Forest Supervisor, USDA, Forest Service, Final Environmental Impact Statement, Sugar Bowl Ski Resort Master Plan, Tahoe National Forest, 1992
John and Richard Steed, The Donner Party Rescue Site, (Johnson’s Ranch) 1991, updated 1994
Russell Towle, North Fork of the American River blog, 2000-2008
Trails West, Inc. Truckee Trail & Nevada City Road Driving Guide, From Humboldt Bar, Nevada to Johnson’s Ranch, California
Peter M. Weddell, Donner Summit Historical Society, Map of Historical Emigrant Trail, The Pony Express Magazine, 1849
The 1st Relief trail was a “one-and-done” experience. No one, to our knowledge, has ever tried to discover or retrace the trail they created. Why would they? The 1st Relief used this trail once due to extenuating circumstances with weather and their heavy load.
Therefore, there is a dearth of primary sources available. The 1st Relief consisted of fourteen members, seven of which went back or eventually dropped, and of the remaining seven made it to the Lake: all men, all with no family members back the Truckee (Donner) Lake encampment which made their mission even more extraordinary.
William H. Eddy, one of the two male survivors kept an abridged diary, but provides scant details and clues pertaining to distance, whereabouts and landscape. Patrick Breen maintained a terse daily journal while trapped at the encampment at Truckee Lake, which was modestly helpful in providing weather conditions and a few details during the days leading up to and during the Relief Party activities. It also gave us some context for the existing relationships amongst the Donner Party and Relief Party members.
There were several other diaries and first-hand accounts by several Relief Party members and those that observed and supported the relief efforts.
Other Donner Party survivors who provided diaries, journals, interviews, letters, reflections or contributions to future books about the history of the Donner Party were also utilized to create a richer portrait of the characteristics of the Relief Party members.
John Sinclair, Alcalde of Northern California, wrote a statement in February, 1847, based on “several conversations” with the Forlorn Hope survivors and “from a few notes handed me by W. H. Eddy”. Sinclair’s statement was first published in Edwin Bryant’s What I Saw in California (1848).
J. Quinn Thornton utilized Eddy’s notes, supplemented by interviews and Breen’s diary, to write Oregon and California in 1848 (1849).
C.F. McGlashan’s History of the Donner Party (1881) provided solid insight into many of the Donner Party survivors, albeit ascertained with some quid pro quo to ensure history treated the interviewees kindly. It should be noted that McGlashan’s work was published 34 years after the incident, challenging the memory of the many survivors interviewed.
James Reed included a synopsis of the journal of Wm. H. Eddy in notes he provided to J.H. Merryman for the article Of a Company of Emigrants in the Mountains of California printed in the Illinois Journal on December 9, 1847.
We provide a complete bibliography of all the sources we have referenced over the years in Appendix A. Our primary focus has been upon materials pertaining to the Relief Parties. This creates a much shorter list of prospective sources given the relative obscurity of the Relief Parties compared to the Donner Party.
However, as our project progressed, we became increasingly intrigued with the intrepid members of the Relief Parties. Our amazement and awe for selfless acts is beyond words. For context, we have collectively participated in over 500 endurance events over the decades, on nearly every continent on some of the most grueling courses; many self-declared “the most difficult race in the world”. But after witnessing first-hand the terrain, conditions and relating to the 1st Relief, we have concluded these were amazing humans.
We revel in their perseverance, endurance, toughness, passion and grit… focusing on the motivation, ruggedness and resilience of these ‘normal’ people who accomplished extraordinary feats and who embodied the core characteristics and tenets that became the backbone of America.
Our secondary research therefore, covers the landscape from traditional historical and academia, through scientific and medical findings, genealogy, anthropology, archeology, psychology, entomology and culture.
Dan Rosen, also aforementioned (see footnote 13) has been a tremendous resource and supporter throughout our journey. Dan has given us his time, insight and encouragement to keep on keeping, even when we felt overwhelmed and discouraged. We extend our highest praise and gratitude to this gentleman and Donner scholar.
Kristin Johnson and her wonderful The New Light on the Donner Party website and subsequent Donner Blog combined with her book, Unfortunate Emigrants all were constant sources of thorough, factual, well organized and broad topics pertaining to the Donner Party and Relief Parties.
George Stewarthas emerged as our most trusted secondary source. His attention to minute details and logical reasoning has earned our gratitude and respect. Although even Mr. Stewart had the rare mistake or inaccuracy, overall, he was solid as the granite atop Donner Pass.
Historical revisionism has always existed. The Relief Parties are no exception. Re-interpreting a historical account, either through opinion or bias or for self-aggrandizement occurs endlessly. We witness this phenomenon every hour of the day in 2021.
Part of our challenge was to “sort the wheat from chaff” and rely upon resources that exhibited thoroughness, substantiated facts and consistent and sustained logic. Several times we encountered seemingly reliable resources that depreciated in quality in the latter or less exciting chapters. Thus, several times we have elected to pick and choose facts from the most reliable sources for that particular section of the trail, blending that input into our own final determination and assessment.
The trail we have identified is indeed our own unique interpretation and best effort to trace the 1st Relief’s footsteps.
We will publish a fully digital map in .gpx and .kml formats, capable of being ingested by virtually any gps application and overlaid upon dozens of map layers. Indeed, we have utilized several layers for research and display including a 1900 historic topo and a wonderful map provided by Keith Pattison of a period 1890 overlay map.
This map will include waypoints for the location of each night’s campsite, key incidents and notable landmarks.
We will also generate a separate map which will depict the route we will follow during our planned expedition starting on February 14th from Johnson Ranch. The route will be similar to the actual proposed 1st Relief trail, but because of modern day obstacles, we will have to deviate in places to reach Donner Lake.
As we move across the land, we will be carrying tribute cards with the photos and biographies of each Relief Party member. In the evening we will take time to discuss and reflect on these extraordinary people.
Last, we will prepare an audio-visual presentation summarizing our project and expedition.
Day By Day Timeline
We will create an interactive 3D timeline containing key details for each day of the Relief Parties journey. This tool enables users to see data such as weather, hours of daylight, moon phases, etc., start and end location, location of each evening camp, mileage covered, important incidents and in-depth rationale from several primary and reliable secondary sources.
It will be available in early 2022 and the link posted here as well as elsewhere on this website and our Facebook page.
 The trail classification scheme was an integral part of OCTA’s Mapping Emigrant Trails Manual (MET Manual) that was introduced in a Preliminary Edition of 1991. The MET Manual also established research principles, methods, and guidelines for locating and verifying emigrant wagon trails. It would go through four more revised editions until a complete expansion in the current Fifth Edition of 2014.
 Newell, Olive, Tail of the Elephant: The Emigrant Experience on the Truckee Route of the California Trail, 1844-1852 (California Sesquicentennial Publication) 1st Edition, Nevada County Historical, 1997
 OCTA Overland Journal, Summer 2018, “in the Post-Weddell Era of California”, Buck, Donald E., p. 55
 Author’s Note: Field Research is defined for purposes of this document as first-person observation, witness, trekking, recording (notes, photographs, video, drawings
 Kaufman, Richard F. PhD, Saving the Donner Party and Forlorn Hope, Archway Publishing, 2014.
 Stewart, George R., Ordeal by Hunger, University of Nebraska Press, 1960, first published in 1936; 1960 edition contains a reconciliation of Stewart’s theories with the Miller-Reed diary and other materials not available in 1936. It also contains transcripts of Patrick Breen’s diary and Virginia Reed’s 1847 letter.
 Graydon, Charles K., Trail of the First Wagons Over the Sierra Nevada, The Patrice Press, 1986
 Rhoads, Dr. Earl, Maps of Emigrant Trail, Verdi, Nevada to Summit Valley, Cal. as marked and traced by P.M. Weddell of San Jose 1920-1952, addendum to Tahoe National forest (N.F.) Sugar Bowl Ski Resort Master Plan
 Steed, Jack and Richard, The Donner Party Rescue Site, published by the authors, 1991; the 1994 edition is updated with additional maps and information.
 William Eddy’s “diary” were a set of scribbled notes which he shared along with oral recounting with John Sinclair soon after arriving at Johnson’s Ranch on January 17th, 1847.
 Bryant, Edwin, What I Saw in California, Kristin Johnson’s New Light On The Donner Party Site, 1985, originally published by D. Appleton & Company, 1848; includes Sinclair’s statement based on Eddy’s journal, and an early transcription of Breen’s Diary.
 Thornton, J. Quinn, Oregon and California in 1848, Harper Brothers, 1849
 Reed, James Frazier, The Journal of James Frazier Reed, July 31-October 4, 1846, Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1/4, West From Fort Bridger (January, April, July, October, 1951), pp. 186-223, University of Illinois Press
 Johnson, Kristin, ed., Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party, Utah State University Press, 1996; includes 1871 articles by Reed and McCutchen, William Graves’ 1877, Virginia Reed’s Century Magazine, Eliza Farnham’s 1856 and Thornton’s chapters related to the Donners. Annotated with reference to Morgan, Stewart and other authorities. Avaliable online.
 Stewart, George R., Ordeal by Hunger, University of Nebraska Press, 1960, first published in 1936; 1960 edition contains a reconciliation of Stewart’s theories with the Miller-Reed diary and other materials not available in 1936. It also contains transcripts of Patrick Breen’s diary and Virginia Reed’s 1847 letter and Stewart, George R., The California Trail, University of Nebraska Press, 1962.