What can the Forlorn Hope Expedition teach us? There are differences between the Forlorn Hope Expedition of 2020 and the Forlorn Hope of the Donner Party in 1846. The four members of the Expedition are superbly trained athletes with years of experience running in similar terrain and with years of research and scouting to learn the route. Most of the seventeen members of the Donner Party were from farm families with no experience in mountain travel and almost no knowledge of the route and surrounding terrain. When one of them saw the pass they needed to cross, above, he turned back. The others pressed on.

The Expedition will be in the same geographical position as the Forlorn Hope. They will walk through the same valleys and on the same ridges. They will see the same forests and peaks, experience the same cold and snow. When they are west of Sixmile Valley they will see some ridges to the west and gentler terrain to the south. It was here that the Forlorn Hope made a fateful decision after losing their guide Charles Stanton.

Knowing that the route to Johnson’s Ranch follows a river that heads southwest, how easy would it be to head southerly too soon? By being in the same position as the Forlorn Hope, the Expedition can better understand the Forlorn Hope’s decision, especially if they don’t look at their GPS.

This ability to put yourself in the same position as people from history is a key factor in truly learning from history. No, the members of the Expedition, and those who follow them online, are not likely to find themselves 100 miles from safety with no food and no guide. But every one of us is likely to find ourselves in a risky situation where an understanding of the Forlorn Hope might help us make a better decision.

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For over 25 years since I first posted daily diary entries from the Donner Party (www.donnerpartydiary.com), I have received questions from readers asking what caused the Donner Party tragedy. I often referred them to specific diary entries and other first-hand accounts so they could make up their own minds and hopefully learn a lesson.

For example, the Forlorn Hope was guided by the sun according to William Eddy as reported by J. Quinn Thornton. Why not a compass? There are some telling documents. On December 9, 1846, Charles Stanton wrote a letter to George Donner stating that “I should like to get your pocket compass as the snow is so very deep & in the event of a storm it would be invaluable.” 

Who carried the letter and did they get the compass? Patrick Breen’s diary entry for December 17, the day after the Forlorn Hope Party left the lake cabins, provides a clue:  “Milt. & Noah went to Donnor 8 days since and not returned yet, thinks they got lost in the snow.” (Milt Elliott was a teamster for the Reeds and Noah James was a teamster for the Donners.)

Would the Forlorn Hope have suffered less if Milt and Noah had returned with the compass before the Forlorn Hope departed? If the Expedition members face whiteout conditions in a snowstorm could they find their way forward without their GPS, maps and compasses?  What would we do in similar circumstances? Almost every winter I found news reports of people who became lost, trapped by snow and attempted to hike out. Most were rescued, sadly a few perished. Some even had GPS but the software directed them to impassable snow-covered roads.

The turn after Sixmile Valley was just one of many fateful decisions in the Donner Party tragedy. They reached the Sierra at the end of October, a month later than the other emigrants, just as the first heavy snows fell. Three months earlier, why did they follow Lansford Hastings over his cutoff instead of following the established wagon road along the Snake River? The trip from Independence to South Pass had already been long and difficult. They were among the last wagons on the trail. Hastings was a known expert on California, he had written a book describing its virtues. He had sent a letter to the emigrants on the trail offering to guide them over his shorter route and he set out with about sixty wagons. If we were in the Donner Party’s position, would we follow Hastings over a new route? If we come to an exit on a highway leading to a road we don’t know, will we trust our GPS?

Thirteen-year-old survivor Virginia Reed wrote to her cousin and expressed what she learned on her troubled journey:  “Never take no cutofs and hury along as fast as you can.” We look forward to the lessons we will learn from the Forlorn Hope Expedition.