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Living history: Walking in a Donner Party relief mission’s footsteps

Published: Feb. 14, 2022 at 7:26 PM PST
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WHEATLAND, Calif. (KOLO) -The Donner Party: It’s a story which has horrified and fascinated people for 175 years. But many don’t know the whole story. Those who do, say it’s also an inspiring story of sacrifice and courage.

Monday four of them left a northern California ranch determined to retell a chapter of that story by living it.

It’s long been the unending source of horror stories and bad jokes about cannibalism. In fact, that judgment began almost immediately in the first feverish accounts of what had happened to a group of pioneer families, caught by early winter storms near a lake that now bears the name of their party.

“All of the horrors that we think of with the Donner Party really was secondary to the bravery and the absolute effort these people made to get here,” says historian and author of donnerpartydiary.com, Dan Rosen, “And the effort they made to keep alive.”

It is true they left late, relied on bad information and--in the end--suffered from a combination of unsteady leadership and bad luck. But Rosen says they did the best they could under the worst circumstances.

“Mothers and fathers keeping their children alive. Families holding together. Strangers going for help and coming back with food. It’s really a good story.”

It’s the search for the full story that brought a group of people to a ranch and walnut orchard outside the northern California town of Wheatland at dawn Monday morning.

Today English walnuts are grown here and someday homes may be built here on the Johnson Ranch. But it contains as much California and American history as any in the west. At the height of the western migration it was its busy terminus, the first civilization after a thousand mile trek from Wyoming. Here on January 17th, 1847, that, the first survivor of what would be called the ‘Forlorn Hope’ party, a group who walked out from the camp, arrived to sound the alarm. People were dying in camps up in the Sierra. The first relief party departed tree weeks later.

Monday morning, four experienced backwoods trekkers, each wearing period costume for the moment and assuming the character of one of the 48 members of the relief parties, left to retrace their steps. Two years ago the same four reenacted the escape of the Forlorn Hope Party. And did it for the same reasons.

“There’s no better way to have history brought to folks than to actually do it,” said reenactor Bob Crowley.

Like the original party, they will soon abandon their horses and mules and continue on foot. They have modern gear and better weather, but it’s not a trip to be taken lightly and that’s the point.

“It becomes pretty emotional at certain points throughout the trip,” says Elke Reimer. “When you realize that certain historical significant places and what they went through there and it just becomes who you are and whatever suffering you’re going through to get through your day.”

“They put themselves in harm’s way,” added Crowley. “They put their lives at risk and they did it because it was the right thing to do.”

If all goes according to plan they will emerge Friday, on the 175th anniversary of when hope arrived at the Donner Party’s camp.

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