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Walking in the footsteps of Donner Party rescuers

The group retraced the path taken by Donner Party rescuers 175 years earlier.
Published: Feb. 18, 2022 at 6:40 PM PST
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DONNER MEMORIAL STATE PARK, Calif. (KOLO) - Early Monday morning four extreme athletes, two men, two women, saddled up at the historic Johnson Ranch near Wheatland, California, and set out on a quest, to retrace the path of another group who departed from there on a desperate mission 175 years ago.

That original group had been summoned by a few members of the Donner Party who had managed to make it over the mountains in deep snow to summon help for those they’d left behind, starving, freezing and already dying.

History tells us those first rescuers weren’t sure what they’d find. They were greeted at first by silence, then from beneath a snow-covered shelter--a response ‘Are you from heaven or California?’

Friday, a much different scene as today’s reenactors walked into what is now Donner Memorial State Park, greeted by applause. They had been determined to follow the relief party’s route, all 100 miles, experiencing its challenges first hand. Though they departed in period garb on horses and mules, they had walked almost all the way as the original party had. They had modern gear and the luck of better weather, but the journey was not without its surprises and challenges.

“It ended up to be a lot more treacherous than we expected,” said Elke Reimer, who assumed the identity of Relief Party captain Reason Tucker. “We had to go up a really steep climb, a thousand feet, steep grade, a burn area thick with brush. The footing was very careful and we were thankful just not to get injured.”

Bob Crowley, who has been planning this trip for eight years and was portraying relief party member John Stark, fell injuring his knee on the first day.

“Just like with the relief party we had to sort of find the mettle to persevere and just push on.”

The story of the Donner Party has been told many times, but it often begins and ends with lurid tales of cannibalism. There’s another side, often ignored over those 175 years--and it’s one of heroism--one that these reenactors, having for a few days taken their identities and walked in their footsteps, can now tell from their own experience.

“They’re absolute heroes,” says Reimer. “Going through the horrible weather. Epic snow year. Coming back here and facing what they had to face. To help get these people out. If that’s not heroism, I don’t know what is.”

“We hope we get people interested in it,” says Crowley. “Maybe folks will read a book. Maybe they’ll write a book or make a movie. Whatever it may be, it’s a chance to finally shine a light after 175 years on these remarkable people.”

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