In the  Spring of  1846,  87 men, women and children  set  forth from Springfield, Illinois, to make a 2000 mile journey by wagon train to find their  Eden in the West, in California.  The fortunate ones died early, before they ever arrived in Sacramento, yet 42 people did manage  to survive nearly six months trapped high in the  snow-bound Sierra Nevada Mountain range with no food, and little shelter.

This is the story of their love, hope, faith, struggle, and survival.  This is ‘FORLORN HOPE: THE DONNER PARTY MUSICAL’

In memory of the 87 who dared to venture forth into the  unknown to  find their own  Eden of the West, We dedicate to you and to your descendents with tears, and laughter and love, FORLORN  HOPE: THE DONNER PARTY  MUSICAL.


“WESTWARD, HO!  Who wants to go to California?”  Eventually 87 men women and children answered the Springfield Gazette ad, in 1846.  As  the families prepare for their long journey from Illinois, they sing and dream of their own Eden of the West,  ‘WESTWARD,HO!”.

Not happy to be leaving her friends and family, Margaret Reed expresses her fears  about the trip to her husband James. But he reassures her     that Lansford W. Hastings has written the book  “THE EMIGRANTS  GUIDE TO CALIFORNIA AND OREGON” which will guide them safely West.  Hastings Appears to talk about himself and his book,  “LANSFORD  W. HASTINGS.”

 George Donner is now given the honor of having the wagon train named after him,   The Donner Party. Too excited to sleep that evening, the emigrants begin a square dance, “ CALIFORNIA BOUND.”

Two weeks later, on the trail, Luke Halloran who is dying from TB joins the Donner Party.

In order to save 500 miles, they claim, James Reed and George Donner Convince the wagon train to take Hastings Cutoff.  Trapper Clyman  and Edwin Bryant  try to forward messages to the wagon train, but the messages were lost, and never delivered to James Reed.  

Just before leaving Fort Bridger, Virginia meets Charles T.  Stanton, who teaches her the survival of a dessert  scavenger,  ‘THE BUZZARD”.  She also meets Old Bill Williams, a scruffy mountain man who gives Virginia  a souvenir for her trip, a turquoise rock, and he tells her that he is  just like the rock,  “ROUGH ON THE OUTSIDE”.

As the Donner Party prepares to leave Fort Bridger, Bill McCutchen joins the wagon train.   

It is their last chance to  change their minds, but the 87 pioneers take the left  trail onto Hastings   Cut Off.  Only it wasn’t as Hastings had promised, as the pioneers slashed, hacked, and cut their own road, through the Wastach Mountains.

Reed and McCutchen ride on ahead in search of Lansford Hastings for his guidance back onto the main trail.

That evening alone and cold, Virginia is contemplating the night sky when Luke Halloran  joins her, and together they discuss the cold  and Luke’s untimely death.           

But he is not afraid of death, and thinks it would be a romantic notion that he’ll be laid to rest on the trail to California and become  “A PART  OF THE LAND.”

A few days later at a campsite, Virginia is watching men carrying wood for Luke’s coffin. At their last get-together at wagon side that night, Luke and Virginia sing “I WILL MISS SEEING YOU.’  He dies, somewhere in the Wasatch.

As the Donner Party struggles forward near the Humbolt River, John Synder A  teamster  for James Reed, looses his temper over the slow going up a sandy hill. He sees in the distance the first winter storm approaching and he knows they are doomed.  ‘THERE’S A STORM COMIN.”  Synder challenges a fight with another drover, and as Synder flicks his whip, James intervenes and his struck over his right eye. As Margaret now tries to help her husband, Synder strikes out again.  This time Reed takes a knife and plunges it into Synder’s chest.  Synder dies.

George Donner proclaims Reed’s sentence for murder “banishment”; Margaret insists that it was self-defense, but the pioneers are becoming a Mob, demanding revenge.

Reed is forced to leave the wagon train  to go alone over the summit and into California.

Later that evening Little Patty Reed is talking to her dolly about WHAT IS A PAPA?  and  Margaret searches the mountain for her husband. Alone on the summit, James sings of his love for his wife, “ MY SWEETHEART’S ARMS”.

Looking at the snow falling heavily on the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Virginia knows the wagon train won’t see California this year, and  quite possibly never.  She keeps her  thoughts to herself,  “I TELL NO ONE”.

As she remembers the turquoise rock from Old Bill, Virginia makes a Vow to God to become a Catholic if the family is rescued soon. She gazes at the mountain as:   THE CURTAIN FALLS INTERMISSION


Their attempt to reach the summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountain, the Donner Party is now forced to make camp at Truckee Lake. The 6 month fight for survival has now begun for 83 people.

Alone with her only happy memory of the journey, Virginia sings about her beloved golden pony BILLY, who died somewhere along the trail.Finishing her solo, Virginia starts for her cabin when George Donner wanders on stage. Their eyes meet briefly, before Virginia enters the cabin. Guilt ridden and ashamed, George Donner confronts himself and the plight of the rest of the party MY FAULT.

James Reed has stumbled into Sacramento more dead than alive, and is Reunited with his friend McCutchen. Together they request a rescue party from Captain Sutter, who gives them the necessary supplies for their long journey back into the mountains. Mac and Reed take a few moments to reflect on THE SIMPLE PLEASURES OF LIFE.

Time passes slowly for Virginia Reed. She spends most of the time huddled under a blanket in the cabin; but it is now Christmas Eve. As Virginia wishes for her own death, Margaret appears in a dream and gives her daughter a present—a music box, telling Virginia they can have all they want on this special day WISH FOR.

Back in Illinois, however, Pete is still editor of his newspaper. Stopping to warm up from the cold, Mary Todd and Abe Lincoln stop to see Pete, and the three of them become envious their friends are now in sunny California instead of enduring the Illinois winter. THE TIME OF THEIR LIFE.

Fifeteen members of the Donner Party, who call themselves The Forlorn Hope have decided to set off on foot over the mountain, in search of help. On the other side of the mountain, someplace, Uncle Billy Graves and Charles T Stanton have been considering a sacrfice of one of the others in order to save the 14. Mary Graves argues that this is murder, but Patrick Dolan proclaims it an act of love, IT MAKES SENSE.

Now Christmas Day, Virginia and Patty are surprised by their mother’s Special dinner of fruit and bacon, instead of the usual fare of boiled hides and bones. As Virginia eats her dinner, Margaret makes her daughter promise to keep her brothers and sister alive should Margaret die. It is a horrifying thought for Virginia as Margaret sings ‘YOU WILL PROMISE ME”.

Back on the Sierra Nevadas, Uncle Billy has suddenly died, but talks to Stanton about death. ‘A SENSE OF PEACE.” Knowing own death is quite near, Stanton sits by a rock, and has his last smoke on his pipe and sings to his mother about his life. ‘A SONG TO MOTHER.”

Finally at the Johnson Ranch on the Western side of the mountain, after trek Of 36 days, Mary Graves and William Eddy are recuperating. Eddy has decided to return to Truckee Lake with Aquillar Glover and a search and rescue party. Wanting to go back with Eddy, Mary is told to stay behind, grow strong to marry and have many children. She watches watches the rescue party depart, Knowing that if anyone is found alive, it will be a miracle.

At the Lake, all is still. It is a sunny day, but there is no one in sight as the first rescue party comes over the ridge. James Reed yells to the camp; one by one the survivors emerge from the snow bound cabins. Hearing her father, Virginia runs to him. Barely alive, Margaret renews her strength as she and her husband embrace after a 6 month separation - I KNEW YOU WOULD FIND ME.

The set slowly changes back to Illinois Town Square. At a writing desk, The Older Virginia is busy reading and writing about their rescue from so many years ago. As the cast reassembles, they take their opening positions dressed in their original travel clothes....but those who had died are now dressed in white.

They all come together to sing a reprise of ‘WESTWARD, HO!” for their Curtain call.