I know of 7 or so Ranger Bill episodes that are no longer aired, mostly because the original recordings have been too damaged to use any longer. Friends have sent me tapes of many of these retired shows. One of those stories is "The Donner Party Treasure." This story has become a real favorite of mine.
In "The Donner Party Treasure," two men Mr. Delong and the Caribou are cutting down old trees in the national forest by permit. But this is not your usual logging operation. Delong looks for a certain kind of tree and the Caribou chops it down. Delong looks for something in the tree. If this mysterious something isn't there, the tree is abandoned and Delong begins the hunt for another such tree. Delong is the owner of a bookstore that sells old and rare books. The Caribou is a mountain woodsman.
Bill becomes suspicious of these two unusual tree cutters and starts to map the path the two are taking. Then Bill heads to the library to do a little searching of his own. When he returns, he marks another route on his map. Bill then quickly leaves on a trip to New York City.
Henry becomes interested in Delong and the Caribou and wants to know what they are doing. On Bill's map, he and Gray Wolf see the route of the tree cutters. They also see another route Bill marked out, the route of the ill-fated Donner Party in the terrible winter of 1846-47. Gray Wolf tells Henry that Bill went to Delong's New York bookstore. Bill found a book that tells about a treasure hidden by the Donner's and how to find it!
While Bill is gone in New York, the Caribou finally cuts down the tree that Delong has been searching for. Delong removes an old lead cylinder from a hollow that was 40 feet up in the tree. There is a note inside written by Tanzen Donner, wife of party leader George Donner. The note gives directions to the cave where they hid their treasure. The Carabou knows the area and led Delong right to the cave. The men found a box in the cave and hurriedly opened it. But there were no jewels or bags of gold inside, only a Bible. That's where Delong's book from his bookstore plays it's part. This Bible is no ordinary Bible. This is a rare and valuable Coverdale Bible, hundreds of years old.
As the two men argue over the Bible, the ground rumbles and roars. Avalanche! The Caribou gets away but breaks his leg in the escape. Delong is trapped and injured. He lays under a pile of rocks, in pain and dying of thirst. The Bible falls open and Delong begins to read, first the Book of Psalms then more. Delong comes to a saving faith and is ready for death.
Bill and the boys go to the Wasatch Mountains to find Delong and the Caribou. They quickly find and rescue the Caribou then look for Delong. Not much later, Bill locates Delong barely alive but now more alive than ever. The fellas rescue Delong and help him back to health.
Delong with his new-found faith repents of his greed and returns the Coverdale Bible to it's rightful owners, the Donner family.
This story, besides being a great adventure, is actually a well-researched piece of history and very plausible. The Donner Party consisted of two Donner brothers; George, 52, and Jacob, 47; James Reed, their families, and others who were part of the Wm. Russell wagon train on the California Trail headed west. Roughly 87 souls with 23 wagons separated from the Russell wagon train to form the Donner party. The Donners took a new detour, the Hastings Cutoff, hoping to get to California faster since they were traveling late in the year. Delays from weather and overloaded wagons severely slowed the party as they traveled the Wasatch Mountains, the Great Salt Lake Desert, and the Sierra Nevadas. The group was trapped by early and heavy snows at what is now Donner Lake in Donner Pass. The company suffered from injury, disease and starvation. Eventually parts of the group resorted to cannibalism for survival. 15 members headed for Sutter's Fort to get help. Only 7 arrived alive. Four teams left to rescue the Donner party. Of the 87 Donner pioneers, only 48 survived. And two Native Americans on the rescue teams died reaching the Donner party. Jacob Donner was the first of the group to die. George was badly injured in a wagon repair and died late that winter. His wife Tamzen stayed behind to care for her husband. Tamzen died out in a storm and was never found. The entire Reed family along with all the Donner children escaped alive and settled in California.
The Donners were fairly wealthy and could have owned a valuable bible like the Coverdale. The Donner family belonged to the Christian Church, and the Reeds were Catholic. Many in the party kept diaries including Tamzen.
The message in a tree idea is entirely possible. As I said the Donners had many possessions in overloaded wagons. They could easily have left some things behind during the journey. The snows were more than 20 feet deep in many parts of the route, especially in Donner Pass. A message left in a tree might easily have been more than 20 feet off the ground. Years of tree growth would put the message 40 or more feet up in an old tree.