The American Experience: Season 5, Episode 3

The Donner Party (28 Oct. 1992)

TV Episode  -   -  Documentary | History
8.5
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Doomed attempt to get to California in 1846. More than just a riveting tale of death, endurance and survival. The Donner Party's nightmarish journey penetrated to the very heart of the ... See full summary »

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Doomed attempt to get to California in 1846. More than just a riveting tale of death, endurance and survival. The Donner Party's nightmarish journey penetrated to the very heart of the American Dream at a crucial phase of the nation's "manifest destiny. Touching some of the most powerful social, economic and political currents of the time, this extraordinary narrative remains one of the most compelling and enduring episodes to come out of the West. Written by Joshua Mueller

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THE DONNER PARTY: An Ultimate American Tragedy
8 February 2013 | by (San Gabriel, Ca., USA) – See all my reviews

PBS's long-running documentary series "The American Experience" had provided a huge mine for all who are deeply interested in our country's rich history. One aspect of that history is in the big westward migration of the mid-19th century that eventually led to the northwestern part of what was once Mexico coming under American control. And of all the stories of that part of our history, none has been as heartbreaking, poignant, or shocking as that of the Donner Party, that emigrant wagon train that, through several fatal mistakes, the biggest of which was taking a cut-off through the Utah mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert, found itself stranded during the harsh winter of 1846-47 in the Sierra Nevada, only one hundred fifty miles short of their final goal: Sutter's Fort in Sacramento, California.

As documented by Ric Burns, brother of Ken Burns, THE DONNER PARTY recounts how two prominent families of Springfield, Illinois, led by James Reed and George Donner, decided to make that long 2500-mile track west to California in order to make a better life for themselves. With narration by David McCullough, and excerpts of diaries read by people like Eli Wallach, Amy Madigan, J.D. Cannon, and others, we get a sense of the roughness and danger of the cross-country journey, and how much more dangerous it got when the Reeds and the Donners made the catastrophic mistake of listening to the advice of an ambitious would-be "emperor" named Lansford Hastings and took a shortcut across rugged terrain that could only be accessible on horseback and certainly not in a wagon. The party lost almost an entire summer making that dangerous "shortcut" that actually turned out to be much longer and much more treacherous than the established path. And while they reached the foot of the Sierras in early October in what was thought to be enough time left to cross the pass that would eventually be named for them, they unfortunately got caught in an early blizzard, losing their race with the weather by one single day. What happened over the next five months in the Sierras remains one of the greatest tragedies ever experienced in the annals of human history.

Of course, the most notorious aspect of this entire story is the fact that many of the survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism; and that part of the story isn't ignored. But what the documentary also explores is the fact that so many of the men in that party perished, and that two-thirds of the women and children were able to make it out of there alive; that James Reed, who had been banished after having killed a teamster, found, much to his amazement, that his wife and four children had survived; and that nine snowstorms enveloped the mountains during that winter (the worst winter in the history of the Sierras), hindering the fourth and final rescue party by an entire month. Historians Joseph King, Wallace Stegner, Harold Schindler, and Donald Buck also comment on what the saga can teach us about the limits of human experience and can-do American optimism, and how it can be tripped up, fatally in the case of the Donner Party, by not listening to sage advice being given by those who knew better, including James Clyman, the mountain man who had advised his old friend Reed to take the established path to California and not take Hastings' cut-off.

What is most heartbreaking, of course, is that, when one comes down to it, the people in the Donner Party really weren't any different from us. They knew nothing more about the virgin territory they were stepping off into than those whom they followed; and while in hindsight it's easy to say that they should not have trusted the bogus statements of Lansford Hastings, who is to say that we wouldn't have acted any differently if we had been in their shoes at that time? It is a known fact that many of us take similar so-called "shortcuts" in our lives too, and those don't always work out either. All the best and worst of humanity was borne out during that long and terrible part of our history, and THE DONNER PARTY, as has been the case of every American Experience documentary, makes the case that, far from being mere heroes or villains, the participants were in many ways just like us. It was a story about America and humanity, and an historical lesson we can still learn from today in our 21st century.


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