American Experience (1988– )
7 user 1 critic

The Donner Party 

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 »


Ric Burns


Ric Burns

On Disc

at Amazon




Episode credited cast:
David McCullough ... Narrator (voice)
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
J.D. Cannon ... (voice)
Timothy Hutton ... (voice)
Gene Jones ... (voice)
Amy Madigan ... (voice)
Donal McCann ... (voice)
George Plimpton ... (voice)
Paul Roebling Paul Roebling ... (voice)
Lois Smith ... (voice)
Frances Sternhagen ... (voice)
Eli Wallach ... George McKinstry (voice)


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

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis



Official Sites:

PBS | PBS [United States]





Release Date:

28 October 1992 (USA) See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Steeplechase Films, WGBH See more »
Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:




Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


A Strange Day in the Countryside
from the album "Crann Ull"
Performed by Clannad
Courtesy of Tara Records
See more »

Frequently Asked Questions

This FAQ is empty. Add the first question.

User Reviews

Important Piece of California History
19 July 2002 | by PeachHamBeachSee all my reviews

I love stories of people and how they survive terrible hardships while making some kind of journey. In the 1840s, California was a sparkling new territory that beckoned mid-Westerners with promises of a better more prosperous life. In 1846, two Illinois brothers named George and Jacob Donner, their wives and children, and several other families, along with hired hands, livestock, household effects and foodstuffs, left Illinois for Sacramento California. They traveled by canvas covered wagons hauled by oxen, following a guidebook published by a man named Hastings, who promised the travelers that the Oregon Trail was old news and that a shorter, easier route going straight across the plains states, East to West, was more practical and would be less miles to travel. The trouble is, Hastings never really traveled this route, so he went ahead of them to see how it really was, and it turns out that there were so many obstacles on the route that he might have felt foolish for publishing false information and afraid to tell the wagon-trainers the truth, so the Donners and the families who accompanied them on their trek to the West, were allowed to progress on this "cutoff" or shortcut. As soon as the Donner Party left the Oregon Trail and turned west-south-west, they encountered problem after problem after problem. I have read and watched many a story about people suffering in their travels, but the Donner Party suffered a million times more than anyone in history in my opinion. They found the road terribly obstructed by dense woods, rocks, boulders, and for a month, they had to pretty much cut the road with axes. Because of this month of delay, they were considerably behind schedule and winter was approaching. As if this wasn't enough, they encountered Indians who shot their cattle and killed a lot of their meat supply. They had to cross the salt plain west of the Great Salt Lake in Utah which took them five days instead of two as Hastings told them. Their wagon wheels sank into the quicksand there, and many familes had to pack their things into other families' wagons and leave their wagons in the desert. Many nearly died of thirst and when they finally reached the Sierras, George Donner's axle broke on his wagon and his family fell behind. While waiting for them to catch up, the rest of the party was horrified to find that the snow season had come early to the Sierra Nevadas, and when they tried to climb the summit, the snow was so deep that they could not make it. Already half starving because of their food supply being destroyed or exhausted, the Donner Party was forced to stay in the mountains all winter long, in makeshift log cabins and tents. Here the story becomes even more horrifying. They began to die from malnutrition and starvation. A group volunteered to climb the mountains wearing snowshoes and went through terrible nightmarish ordeals just to reach help. Many froze to death or died of hunger, and their comrades were forced to eat their remains just to keep from dying themselves. Back at Donner Lake, where the others waited for help, blizzard after bitterly cold blizzard piled more and more snow. Finally, the snowshoers found help, but not before nearly half of the 87 people in the party died of starvation or cold. A truly harrowing story, the story of the Donner party will remain one of the hugest tragedies in California history. As I said before, I really enjoy stories about people traveling with hardship, but those are mainly fiction stories. The very thought that this is a true story is chilling, yet at the same time, it is thrilling and inspiring.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you? | Report this
Review this title | See all 7 user reviews »

Contribute to This Page

Stream Trending Movies With Prime Video

Enjoy a night in with these popular movies available to stream now with Prime Video.

Start your free trial

Recently Viewed