Donner Party: The American Experience

Mon, 02/01/2010 - 9:00pm

This program chronicles the harrowing tale of the ill-fated emigrant group who set out for the promised land of California in the spring of 1846, only to meet with disaster in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains the following winter.

A cautionary tale of human endeavor and failure, hope and despair, greed and ambition, The Donner Party: The American Experience airs Monday, February 1, 2010, 9:00-10:30 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11). Narrated by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and historian David McCullough, The Donner Party chronicles the harrowing tale of the ill-fated emigrant group who set out for the promised land of California in the spring of 1846, only to meet with disaster in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains the following winter.

Using archival photographs, paintings, and maps; diaries, letters and memoirs of the party members; interview with writers and historians; and original cinematography from across the Oregon and California trails, The Donner Party traces the emigrants’ 2,500-mile journey from Springfield, Illinois, to Sutters Fort in California. The letters, memoirs and diary selections are read by Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Frances Sternhagen, George Plimpton, Lois Smith and Eli Wallach, among others. The Donner Party has been honored with a George Foster Peabody Award and a Writers Guild Award.

The journey began in 1846 as part of the large tide of American emigration that was beginning to settle the Mexican province of Upper California. In July of that year, a group of 87 men, women and children led by George and Jacob Donner split off from the main body of emigrants heading for California to take an untried shortcut across the barren reaches of the Great Basin, which is bordered by the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountains.

The tortuously difficult route was their undoing. Weeks behind schedule and desperately short of food, the Donner party did not reach the mountains of California until late October where they were stopped by the first blizzard of what would prove to be the worst winter in the history of the Sierra Nevada.

“Thursday, December 31st. Last of the year, may we with God’s help spend the coming year better than the past which we purpose to do if Almighty God will deliver us from our present dreadful situation,” wrote Patrick Breen in his journal. “Freezing hard every night. Looks like another storm. Snow storms are dreadful to us.”

The five months the Donner party spent trapped on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada culminated in death for some and cannibalism for others. Of the 87 people in the Donner party, only 46 survived.

“It’s got everything. It’s a Greek tragedy. It’s a great test of human character,” says author Wallace Stegner. “Some people came through it heroically. And some of the people in that party were far from heroes and got worse as the conditions got worse. It was as if the sheep and the goats, the blessed and the unblessed, sorted themselves out against the background of terrible hardship and tragedy.”

More than a century and a half later, the tale of the Donner party remains one of the most compelling and enduring episodes to come out of the West. The Donner party relentlessly shows us the dark side of the American dream, says director Ric Burns. Like no other episode in American history it shows us the way that dreams can sometimes go terribly awry. It also shows us the astonishing ability of human beings simply to endure under the most harrowing circumstances.

This program is offered with Descriptive Video (DVi), which provides concise descriptions of the sets, scenery, costumes, action, and other important visual elements between the dialogue of the program.