Donner Party tragedy recalled on PBS

Depiction of Donner PartyOf all of tragedies in American history, none haunt our collective psyche as  does the sad story of the Donner Party, and their ill-fated trek towards California  over 160 years ago. Monday, February 1, PBS  will recount the fateful journey with a rebroadcast of “American Experience: The  Donner Party”, airing at 10 pm locally. This 90 minute film, written and  directed by Ric Burns, and narrated by David McCullough, traces the saga of the  Donner Party, using photographs, paintings, maps and interviews with historians  as well as letters, diaries and memoirs of party members, whose writings will be  read by actors, including Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan and Eli Wallach.

It was in the Spring of 1846, in the town of Springfield, Illinois, when George  Donner placed a notice in the town’s Gazette, appealing for able bodied  persons to join his wagon train for the 2000 mile journey to California,  promising as much land as they wanted at no cost. Donner’s group left  Springfield in mid-April, and by late July, had reached what is now Wyoming,  where they camped alongside several other western bound wagon parties. It was  here where emigrants were told about a shortcut to their destination, named the “Hastings Cutoff”. Electing Donner as it’s captain, a group numbering 87 people  equipped with 23 wagons, broke away from the main body of overland travelers,  and set out for California, intent on using the untried route.

The decision to use the “Hastings Cutoff” would set off the chain of  misfortune that we now associate with the Donner Party. They would fall weeks  behind schedule, and were already running short of food when they reached the  Sierra Nevada in late October, where they faced the beginnings of what became  the worst winter in the region’s history. Freezing temperatures, starvation,  death and even cannibalism would forever be the group’s legacy. But amidst the  five months of despair, there were also elements of hope, courage, and  survival…46 people would live through the ordeal, and the story of the Donner  Party did nothing to discourage a westward movement, which, actually, was only  just beginning.