Series Blog

Vanessa's Favorite AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Film: The Donner Party


Just a little background - I love horror movies. I've seen every classic horror movie and then some. So I was completely mesmerized by The Donner Party when I watched it in 2009. It's a tragic story about pioneers looking to start new lives out West. They put their faith in a new route across Utah and Nevada - Hastings Cutoff. Little did they know that the man who created the map, Lansford Hastings, had never taken the trail by wagons.

The group set off in May 1846 with the plan to settle in the Sacramento Valley by September. But they found themselves struggling to make the journey and they ended up stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountain range during the winter of 1846. That winter led to starvation and cannabalism. The group of 81 American pioneers had dwindled to 45; they had starved and cannibalized before they were finally rescued in February 1847.

My favorite AMERICAN EXPERIENCE film premiered in 1993. However, I didn't discover The Donner Party until I had to update the film for a PBS repeat. My colleagues had raved about this film, calling it both gruesome and heartbreaking, so I was incredibly eager to see for myself. I watched the entire film in a dark editing room, completely shocked by the horrifying history I had just witnessed.

Vanessa Ezersky is the Post Production Supervisor for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.


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