At the start of spring in the year 1846 an appealing advertisement appeared in the Springfield, Illinois, Gazette. “Westward ho,” it declared. “Who wants to go to California without costing them anything? As many as eight young men of good character who can drive an ox team will be accommodated. Come, boys, you can have as much land as you want without costing you anything.” The notice was signed G. Donner, George Donner, leader of what was to become the most famous of all the hundreds of wagon trains to start for the far west, the tragic, now nearly mythic Donner Party.

If ever there was a moment when America seemed in the grip of some great, out-of-the-ordinary pull, it was in 1846. The whole mood was for movement, expansion, and the whole direction was westward. It was in 1846 that the Mormons set out on their trek to the Great Salt Lake. It was in 1846 that the Mexican War began and effectively all of Texas, Mexico and California were added to the United States.

And it wasn’t just young men who answered the call. Whole families and people of all stations in life joined the caravan, which is part of the fascination of this haunting story. One is struck, for example, by how many women there were in the Donner party and how many of them survived the horrific ordeal they met. Imagine packing up an entire household, saying good-bye to all you’ve known and setting off to walk essentially to California, a continent away, little knowing what was in store.

“...Remember, never take no cut-offs and hurry along as fast as you can.” – Virginia Reed, Donner Party survivor


A cautionary tale of human endeavor and failure, hope and despair, greed and ambition, 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 the following winter.

Using archival photographs, paintings, and maps; diaries, letters and memoirs of the party members; interviews with writers and historians; and new cinematography from across the Oregon and California trails, The Donner Party traces the emigrants’ 2500-mile journey from Springfield, Illinois to Sutter’s Fort in California. The letters, memoirs, and diary selections are read by actors including Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Frances Sternhagen, George Plimpton, Lois Smith, and Eli Wallach.

The journey began in 1846, three years before the Gold Rush, as part of the large tide of American emigration that was just beginning to settle in the Mexican province of Upper California. In July of that year, following the advice of a guide book written by a persuasive promoter named Lansford W. Hastings, the Donner party 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 Mountains and the Sierra Nevada.

The torturously 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. The five months the group spent trapped on the eastern side of the Sierra culminated in death and cannibalism. Of the 87 men, women and children in the Donner Party, 46 survived: two thirds of the women and children, but only one third of the men.

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