Time Period: 1846-1847
Objectives: Students will examine how for many, the Donner Party’s story struck down the myth of frontier idealism. Students will also examine the natural forces and flawed decisions that contributed to the Donner Party tragedy.
Introducing the Program
Invite students to imagine that the class has become stranded in a sudden blizzard while hiking up a mountain. Rescue is uncertain or not expected for a long time. Give students several minutes to decide on a plan for survival. Remind them that life-and-death situations often bring out the best and the worst in people in ways that are often surprising to them. Tell students that the program they will see, The Donner Party, recounts the tragic story of pioneers who were stranded in a mountain winter just short of their destination. Explain that the program traces their journey, reveals how and why the tragedy occurred, and what measures the group took to survive.
Encourage students to discuss the program and share their observations. The following questions may be used to guide discussion.
1. What reasons led James Reed and George Donner to take Hastings’ Cutoff? Why was their decision unwise?
2. What other factors contributed to the failure of their venture?
3. Was Lansford Hastings to blame for what happened to the Donner Party? How?
4. What traits did members of the Donner and Reed families possess? Support your answer with examples from the film.
5. How did people in the 1840s view the American West? How did the story of the Donner Party help to strike down the myth of frontier idealism?
The following activities have been designed for students to do alone, with a partner, or with a group.
1. Research and report on others such as Tabitha Brown who traveled to Oregon or California during the 1840s. Include their reasons for moving, a description of their journeys, and what they did when they reached their destinations. Share your report with your class.
2. Imagine you have been stranded along with the Donner Party. Choose a member of either the Donner or the Reed family, and write a journal entry from that person?s point of view. Read your entry to the class.
3. Today's hikers and campers often find themselves in life-threatening situations caused by the forces of nature, bad decision-making, or accidents. With a group, research what a human being must do to survive in the wilderness. Include the essential equipment that a hiker or camper must take along and use. Make a report to your class.
The New Deal program CCC put three million young men to work in camps across America.
The contradictory history of a dam that became a statement of American power and prestige.
A six-hour series on how the West was lost and won, from the Gold Rush in 1848 until Wounded Knee in 1893.
The Chiricahua Apache medicine man and warrior who refused to accept white man's 'civilization.' Part of The Wild West collection.
William "Buffalo Bill" Cody's legendary exploits helped create the myth of the American West that still endures today.
A biography of the last outlaws of the American Wild West
The remarkable story of how a railroad was built connecting California to the East.
As the star attraction of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Annie Oakley thrilled audiences around the world with her shooting feats. Part of the Wild West collection.