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The Donner Party | Article

Teacher's Guide

Donner-Teachers-Guide-The-memorial-in-Truckee in Nevada-County-CA-a-few-miles-north-of-Lake-Tahoe-2012-LOC.jpg
The Donner Party memorial in Truckee, Nevada county, CA. A few miles north of Lake Tahoe. 2012, Library of Congress.

Suggestions for Learning:

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.


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