Reviewed by David Williams (April 14, 2003)
Originally airing on PBS, this documentary was deemed the “Best Television Program of 1992”, by the National Board of Review. Masterfully and compellingly narrated by David McCullough, Ric Burns’ The Donner Party also features the talented voices of Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Frances Sternhagen and Eli Wallach. This gripping treatment of the ill-fated party of pioneers is an essential element in any historian's collection or video-library.
Powerful and remarkable, the documentary was directed by Ric Burns and aired on PBS as part of their “American Experience” series. If the director’s name sounds familiar, Ric is the brother of famed documentarian Ken Burns (Jazz, Baseball, The Civil War) and Ric’s style is eerily similar to that of his brother. The Donner Party carries all the markings of a Burns documentary in that it uses magnificent narration, heartbreaking and engaging diary excerpts from those featured in the story, old photographs, interviews with historians and authors, and a mixture of current and period music to compliment the whole thing.
Most of you have more than likely heard at least a mention of the Donner Party and their ill-fated journey across the American West as they headed towards the promised land of California during the spring of 1846. Multiple novels and historical accounts have been written on the tragic trip and while I definitely don’t plan on trying to “one up” any of the material available to you in other places (forget the fact that I don’t have enough knowledge of the subject matter), I’m still gonna give you a Cliff’s Notes version of the story and its corresponding documentary from Ric Burns and company.
The West during the 19th century was an almost mystical land that beckoned pioneers from far and wide for those willing to make some sacrifices and a difficult journey. However, no one had as quite a harrowing tale to tell as those in the ill-fated Donner Party who made the 2500-mile journey from Springfield, Illinois, to Sutter's Fort in California.
The journey began in July of 1846, a few years before the California Gold Rush, and a large number of American emigrants were just beginning to settle Upper California. Included in this group were the families of Frazier Reed and George Donner and before they left, they decided to follow a “shortcut” that they read about in a pamphlet by Lansford W. Hastings. The shortcut would supposedly cut hundreds of miles and days off of the long journey and would take the group across the Great Basin (bordered by the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges) rather than the more widely traveled (and well-known) Oregon Trail. However, what Hastings failed to mention in his pamphlet was that he had actually never traveled the journey by wagon himself and the route was more conceptual than anything else.
When the group started out, everyone followed the same path; but when the Donner Party reached the advertised shortcut, many of the wagons – including those of the Reed and Donner families – split off from the main group and decided to go the experimental route. The route proved much more difficult than anyone had ever imagined and problems with the landscape and surroundings were immediate and harsh. Water supplies ran low – wagon wheels became stuck in murky surfaces around the Great Salt Lake – it took longer to navigate certain areas than expected – and so on.
Things only got worse from there, as the party was hopelessly behind schedule and running short on food. They didn’t reach the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California until October of 1846 and unfortunately for them, they would be stopped cold (no pun intended) by a series of blizzards that would eventually be part of the worst winter ever on record for the mountain range. With snowdrifts of up to 20 feet high, the group tried to wait things out and hope for the best. However, a couple of days of clear weather would be followed by a few days of hard snow and the group decided that a party should be formed to go ahead of the main assembly and look for better conditions and/or summon for help. The group, named “Forlorn Hope”, met some unfortunate conditions as well and things got so bad that many members of the party died and the ones who lived had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. The members of the party that were left at the camp were fading quickly as well due to hunger and severe cold.
After five months trapped on the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the remaining members of “Forlorn Hope” were spotted and rescued and this led to the eventual rescue of those left at the main encampment as well. Of the 87 men, women, and children that made up the party, when it was all said and done, only 46 survived. 2/3 of the women and children lived through the ordeal, while only 1/3 of the men outlived the elements and harsh conditions.
The Donner Party is an incredible work and even if you aren’t interested in purchasing the disc for your collection, you should rent it at the very least. With a perfect mixture of interviews, dramatic readings, and material from the period, Ric Burns has created another “must see” documentary that gives viewers of any age a better understanding of this harrowing, tragic, and ultimately, very courageous event in American history.