The American Experience: The Donner Party [DVD] [1992]

This DVD of the American Experience from PBS tells the story of the Donner Party, the ambitious group who traveled from Illinois to California in 1846. Beginning in the spring, the group split off from the rest of the emigrants to take an alternate route across the Great Basin. They went through blizzards and food shortages before reaching their destination in late October. Of the 87 original members of the Donner Party, only 46 survived. Their story is told through archival photographs, paintings, and maps, with letters and diary selections read by actors such as Timothy Hutton, Frances Sternhagen, and George Plimpton.
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American Experience: The Donner Party
In 1846, a group of over eighty Westward-bound pioneers were headed to the coast of California from Illinois, which had itself only recently been brought up to "civilized" status. They made it to a pass high in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California when they were halted by a truly monstrous blizzard, followed by the snows of one of the worst winters in that century. Their attempts to go forward and backward were thwarted by the deep snow, and, in the small shelter they enjoyed, they slowly starved to death. Eventually, they resorted to cannibalism to survive, and after their story became more widely known, the pass they took shelter in became known as "the Donner Pass." To this day, it is frequently made impassable by heavy snows. Ironically, the forty or so who survived later discovered that, had they only forged ahead about a hundred yards, they would have won free of the deep snow which ensnared them. This documentary has gathered a surprising harvest of photos, notes and drawings in order to tell the pioneers' story. ~ Clarke Fountain, Rovi

Cast & Crew

  • Image coming soon
    David McCullough - Narrator
  • J.D. Cannon
    J.D. Cannon
  • Timothy Hutton
    Timothy Hutton
  • Image coming soon
    Gene Jones
  • Amy Madigan
    Amy Madigan

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