PBS “The Donner Party”

                         The Donner Party

 

Structure: The structure is chronological, starting with the preparation and departure to the arrival of the survivors in California.  The documentary uses three main devices for telling the story. These are a narrator, historians, and readings of primary sources. The visual elements include old maps, photographs and shots of the wilderness.  The primary sources are mostly letters or diaries written by the members of the party.

 

            The main argument of the documentary is the tendency of Americans during this time of westward expansion to pursue the dream of prosperity often disregarding common sense.  Manifest destiny became a race, with many overextending themselves and taking shortcuts.  The Donner party decided to take a shortcut against the advice of others who had been there and suffered the consequences of cutting corners.

 

            The supporting points are generally made by historians who have written a book on the Donner party.  These are examples of how this group of immigrants made several fatal decisions during the course of the journey in their rush to California.

 

            The film begins with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville with a quote that supports the main argument, that Americans chase prosperity with great intensity until death eventually halts them in their tracks.

            We start with a description of the beginning of the westward expansion which began in the 1840s.  Motivated by disease in the east and the promise of prosperity in the west, more than half a million people started along the trails to California. Among these were the Donner party who above all others retains a grisly legendary status.  This is followed by a segment supporting the main point.  Interviews clips with two historians speculate as to the motivations that lead to the party’s downfall, ambition and greed among them.

            We now turn to Lansford Hastings who will be one of the main characters in the narrative. He made the maps the that the Donner party follows, despite the fact that Hastings had never been on his own trail and was completely ignorant of the inherent dangers it contained.  He sees prosperity for himself in “aiding” the immigrants in their journeys.  There are also reactions to Hastings from historians who see him as highly driven but also very irresponsible.

            The next segment is the introduction of the Donner party.  Despite already having achieved prosperity in Illinois the Donner and Reed families decide to go west for the land rush in California.  James Reed is the originator of the trip and the description also includes that of the extravagant two story wagon of the Reed family.  This is supported by primary source quotes.  The narrator advances the story to independence, Missouri where the party resupplies and Lansford Hastings decides to see what his trail looks like.  The trail coming out of independence is very hard for the Donner party with mud, rain and the first death, Sarah Keyes.  Alternating between the narrator and primary source quotes, the party reaches the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

            Here the Donner party gets some good advice and decides to ignore it.  Primary and secondary sources show that the party got advice from an experienced mountain man telling them not to take the route Hastings had mapped out because it would be impossible and longer than the normal wagon trails. Here we have the second sequence supporting the main argument. Historians analyze why James Reed decided not to take the advice, “He was an intelligent man, decisive. I don’t know. It’s always, I guess, our insatiable desire to take a shortcut in life, thinking it’ll get us there, and invariably it doesn’t.”

            Summer finds the Donner party heading to Fort Bridger where Hastings has promised to personally lead wagon trains through his shortcut. When the party arrives, however, Hastings has already left with another group.  James Reed reasons that the shortcut will save hundreds of miles and so they will be able to make the trip in only seven weeks. They elect George Donner as the captain of the wagon train and take Hastings cutoff where the traveling is smooth for about a week until they reach an impasse. Hastings has left and note and later advises them to find a different route through the mountains.

            With James Reed at the lead, the party leaves the trail and goes into the mostly uncharted wilderness.  This is a third segment that supports the main argument. When the party reaches this impasse and learns there is no real trail through the mountains, they decide to improvise instead of going back to fort Bridger and taking the normal route.  Looking back it seems ridiculous that an inexperienced group of settlers would head into unmapped woods hoping to find a quick route to California.  This was the point of no return.

            It took a month to get across the first mountains and to the shore of the Great Salt Lake and it was supposed to take a week to go this distance.  Still following the notes left by Hastings the party slowly went on until they reach the salt plains. Another member dies of consumption.  Contemporary historians call the attempt to cross the salt desert, “foolishness”. Hastings had underestimated the distance across by about half and without enough supplies oxen became heat crazy and many were lost, which meant the abandoning of several wagons.  The misery of the situation is described by primary sources.  Hastings arrives in California but the Donner party still has a long way to go.

            Fall finds the party with tempers wearing thin and James Reed kills John Snyder and is banished.  The Reed family continues with no sign of the patriarch.  The Donner party finally reaches the beginning of the sierras and receives some supplies as well as two Indian guides.  Just a few days away from crossing the mountain pass, it starts to snow and the settlers are completely stuck on the shores of the lake.  James Reed survives until Sutter’s fort and finds that his family is stuck in the snow covered mountains.  He is unable to raise a rescue party because everyone is fighting the Mexicans in California.

            The settlers build a winter camp and much of the information from this point is from the diary of Irishman Patrick Breen.  The snow continues and the pioneers watch for a relief effort and eat their livestock.  The snow becomes hopelessly deep, animals are lost and a third member of the party dies of malnutrition.  “The Forlorn Hope” describes fifteen men and women who decided to make another effort at escape.  Five people died quickly and the remaining ten committed the first act of cannibalism.  Several people had died back at the lake but six members of the forlorn hope made it out of the mountains and were fed.

            With the war in California over, two rescue teams were assembled with James Reed leading the second.  The first relief party reached the lake in mid February and found most people dead or dying.  Leaving a few supplies with the people remaining at the lake, the first party heads back and encounters James Reed on the way. The second relief party finds the camp alive only by eating the flesh of the dead.  The third relief party found only seven people left alive and the fourth and final rescue effort found one man alive, delirious and surrounded by human bones stripped of meat.  About half of the Donner party survived and most of them went on to lead normal lives in California.  When gold was discovered the rush to the west became a flood and what is now known as the Donner Pass became a tourist attraction.  It had taken one year for the Donner party to travel from Illinois to California in search of prosperity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the first sequence that supports the main point, a historian commenting on Hastings view of the American dream, “It’s all mixed up with the romance and the so-called ‘heroism’ of the westward migration and the big American dream. The American dream has some nightmares attached to it and this is one of the ways the American dream could go. The American dream probably resulted in for most of the people who followed it like a marsh light in disaster.”

 

This is the second segment that supports the main argument. The Donner party gets some good advice and decides to ignore it.  Primary and secondary sources show that the party got advice from an experienced mountain man telling them not to take the route Hastings had mapped out because it would be impossible and longer than the normal wagon trails. Historians analyze why James Reed decided not to take the advice, “He was an intelligent man, decisive. I don’t know. It’s always, I guess, our insatiable desire to take a shortcut in life, thinking it’ll get us there, and invariably it doesn’t.”

 

This is a third segment that supports the main argument. When the party reaches this impasse and learns there is no real trail through the mountains, they decide to improvise instead of going back to fort Bridger and taking the normal route.  Looking back it seems ridiculous that an inexperienced group of settlers would head into unmapped woods hoping to find a quick route to California. 

 

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3 Comments

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