PBS' "The American Experience" continues tonight with a frightening and deeply moving account of one of the nightmarish episodes of the Western expansion: the tragedy of the Donner Party.
Narrated by historian David McCullough, "The Donner Party" (9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, 7 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24) is a gripping retelling of the tragedy of 87 emigrants who became trapped on the Eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada at the onset of the winter of 1846-47. Most infamously, several of their number resorted to cannibalism to survive.
The 90-minute film was written, directed and co-produced (with Lisa Aides) by Ric Burns, who, with his brother, Ken, produced PBS' "The Civil War." As in that series, he uses photographs, paintings and maps, along with letters and diaries of members of the Donner Party, read by performers such as Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Frances Sternhagen, George Plimpton and Eli Wallach.
The Donner Party, as it came to be known, was part of the huge caravan of wagon trains that left Independence, Mo., headed west on the Oregon or California trails in the 1840s, for what was thought to be a four-month journey. Free land and the dream of a better life spurred these emigrants--even George Donner, who was 62 and already well-to-do.
The Donner Party and others left Independence on May 12 and, by July 20, had reached a critical fork of the Big Sandy River. Lured by promises of a faster, more direct route, the Donners and others took an untried "shortcut," which led only to tragedy. Crossing the Wasatch Mountains took a month instead of a week, and a trip across the Great Salt Lake Dessert took six days when they had planned on two.
On Oct. 31, the Donner Party reached Truckee Lake near the summit of the Sierra. It snowed heavily that night and the next, and the bedraggled group was trapped with little food or supplies. What happened over the next five months became a grisly legend of the settling of the West.
When the ordeal was finally over, 46 of the 87 members of the Donner Party had survived. Only one survivor would later talk openly about eating human flesh, "and he was reviled."
According to McCullough, of the hundreds of pioneer wagons that left Independence in the spring of 1846, the Donner Party was the only group that failed to reach California safely. But that exception makes for compelling history today.