The journey began in 1846, three years before the Gold Rush, as part of the large tide of American emigration that was just beginning to settle in the Mexican province of Upper California. In July of that year, following the advice of a guide book written by a persuasive promoter named Lansford W. Hastings, the Donner party split off from the main body of emigrants heading for California to take an untried “shortcut” across the barren reaches of the Great Basin which is bordered by the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada.
The torturous difficult route was their undoing. Weeks behind schedule and desperately short of food, the Donner party did not reach the mountains of California until late October — where they were stopped by the first blizzard of what would prove to be the worst winter in the history of the Sierra Nevada. The five months the group spent trapped on the eastern side of the Sierra culminated in death and cannibalism. Of the 87 men, women and children in the Donner Party, 46 survived: two thirds of the women and children, but only one third of the men.
Watch Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 9pm.