Dead of Winter – The Donner Party
The Weather Channel
2 hrs including commercials

As the video opens the Forlorn Hope is slogging through miles of  snow in an attempt to escape the Donner Party encampment at Donner Lake and reach Sutter’s Fort.  Here in the first scenes those familiar with the story have their suspicions raised.  The Forlorn Hope did leave Donner and some did make it to California.  They crossed Donner Pass and the high Sierra snows on snowshoes.  That was difficult enough for starving exhausted emigrants.  When they got out of the snow they ate the rawhide laces and bindings.  “Dead of Winter” shows the Forlorn Hope floundering through the snow with no snowshoes.  That would have made the actual trip not just harder but excruciatingly difficult.  It’s hard enough to navigate new fallen snow, as the Forlorn Hope did, on snowshoes. It’s almost impossible without.

That may seem like a small point but for a knowledgeable viewer it causes suspicion about whatever facts are propounded next.  How good was the research?

Fortunately the story is basically accurate and is well done.  The story of the Donner Party is told through narrative and interviews illustrated with Donner Party members’ quotes (the desert had no plants, no shade, mirages and, according to James Reed, was a “desolate dreary place as if death has reached out and laid his hand upon the earth”) and re-enactments of what must have been important scenes.  The wonderful scenery is not of Donner Pass and maybe not even of the Sierra but it tells the story.

The interviews are done in small parts to illustrate events.  There is a meteorologist, a survival expert, and four knowledgeable Donner Party book authors: local Mark McLaughlin, Weathering the Storm (see our coming April, ’16 Heirloom for a review); Frank Mullen, The Donner Party Chronicles; Ethan Rarick, Desperate Passage (see our May, ’14 Heirloom); and Gabrielle Burton (The Search for Tamsen Donner).

Following the opening scenes of the Forlorn Hope the story returns to the beginning: the backgrounds of some of the party, leaving Independence, Missouri, the journey across the continent, the infamous wrong turn, the 40 Mile Desert that was 80 miles long, the knifing of a member and banishment of James Reed, the leaving of Mr. Hardcoop to die on the trail, dissension, the heroism of Charles Stanton, arriving in the Sierra, setting up camp, misery, rescue, and death.  The story is well told and the re-enactments like hacking their way through the Wasatch Mountains or walking beside, and not riding in the wagons, help in the telling showing what life was like.  Because it’s the Weather Channel the temperature and rainfall are also given and that helps illustrate the story.  It was probably 75° when they left Independence and so it was comfortable.  Then it was maybe 100° in the desert and averaged 45° at Donner Lake.  That puts things in perspective.  Imagine living in the very basic cabins, or the tents the actual Donner had at Alder Creek, with the constant cold.

The narrative does not take the easy way out of blaming Lansford Hastings for the problems.  It is noted that Hastings did warn about the Sierra and the constant winter.  A lot of the blame in this telling falls on James Reed. It was he who convinced the party to turn left and take Hastings’ route.  Most of the other issues contributing to the tragedy were not addressed but the video is only two hours (with commercials).

So the basics of the story are true and well-told.  There is the issue of the Forlorn Hope at the beginning which leads one to pay attention closely to see if there is anything else amiss.  There is.  The monument at the State Park in Truckee is the “Emigrant Monument” not the Donner Party Monument.  Keseburg was not found at the camp with a pot of boiling body parts.  He wasn’t even in the camp when the fourth rescue party arrived.  He also did not go overtly mad proclaiming his love for human flesh over the cattle carcasses that were being ignored nearby.  He also probably did not eat Tamsen Donner as is suggested in the video.  This is all gratuitously thrown in at the end and seems to be inserted to sate the discerning public’s desire for sensationalism.  The Weather Channel should have at least noted that Keseberg vociferously denied the charges above and others.  Along that line, one of the video’s experts, Ethan Rarick, says in his book that the charges against Keseberg are at least questionable.  To end the video with that unanswered and questionable sensationalism is irresponsible.

The video can be found for free online at the Weather Channel and even YouTube