Teaching Students About The Donner Party


The Donner Party is an infamous tale of 19th-century American pioneers who encountered extreme hardships and adversity in their journey West. Teaching students about this historical event provides valuable lessons in perseverance, decision-making, and the human spirit’s resilience.


In 1846, a group of 87 emigrants, led by James F. Reed and George Donner, traveled from Springfield, Illinois to California. The pioneers hoped that the West would offer a better life – more land and opportunities awaited. However, the journey took a dramatic turn when they attempted a new shortcut called “Hastings Cutoff.” Poor decisions, like taking this untested path, led to a series of misfortunes that ultimately trapped them in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the harsh winter months.

Perseverance in Adversity

The difficulties faced by the Donner Party throughout their journey demonstrate determination and resilience. Lesson plans can emphasize elements of these challenges which started piling up early on – lack of preparedness ironically due to taking too many supplies, irreparable damages to wagons and cattle loss due to theft. Students can learn from the Donner Party’s strong sense of community as they endured these setbacks.

Teaching Critical Decision-Making

Discussing the choices made by party members during their journey allows students to hone their critical thinking skills. Debates surrounding the choice to embark on Hastings Cutoff or remain on the traditional route provide excellent opportunities for role-playing exercises within classrooms. Teachers can encourage students to evaluate risks while making difficult decisions and consider how their choices could have substantial consequences.

Survival Amidst Desperation

Stranded in the mountains, with no hope for a quick rescue, the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism to survive after they exhausted all available resources due to starvation. By discussing their moral struggles openly, educators can encourage mature conversations about what one might do when faced with life-and-death circumstances.

Building Empathy and Understanding

Teaching students about the Donner Party provides insights into the human spirit’s resilience in times of extreme difficulty. Building empathy through understanding the pioneers’ struggles can help students appreciate the value of community and togetherness. Additionally, understanding historical contexts such as prejudice against Native Americans and Mexican Californians during that time provides students a broader view of contemporaneous social issues.


Using the Donner Party narrative as a teaching tool offers educators opportunities to discuss topics like resourcefulness, decision-making, empathy and perseverance. Students can learn from these pioneers, applying lessons learned to strengthen their problem-solving abilities. The morbid fascination with the Donner Party story reminds us that history doesn’t simply reveal dark moments but provides valuable lessons for personal growth.

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