Of all the 19th-century pioneer stories, none exerts so powerful a hold on the American imagination as the tale of the Donner Party in the high Sierra Nevadas in the winter of 1846. That June, along with thousands of others, George and Jacob Donner and James Frazier Reed led their families west out of Springfield, Illinois, and headed for the "Promised Land" in California, two thousand miles away. Theirs was a prosperous caravan that would swell to more than 87 men, women and children. They packed huge wagons (one was two stories high), took , food hired servants and even sewed money between the covers of a quilt. When family leaders made the fateful decision to take an untried short cut to beat the coming winter, only half of them would come out alive. What began as a trek to the Western paradise became a terrifying tale of misery, death, madness and cannibalism. But there was also extraordinary bravery, as survivors made their way to California, after enduring the worst winter ever recorded in the high Sierras. Through family journals, newspaper accounts and interviews with historians and descendants of the party, the film recreates the Donner Party's now legendary journey.