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When groups fall apart: the Donner Party disaster

Eric Patton (Department of Management, Erivan K. Haub School of Business, Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA)

Journal of Management History

ISSN: 1751-1348

Article publication date: 27 September 2011




The Donner expedition to California in 1846‐1847 is one of the darkest tales of the great migrations west. While much has been written about the tragedy, a group analysis based on business research has not been undertaken. The purpose of this paper is to suggest that the story of the Donner Party is primarily a group failure, with implications for practicing managers employing temporary groups in uncertain situations.


Group theories concerning the nature of temporary work groups, interdependence, diversity, social identity, and leadership are employed to explain how negative group processes likely contributed to the disaster.


Based on books and a film about the incident, the Donner Party suffered a social breakdown based on: the changing nature of the goals of the expedition in mid‐course, which is difficult for temporary teams to handle; destructive forms of diversity based on cultural background and social status; and a lack of critical skills and effective leadership. The story also illustrates that small, cohesive groups had a better survival rate than individuals.

Research limitations/implications

While only a single case, this study demonstrates the special nature of temporary groups and demonstrates that not all diversity is positive. Both issues require strong leadership. Furthermore, the study demonstrates the importance of considering context in group research.


This is an original analysis of the Donner Party using group theories. This study reminds managers of the fragility of temporary groups, and stresses the need to consider the possibilities of accidents/disasters when undertaking large projects.



Patton, E. (2011), "When groups fall apart: the Donner Party disaster", Journal of Management History, Vol. 17 No. 4, pp. 435-450.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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