The Donner Party Essay Research Paper DAVID

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The Donner Party Essay, Research Paper DAVID McCULLOUGH, Host: Good evening and welcome to The American Experience. I’m David McCullough. At the start of spring in the year 1846 an appealing advertisement appeared in the Springfield, Illinois, Gazette. ”Westward ho,” it declared. ”Who wants to go to California without costing them anything? As many as eight young men of good character who can drive an ox team will be accommodated. Come, boys, you can have as much land as you want without costing you anything.” The notice was signed G. Donner, George Donner, leader of what was to become the most famous of all the hundreds of wagon trains to start for the far west, the tragic, now nearly mythic Donner Party. For years Western scholars and novelists have been drawn to

the story, yet until now there has been no documentary. Ric Burns’s film is a first. Westward ho, indeed. If ever there was a moment when America seemed in the grip of some great, out-of-the-ordinary pull, it was in 1846. The whole mood was for movement, expansion, and the whole direction was westward. It was in 1846 that the Mormons set out on their trek to the Great Salt Lake. It was in 1846 that the Mexican war began and effectively all of Texas, Mexico and California were added to the United States. And it wasn’t just young men who answered the call. Whole families and people of all stations in life joined the caravan, which is part of the fascination of our haunting story. One is struck, for example, by how many women there were in the Donner party and how many of them

survived the horrific ordeal they met. Imagine packing up an entire household, saying good-bye to all you’ve known and setting off to walk essentially to walk to California, a continent away, little knowing what was in store. ALEXIS DE QUEVILLE: ”It is odd to watch with what feverish ardor Americans pursue prosperity. Ever tormented by the shadowy suspicion that they may not have chosen the shortest route to get it. They cleave to the things of this world as if assured that they will never die, and yet rush to snatch any that comes within their reach as if they expected to stop living before they had relished them. Death steps in, in the end, and stops them before they have grown tired of this futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes them.” NARRATOR: It

began in the 1840s, spurred on by financial panic in the East, by outbreaks of cholera and malaria and by the ceaseless American hankering to move west. When the pioneer movement began, fewer than 20,000 white Americans lived west of the Mississippi River. Ten years later the immigration had swelled to a flood and before it was over more than half a million men, women and children had stepped off into the wilderness at places like Independence, Missouri, and headed out over the long road to Oregon and California. In places their wagon wheels carved ruts shoulder deep in the rocky road. The settlers themselves knew they were making history. ”It will be received,” one emigrant wrote, ”as a legend on the borderland of myth.” But of all the stories to come out of the West,

none has cut more deeply into the imagination of the American people than the tale of the Donner Party, high in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846. HAROLD SCHINDLER, Writer: Human endeavor and failure, blunders, mistakes, ambition, greed all the elements. And if you call the rescue of the surviving parties a happy ending, it’s a happy ending. But what about those that didn’t make it, that terrible, terrible. JOSEPH KING, Historian: I think we’re curious, you know, about people who’ve experienced hardship, who’ve gone through terrible ordeals, and certainly the Donner Party, you know, 87 people, went through a crisis the like of which few human beings have ever faced. And we’re curious about that. It can tell us something, I think, about ourselves, about the