The Donner Party and the American Character

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According to the thesis of Fredrick Jackson Turner, the frontier changed America. Americans, from the earliest settlement, were always on the frontier, for they were always expanding to the west. It was Manifest Destiny; spreading American culture westward was so apparent and so powerful that it couldn’t be stopped. Turner’s Frontier Theory says that this continuous exposure to the frontier has shaped the American character. The frontier made the American settlers revert back to the primitive, stripping them from their European culture. They then created something brand new; it’s what we know today as the American character. Turner argues that we, as a culture, are a product of the frontier. The uniquely American personality includes such traits as individualism, futuristic, democratic, aggressiveness, inquisitiveness, materialistic, expedite, pragmatic, and optimistic. And perhaps what exemplifies this American personality the most is the story of the Donner Party. When their journey began in 1846, the members of the Donner and Reed families had high hopes of reaching California, and they would settle at nothing less. Their dream of making a new life for themselves represented great determination. When their packed wagons rolled out of Springfield, Missouri, they thought of their future lives in California. The Reed family’s two-story wagon was actually called the “pioneer palace car”, because it was full of everything imaginable including an iron stove and cushioned seats and bunks for sleeping. They didn’t want to leave their materialistic way of life at home. However, the Donner Party also possessed the American trait of expediency, which ultimately caused their party many deaths. Taking the advice of Lansford Hastings, the author of The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, the Donner Party took the supposed new and faster route that cut under the Great Salt Lake to California. However, even when they were trapped under several feet of Sierra Nevada snows, they didn’t give up; perseverance and optimism prevailed. Soon after many days trapped in makeshift shelters beneath the mountains, the emigrants ran out of food. With their pragmatic minds, they ate every bit of their oxen they could including boiled hides and charred bones. Being practical, they also ate bark, twigs, and leaves. They had to eat something; it was still survival of the fittest. Some members of the Donner Party were courageous and determined enough to venture over the mountains to California to get relief. A small group set out, along with two Indian guides.

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