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DAVID McCULLOUGH Host Good evening and welcome to The American Experience Im 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 Burnss 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 wasnt 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 youve known and setting off to walk essentially to walk to California a continent away little knowing what was in store ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE It is odd to watch with what feverish ardor Americans pursue prosperity Ever tormented
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