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The Donner Party and the Rhetoric of Westward Expansion

From: Rhetoric & Public Affairs
Volume 14, Number 2, Summer 2011
pp. 229-260 | 10.1353/rap.2010.0224



There have been numerous studies of the frontier myth as it operated in the early republic and throughout our history. As a result of this work, we know a lot about the frontier myth, its history, elements, and ideological functioning. We know less, however, about how that myth developed when its ideological elements met the empirical realities of western emigration. I argue that four specific cultural fictions—erasure, civilization, community, and democracy—are integral elements of the larger fiction of the American frontier myth. By understanding them through the vehicle of the Donner Party narratives, we can deepen our understanding of that myth and the ways in which it operates and resonates throughout the national culture and contributes to the development of American national identity.

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