The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis

I’m going to assume that you know the basic story of the Donner Party.  Just in case, here is the Wikipedia article; it’s fantastic.

I also had a pretty good grasp of their story before reading Michael Wallis’s recent book about them, The Best Land Under Heaven.

So, did I learn anything? Was the book worth reading?

Yes, and mostly yes.

The full extent of what happened to the Donner-Reed party, as it probably should be known, continues to amaze and horrify. The sheer volume of mistakes they made along the way.  Their overall hubris.  Their lack of knowledge.  Their inability to work together to solve even simple problems.  The ways they turned against each other.  Must of this I did not know or had forgotten.

I am even more impressed by the Reed family than I was before reading The Best Land Under Heaven.   I’ve already written about how much I admire young Patty Reed who secretly saved her favorite toy, Dolly, which now sits on display at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento.

Her father James Reed is more of a mixed bag, but I came to admire him by the end of the story.  After he was banished from the party for murder, he managed to get through the Sierra’s before the snow fell. For a time, he was the only person working to put together a rescue party.  At the same time he was buying up land, laying to claim to as much as he could in the months following the Mexican-American War.  As a result, his family was the most successful of those who survived.

He led rescue parties, of which there were four.  At the time there were very few people in California, less than 500 in the village of Yerba Buena which became San Francisco, so putting together even fifteen men to attempt a rescue was a challenge.  They had to be offered a daily wage before they would agree to take part.  Some of them were attracted by the large rewards offered for rescuing children, some by the chance to rob the survivors and the dead of what little wealth they had.

The second rescue party included two men who essentially stole as much as they could and then abandoned several weaker survivors about a mile from the cabins they had built to survive the winter.  The stolen goods included several dresses made from very fine material which had to be buried when it became too difficult to continue the journey carrying their extra weight.

The third rescue party, which included the three Donner sisters, found the dresses buried along with other stolen goods.  One of the men in this party took the dresses and sewed them into capes which the young girls could wear to keep warm. The three sisters loved their new fancy clothes and paraded around in them until they got to safety where the fancy capes were taken away in favor of more modest, much warmer clothes.

I was struck by how the native peoples were treated and by how they treated the lost setlers.  John Sutter, who should be remembered as a truly evil man based on how he treated the native people he kept as slaves, sent two Miwok men known as Luis and Salvador to find the stranded members of the Donner Party and help lead them to safety.  They joined fifteen adults who became known as the Snowshoe Party because they managed to make snowshoes before leaving Truckee Lake, now Donner Lake.  Wondering through the record snowfall, weathering multiple storms, the Snowshoe Party soon ran out of food themselves and began talking about killing Luis and Salvador for food.  The two were warned about this and tried to escape. They were hunted down and most likely murdered.   In spite of this, over half of the Snowshoe Party died before reaching safety.  The survivors provided the first accounts of what was going on high in the Sierras that winter.

Compare this with how the Miwoks treated the survivors, several of whom wandered into one of their camps. They were cared for, fed, provided with some provisions and guided to a series of camps all of which cared for them until they reached the nearest ranch.

For me, though, the story of the Donner Party is the story of Margaret Reed.  Margaret Reed married James Reed after her first husband died from a Cholera epidemic which also killed her sister.  Before leaving Illinois she buried an infant son.  Her sickly mother who had refused to leave her died while on the journey and she had witnessed the fight in which he husband killed a man.  This was before the snowstorms in the Sierras At age 32 she was snowed in with her young children; she had no idea whether her husband was dead or alive, nor any source of food except for the last of the five family dogs, Cash, whom she killed in order to feed her family.

All of this while suffering from debilitating migraines.

At one point, she managed to convince the other families to take in her children so she could join in an attempt to make it over the Sierras to get help.  The party she gathered together was forced to turn back after several days of trudging through the impossibly high levels of snow.

In the end, all of the Reed family survived the winter without resorting to cannibalism.

So, was the book good?

Mostly.

As a straightforward historical narrative, yes.  The story itself is so compelling that the writer doesn’t have to do much to make it interesting.  To his credit, Micheal Wallis allows the story to tell itself.  I’m not familiar enough with the scholarship to say if there is anything really new in The Best Land Under Heaven but there was plenty that was new to me.  I have not mentioned just how close Abraham Lincoln came to joining the Donner Party for example.

But what I didn’t really see was the connection between the Donner Party and Manifest Destiny.  Mr. Wallis does discuss the ways Manifest Destiny had begun to influence so many people in the still young country, but it’s almost an afterthought to the story.  He brings it up in the beginning and again at the end without really delving into much analysis of the subject. .

By the end of the book I suppose the reader knows just about all there is to know about what happened on the trail, but not much about how these events fit into the larger narrative of Manifest Destiny and America.

So I guess I’d give The Best Land Under Heaven four stars out of five.

If I gave books stars.

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