Setting The Record Straight On The Donner Party

Book review: The Best Land Under Heaven, by Michael Wallis

For as much true crime as I read and watch, I draw the line at cannibalism and anything near it. I mean, you have to have a line, you know? I’m fine with my extreme squeamishness about it. I feel like it would be worse if I wasn’t.

Two summers ago, I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, an enthralling narrative nonfiction account of the sinking of the whaler Essex, the story of which would inspire Moby Dick. There’s cannibalism involved among those sailors struggling to survive on the open ocean, but that book was so good I remember spending a sweltering summer day parked in front of a fan in my living room, absolutely riveted to it despite cannibalism being involved.

So I have my exceptions, but I wasn’t planning to read this new history of the Donner Party, because why think about cannibalism if you can not be thinking about cannibalism? Good logic until I caught this interview on NPR with author Michael Wallis, who’s already written several books of American West history, and realized there’s much more to this chapter of history than I’d allowed myself to consider. He’s quoted there as explaining “the focus continues to be on the cannibalism itself, when in fact there’s so much more. That’s why I wanted to tell the back story.” I’m guilty of thinking that, so he had me intrigued.

As a bonus, I saw that Wallis also voices the sheriff in the Cars movies. I love his very cool jobs.

So what exactly happened? In brief, a large wagon train led by the Donner brothers, George and Jacob, and their families set off from Springfield, Illinois in 1846, heading for the then-unincorporated territories of California and Oregon. All involved had different dreams and plans for their life after emigration, including utilizing the allegedly rich farmland, opening schools for other settlers, or recouping fortunes lost back east.

Against more experienced advice, businessman James Reed, also a leader and organizer in the wagon train (and a pal of Abraham Lincoln’s), pushed for taking the Hastings Cutoff; an alternative route across Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and Great Salt Lake Desert that they were told was less roundabout, therefore faster. Instead, it delayed them by three weeks, landing them right where they didn’t want to be: stuck trying to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains during a vicious early winter.

The Donner and Reed families had fractured from the main wagon train because of the Hastings Cutoff decision, and the now so-called Donner Party faced starvation. They were behind schedule and had lost many supplies and animals during unanticipated hardships they’d suffered traveling along the Humboldt River during their detour, and in skirmishes with resident Indians. They ate what remained of the animals, and eventually as their numbers dwindled from starvation, they gave in to survival instincts and cannibalized the remains. Roughly half of the entire party perished, most while snowed in near Truckee (now Donner) Lake in the Sierra Nevadas.

One of the craziest side stories was that Reed killed a man in a fight and got banished from the group, so he’d ridden ahead to Sutter’s Fort in California for supplies to take back to the families. But he likewise got trapped by the early brutal winter, and then got caught up in the Mexican War. He was roped in and fought as a Lieutenant before finally successfully organizing multiple relief expeditions that were able to reach and rescue the survivors.

Reading things like this, I’m just in awe of what comprises our history and what kind of privileged lives most of us lead today. The world of our country’s earliest days is equal parts unimaginable and fascinating.

Wallis calls the emigrants “early foot soldiers of Manifest Destiny” and although he doesn’t offer too much in the way of opinion on topics of Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism, they’re the ever-present undercurrent of this historical episode. He makes a fascinating observation to guide our own thinking, positing that “This Gothic tale of cannibalism draws a real parallel between individuals consuming flesh and the desire of a country to consume the continent.”

Excerpts from diaries or survivor accounts give glimpses into mindsets, personalities and occurrences. They run the gamut of emotions, understandably. Settlers began with so much hope and we know how they ended up. Survivor Eliza Donner wrote of the emigrants’ last night in Springfield before departing westward, “They piled more wood on the blazing fire, making it a beacon light to those who were watching from afar. They sang songs, told tales, and for the time being drove homesickness from our hearts. Then they rode away in the moonlight, and our past was a sweet memory, our future a beautiful dream.”

History is so often distilled into its most memorable, exciting or scandalous moments, and it’s easy to forget the real people who actually lived those moments, and that there was more to their lives and motivations buried under the memorable bits that have filtered down through the centuries.

The Donner story has captured our imaginations and caused us to draw many parallels. I read a rerelease of Joan Didion’s essay collection After Henry where she’d woven a line from survivor Virginia Reed’s letter to a cousin into a sprawling but never disconnected piece about Patty Hearst, California, and a letter by Didion’s own ancestor. Something about this story captivates us still, and has been doing so for a long time.

Wallis succeeds in what he discussed in the NPR interview; I learned there was so much more to this than I’d understood, it’s not just a gruesome horror story from America’s past that we should close our eyes to. I’m glad to know more of it. This excellent account is thoroughly researched, page-turning, and never once verges into the dry or dull. It offers a clear, compellingly written narrative of what transpired and why, allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions about what lessons this corner of history teaches.

But here’s one example, that moving line from Virginia’s letter, which closes this book and which spoke powerfully to Didion too (Virginia is a brave total badass, by the way):

“We have left everything, but I don’t care for that. We have got through with our lives. Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody. Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.”

The Best Land Under Heaven:
The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny
by Michael Wallis
published June 6, 2017 by Liveright (W.W. Norton)

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