The saga of the Donner Party is one of the most horrific and fascinating events in the history of the American West. A cautionary tale at the time, it becomes in Michael Wallis’s thorough and persuasive new telling, “The Best Land Under Heaven,’’ emblematic of the more shadowy aspects of Manifest Destiny.
Most Americans know the outline of the story but less of the details. The group took its name from the family who led the wagon train of 87 migrants from Illinois to the edge of the Sierra Nevada until by snowy October 1846 they could go no further. Only 46 would survive.
Over six long months, the starving migrants first turned to their cattle for sustenance, then their pet dogs, then their rawhide shoelaces, then finally to one another. Years later Georgia Donner, who was a child during the ordeal, recalled a camp story about her Aunt Elizabeth in a letter to a historian. “What do you think I cooked this morning?” Elizabeth asked her sister in law, Tamzene. “ ‘[Samuel] Shoemaker’s arm.’ ”
That note of Midwestern understatement informs this welcome update of a nightmarish tale that has been told many times before. In his version Wallis does not skirt the horror but sees more than one story. “This Gothic tale of cannibalism,” he writes, “draws a real parallel between individuals consuming flesh and the desire of a country to consume the continent.” The Donner Party wasn’t headed for an American state, after all. It was bound for the Mexican territory of Alta California. “[T]hey were convinced that the lands on the far side of the continent were theirs for the taking.” A Faustian sense of overreach permeates Wallis’s narrative as the migrants brag of “killing more buffalo than we can [eat].” Such are the spoils of Manifest Destiny.
Wallis traces the journey from its ecstatic beginning in April 1846 when, as Virginia Reed would later recall, “we were full of hope and did not dream of sorrow” to Fort Bridger in present-day Wyoming. There in late June the group made its fateful decision to follow a risky cutoff described by Lansford Hastings, an opportunistic real estate promoter, rather than the established Oregon Trail.
By the time they arrived at Truckee (now known as Donner) Lake well behind schedule in late October, several in the party had already died. Most significantly, winter had begun. “Death no longer startled the Donner Party,” writes Wallis, “but it continued to stalk them.”
The book’s second half focuses on the group’s time in their “camp of snow and suffering” as one survivor described it, and their many attempts at escape and rescue. Slowly they begin to understand the direness of their predicament as well as the gravity of their choices: to share food or not, to leave a family member behind or not. “Survival did not depend on being fearless,” Wallis writes. “It was about the ability to make decisions.”
Some attempted to cross the mountains on foot and find help at John Sutter’s fort 100 miles west in what is now Sacramento. It was on one of these journeys in late December that the first act of cannibalism took place. Two months after their last real meal, a group of desperate, dying pioneers watched their comrade Patrick Dolan succumb to hypothermia and starvation, then butchered and roasted him. “[I]t was said that when the emigrants ate the first human flesh, they avoided eye contact and wept.”
Horrifying as it is, this is also a story of incredible perseverance and heroism. Four separate relief parties braved the trek into “the wildest of the wild portions of the earth,” as John Reed described it, to save the survivors, each rescuer carrying a child on their back. And mothers such as Tamzene Donner sacrificed their own lives for those of their husbands and children — often in vain.
The survivors settled in California, some achieving their dreams of success and some becoming recluses, but the memory of that winter never disappeared. “When she was thirteen and had just been rescued from the mountains,” writes Wallis, “Virginia [Reed] vowed that she would never again be caught without food . . . Until the day she died . . . she had cookies or candy with her at all times.”
Sensational stories of the Donner Party spread across the nation in 1847, “this group of people [who] had originally set out to civilize what they saw as a barbaric land . . . civilizers [who] themselves became savages.” It dissuaded many would-be pioneers from following their trail — but only for a year. In January 1848 gold was discovered on Sutter’s land, prompting over 100,000 prospectors to make the journey over Donner Pass and the United States to claim California as its 31st state in 1850. That ensuing bonanza eclipsed the horrors — and lessons — of the Donner Party. Their fate was still a tragedy, but nothing that would stop or even slow the onward progress of American empire.
THE BEST LAND UNDER HEAVEN:
The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny
By Michael Wallis
Norton, 455 pp., illustrated, $27.95
Buzzy Jackson, a historian and author of the novel “Effie Perine’’ and other books, can be reached at AskBuzzy@gmail.com.