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Reflections on the Donner Party

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The Best Land Under Heaven


In The Best Land Under Heaven, Wallis recounts the history of the Donner party, an easily followed trail most of the way. The winter of 1846-47 came early around Truckee (later Donner) Lake, the snow there reaching several feet early in November—at least ten feet later–and making the trail to Frémont (Donner) Summit virtually impassable until February 1847. The stranded emigrants were national news even before the actualities of their ordeal became known: the leadership problems, the arduous and catastrophic Hastings cutoff that sealed the Donner’s party’s fate, the undaunted courage of most of the pioneers, and the cannibalism of others. Still, Wallis deftly uses massive amounts of primary materials to show how and why these families—the Reeds and the Donners—who formed the core of what has come down to us the Donner party, gave up fairly secure situations in Illinois to pursue their individual dreams and become part of the Great Westward Emigration.

For the Donners, brothers George and Jacob, moving from one farm to another, from state to state, from Indiana to North Carolina to Texas to Illinois to California seemed to be part of their DNA. George and Jacob, married collectively many times, and the fathers of flocks, were respectively 62 and 56 in 1846. The Reeds were better off financially, although James Reed’s business ventures had fallen on hard times.  They knew Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglass. They might even be considered to have been ensconced in Illinois society although they didn’t think they received the respect they deserved.

Why did these families decide to go to California, a trip that required at least 120 days of unrelenting toil? The answer lies mostly in their motives and ambitions.  Wallis, as the subtitle suggests, argues that they were swept along, too, in in the currents of their times.  Those currents were running in a strong westerly direction. Manifest Destiny was in the air, and thousands of American were pulled, pushed, and floated westwards. Oregon was the most popular destination until 1848; but some emigrants preferred the prospects of a California destination, such as the Donners and the Reeds.

Until 1848, most of the overland emigrants launched themselves from Independence, Missouri, westwards towards the Platte River, South Pass in Wyoming and then into Oregon—not the state that we know today but a much larger territory that included what would later become Oregon, Washington, and parts of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Wallis provides a nearly day-by-day account of the Donner party’s progress and frequent challenges. Occasionally, his penchant for detail loses the reader in the tall grass of the plains but, thankfully, for him and us, the wagon wheels of previous trains had laid down a well-rutted pathway until the Donner Party reached Fort Bridger in western Wyoming. From there, hoping to save time and distance, they took what would come to be called the Hastings Cutoff, a disastrous decision. No matter how familiar the reader is with the story, or how lost we might get in the details of tall grass, Wallis enlarges on this journey into desolation and despair.


And for the reader who wants to understand more deeply about the larger pushes and pulls of the era, there is no better book to read that Bernard DeVoto’s classic 1942 work, The Year of Decision, 1846. Its underlying theme, too, is Manifest Destiny.  Written in a prose style that is sometimes overly allusive, occasionally pretentious, manifestly brilliant, and vastly entertaining, DeVoto, historian of the American West, pulls together a disparate collection of geographical locations, people, national ambitions, and sectional interests to illuminate for the reader why 1846 turned out to be one of the hinges of 19th century American history. 1846 wasn’t recognized as an important year at the time.  Only in the hands of someone so knowledgeable, skillful, and courageous as DeVoto could all of this fabulously compelling material—places, people and ideas be given a shape and a narrative flow that sometimes leaves the reader breathless. But, in the end, the reader also says, “Aha! I get it.”

I can’t end this review without including Patty Reed’s famous words written to a friend back in Illinois after her horrific experience: “Remember, never take no cutoffs, and hurry along as fast as you can.”  –  Neal Ferguson

Also available by Michael Wallis: Billy the Kid; David Crockett; Pretty Boy; Route 66; The Real Wild West; Mankiller; The Lincoln Highway; Way Down Yonder in the Indian Nation; The West, 365 Days; The Art of Cars; Oil Man, The Story of Frank Phillips and the Birth of Phillips Petroleum; Oklahoma, a Sense of Place; Los Luceros, New Mexico’s Morning Star; Oklahoma Crossroads; Songdog Kiary, 66 Stories from the Road; Hogs on 66, Best Feed and Hangouts for Roadtrips on Route 66; Route 66 Postcards, Greetings from The Mother Road.

Also available by Bernard DeVoto: The Course of Empire; Mark Twain’s America; The Hour, A Cocktail Manifesto; The Western Paradox; Mountain Time; Mark Twain at Work; DeVoto’s West; The Journals of Lewis and Clark.

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The Best Land Under Heaven

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