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The savage and perennially exaggerated ordeal of the Donner Party


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

By Michael Wallis


453 pages, $27.99

It’s been 170 years since a wagon train destined for California from Springfield, Ill. got itself hung up in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountain range during a freakishly long and severe winter.

Only about half of the 80 or so emigrants to a promised life of plenty in the fertile Sacramento Valley survived the at-first brutal, and then later, the truly savage ordeal.

All their belongings except a few children’s trinkets and a handful of coins – their household goods, their livestock and tools, their wagons, family heirlooms, gold coins and cloth – were lost or abandoned along the way.

Yet their tragic tale of distress, hopelessness and human degradation was forever imprinted in the annals of American pioneering legend as the tale of the failed Donner Party.

There have been numerous historical accounts, documentaries, several hundred novels and nearly a dozen films, most in search of imagined heroes or villains.  Even the newspaper accounts of the day were grossly exaggerated, often containing more fiction than fact.

Now Michael Wallis, a best-selling author of American folk history, has attempted through modern research methods to separate fact from fantasy, truth from myth, in his latest book, “The Best Land Under Heaven.”

It is fortunate for author Wallis that a few direct descendants of the ill-fated party were able to recall long-ago tales told by parents or grandparents of the horrendous images forever burned into the memories of the survivors.  But most of those accounts are traced back to survivors who were children or teenagers during the journey, and whose memories were clouded by the sights and smells of death all around them.

Just as fortunate for Wallis are the authenticated letters and journals of several members of the party.  Notable are those of James Reed, patriarch of one of only two families to survive intact, and the letters of Tomzene Donner, whose body never was recovered from the Donners’ makeshift winter shelter.  Neither was her journal, but she had sent large portions of it back East in letters.

Tomzene was a tough Massachusetts schoolteacher who managed to keep some of the Donner children alive long enough to be rescued.  She insisted on remaining behind with her stricken husband, George, until he could be carried out of the mountains.  Neither survived.

It was as normal in 1846 for people on life-changing adventures to document their travels in writing as it is today for travelers to shoot hundreds of selfies along the route of an adventurous journey.   And the roughly 2100-mile trek from central Illinois to California, over mountain ranges and through a desert like nothing these hardy folks ever had encountered east of the Mississippi, certainly qualified as a life-changing adventure, even in the best of times.

Most readers are familiar with the outline of the saga of the wagon train that would become known as the Donner Party.  It set out in the spring of 1846 from Springfield on the familiar route to Independence, Missouri, the western edge of the United States.  There it would join the Oregon Trail northwest across prairie land before veering southwest to California.

Somewhere in today’s southwest corner of Wyoming, they would take a disastrous shortcut, suggested by an unscrupulous land speculator named Lansford Hastings, through the Utah desert, which would set them back a full month and cost them much of their livestock.

Mistakes were made from the very beginning.  Miscalculations and misplaced trust in promised guides, plus a pioneer stubbornness and an ignorance of the daunting task lying ahead of them, put the party well behind schedule.

And finally, a freak Oct. 16 mountain snowstorm marooned the party on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, not far from today’s Lake Tahoe.  The emigrants actually had reached today’s California border, but even if they were aware, it would have been of little comfort.

Storm after storm – the snow pack was measured at 22 feet at one point – prevented the weakened travelers from reaching the summit, and with dwindling provisions, there was no safe retreat. So they dug in.  Their winter camps would provide the final resting places for nearly half the party.

And for the survivors, the camps would be the sites of horror stories too terrible to tell.

The most savage of these stories, of course, were those of cannibalism practiced to sustain life once the provisions were exhausted.  Wallis concludes that although contemporary accounts were exaggerated and in many cases totally falsified for their sensational impact, there is irrefutable evidence that some of the emigrants survived on the boiled and roasted remains of those who died.

Wallis’ book becomes a tour de force adventure story as he describes the four relief parties out of John Sutter’s fort in the Sacramento Valley which would eventually lead half the party to safety.

The author recounts in vividly descriptive language the week-by-week account of the journey in fully annotated detail.  His heavy reliance on the words of the emigrants lends credence to his tale while revealing the participants’ innermost thoughts.

While never denying the miserable savagery of the party when faced with death, Wallis dwells on the collective humanity that allowed the saving of the lives of half the party.  It is significant that so many of the survivors were children, teenaged girls and mothers, dispelling stories that brute strength overtook the besieged party.

Wallis is masterful in describing the conditions of those who opened the West in 1846.  It is estimated there were 460 wagons on the trails that year.  Incidentally, that was prior to the discovery of gold in California.  California still was part of Mexico when the George and Jacob Donner families left Illinois, and unbeknown to them as they traveled, the U.S., under President James K. Polk, was undertaking the Mexican War which would lead to California becoming the 31st state.

It is telling that the emigrants expected to cross the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada with herds of cattle and overloaded wagons of household goods.  And just as telling was that most of them never had experienced snow remaining on the ground for more than a few days.  The Donners were planners and plodders.  “They failed to heed good advice in favor of bad advice,” our author notes.  None of the four Donner adults survived the journey.

There is a touch of irony in that the man who did the most to organize the rescue parties, James Reed, had been banished from the Donner wagon train along the trail.  Forcibly separated from his wife and children, Reed made his way safely to Sutter’s fort ahead of the snows.

The emigrants were strong-willed and obdurate.  Their dreams were based as much on imagination as on the writings and maps of land speculators and entrepreneurs. Places like Sutter’s fort and the fort below Laramie Peak were not yet government outposts in 1846.  They were safe harbors along the trail, the equivalent of today’s truck stops.

These people had great faith: Almost unrealistic faith in themselves and their superhuman abilities; faith in the protection of their God; and an almost naive faith in their fellow man, that he was trustworthy, truthful and caring.  In some cases, their faith was well placed.  In others, it was sadly and tragically misplaced.

Wallis’ book is a marvel in that he is able to sustain high adventure and remain within the constraints of history while revealing the aspirations of a group of Americans who would be so foreign to us only 170 year later.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor. 

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