The Best Land Under Heaven
The Donner Party in the age of Manifest Destiny
Michael Wallis, 2017, 453 pages
It would not seem that we need another book about the Donner Party. There are lots, going back almost to the time of the tragedy, addressing the story from different angles with different emphases. Just take a look at the book review page on our website (donnersummithistoricalsociety.org) or the book review section of our Heirloom article index (on all the Heirloom pages on our website).
On the other hand the subtitle of this book, “The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny” sounds really erudite and who doesn’t want to appear erudite? That subtitle made me pick it up. I must also say I was primed because the author’s assistant gave us a call asking for permission to use two photographs.
Best Land Under Heaven is a serious history book by a serious historian. It’s heavily footnoted, it puts the story into the context of the time and as part of that history that made the United States today. Most other books about the Donner Party focus on the story of the journey and the tragedy. There is little or no context for those authors; it’s just a story to be told. History is much more than that.
The beginning of “Best Land…” puts the Donner Party in the context of the national philosophy of Manifest Destiny describing the incessant hunger for new land. It was God’s will that the United States expand from ocean to ocean. The Donner Party characters exemplify Manifest Destiny and the incessant hunger for land. The Donner families were serial movers, having even briefly tried Texas before embarking for California and looking for new opportunities. So it was only natural that when California appeared in the distance they’d have to go. That’s not something approached by other books on the subject.
Putting the Donner Party into that context of Manifest Destiny gives the treatment added weight so that’s one thing that separates the book from others on the same subject.
This book is also different from others on the same subject because there is a lot of extra detail. For example the backgrounds of the protagonists is very detailed and some of that background gives motivation for the move and a sense of character. For example, James Reed had numerous business ventures and was in financial difficulty when he left for California. California was a new opportunity. He could get land and erase his problems. Given that he started buying land immediately on his arrival in California means he had taken money with him and that leaves open the possibility that he had not declared all of his assets when he declared bankruptcy. The reader remembers too that Reed left the wagon train when he was expelled with nothing. His daughter brought him guns and a horse. Apparently Reed had his money with him. There are lots of other details too. Connections to Abraham Lincoln are explored. James Reed’s horse was named Glaucus. In Greek mythology Glaucus was a nobleman who fed his horses human flesh. The horses eventually turned on him and ate him alive. That’s an ironic fact given the end of the Donner Party story. During James Reed’s and William McCutcheon’s aborted rescue attempt they had gotten to Emigrant Gap where they met Jotham Curtis and his wife. The Curtises were cooking their dog, having run out of food. Reed and McCutcheon shared their food and led the Curtises to Sutter’s Fort when they had to give up their rescue attempt. Later Reed took up a lieutenancy in the Mexican War and had to see Curtis discharged for failure to obey orders and insubordination. Then Curtis was part of the first rescue party going to rescue the Donner Party. Once he got to the wagon he’d abandoned at Emigrant Gap he would go no further. There are also details about California, such as the discussion of looting of the Californios by Americans including Reed’s commanding officer, Captain Weber. Author Michael Wallis went to a lot of trouble to ferret out the many details and connections that other authors have left out of the same story.
Other Donner Party books are more cursory and focus on the journey and various stories within that larger story but without exploring other aspects.
The extra detail about the Donner Party, the trip, California, and the main characters’ backgrounds is interesting. The telling of the story is on a par with other treatments of the disaster.
The sub title of the book leads one to think there is even more here but after the brief discussion of manifest destiny at the beginning and showing how the Donners and the Reeds were examples of being “foot soldiers in the vanguard for Manifest Destiny” the subject is dropped in favor of the trip across the country. Maybe there is nothing more to say which means the title is really a teaser. The author does come back to the subject very briefly at the end with an irony, “What made the Donner Party so distinctive was that this group of people had originally set out to civilize what they saw as a barbaric land. The acts of survival cannibalism refigured their story with a cruel twist – the civilizers themselves became savages.” That’s interesting, clever, and clearly true but hardly justifies getting my hopes for erudition up when I ordered the book. That said, while writing this I started to think about how to follow up the title.
The story is well told. The details are interesting and give better perspective. The footnotes are useful and interesting to scan. How could the story have lived up to the title better? The “Aftermath” section is only a few pages. It could have been fleshed out to show how the characters fulfilled Manifest Destiny. How did they fit into California and help build the State and the Nation? How much land did the survivors acquire? How did these “foot soldiers” implement Manifest Destiny in California?
If you have not read a book about the Donner Party this is really good. If you have and are well familiar with the tale then these 357 pages are repetitious unless you want to read along for the occasional detail Wallis has found that you did not know.