Death via Man­i­fest Destiny

Michael Wal­lis on the Don­ner Party


For his­to­rian Michael Wal­lis, the story of the Don­ner Party rep­re­sents the worst ills of Man­i­fest Destiny. In his new book, The Best Land Un­der Heaven: The Don­ner Party in the Age of Man­i­fest Destiny (Liveright/W.W. Nor­ton), Wal­lis tracks the har­row­ing jour­ney of the multi-fam­ily wagon train that struck out west from Illi­nois in the spring of 1846, fol­low­ing the pop­u­lar doc­trine that it was their duty as Amer­i­cans, sanc­tioned by God, to set­tle the Wild West. The fate of these pi­o­neers be­came a lurid sym­bol of the per­ils of con­ti­nen­tal ex­pan­sion when, snow­bound and starv­ing in the Sierra Ne­vada moun­tains dur­ing the fol­low­ing win­ter, sev­eral re­sorted to can­ni­bal­ism to sur­vive. Wal­lis writes in the book’s in­tro­duc­tion, “This Gothic tale of can­ni­bal­ism draws a real par­al­lel be­tween in­di­vid­u­als con­sum­ing flesh and the de­sire of a coun­try to con­sume the con­ti­nent.”

The au­thor, who reads from his book at Col­lected Works Book­store on Fri­day, July 28, said the sub­ject was a nat­u­ral one for his 18th book, af­ter his bi­ogra­phies of le­gendary West­ern fig­ures like Billy the Kid and Davy Crock­ett. “I like to find sub­jects that have been so tied up in le­gend and myth and just plain old yarns, some­times even out­right lies,” Wal­lis said. “I like to un­wrap them and ex­pose the true story.” In the case of the Don­ner Party, this meant telling the en­tire back story of the wagon train, which Wal­lis said other au­thors have glossed over in fa­vor of fo­cus­ing on the gorier de­tails of the story. “Of course, if it wasn’t for the sur­vival can­ni­bal­ism, they would’ve just been a foot­note,” he said. “They would’ve been like other car­a­vans who slipped over the Sier­ras. But I wanted to give a big­ger pic­ture so peo­ple knew who these peo­ple were, where they came from, what they did, what mo­ti­vated them — what caused them to de­cide to an­swer this siren call of Man­i­fest Destiny.”

The Best Land Un­der Heaven pro­files the in­deli­ble char­ac­ters of what was then known as the Don­ner-Reed Party. In ad­di­tion to the sixty-year-old patriarch Ge­orge Don­ner and his forty-four-year-old school­teacher wife Tamzene Don­ner — an in­de­pen­dent, ac­com­plished woman who re­fused to leave her ail­ing hus­band’s side, and paid with her life — Wal­lis charts the ex­tra­or­di­nary tra­jec­tory of James Reed, the heroic Ir­ish im­mi­grant and good friend of Abra­ham Lin­coln who spear­headed mul­ti­ple ef­forts to res­cue the sur­vivors in the Sier­ras de­spite his months-ear­lier ban­ish­ment from the party on the trail. Reed, whose motto was “Per­se­vere,” rode a gray rac­ing mare, Glau­cus, named for a mytho­log­i­cal Greek no­ble­man who fed his horses hu­man flesh only to have the mares turn on him af­ter a char­iot crash and eat him alive. “Only later in 1846 would the irony of the name of Reed’s horse be­come ap­par­ent,” Wal­lis writes. Reed’s daugh­ter Patty, who was eight when her fam­ily made their jour­ney across the coun­try, clung stead­fastly to her four-inch-long doll through­out the or­deal, de­spite the fam­ily’s even­tual di­vest­ment of all their pos­ses­sions along the trail. She later do­nated her cher­ished Dolly to Sut­ter’s Fort, which dis­plays a replica of it to this day.

The story’s vil­lain is the over­land ex­plorer Lans­ford Hast­ings, who pub­lished the pop­u­lar The Emi­grants’ Guide to Ore­gon and Cal­i­for­nia in 1845. The Don­ners had in their pos­ses­sion a wellthumbed copy of the travel guide, in which Hast­ings de­tailed a short­cut through the Wasatch Moun­tains of Utah, pass­ing south of Salt Lake and across the salt flats to re­join the Cal­i­for­nia Trail at the Hum­boldt River. Though the au­thor had not per­son­ally trav­eled what be­came known as the Hast­ings Cut­off when he wrote his guide, he nonethe­less en­thu­si­as­ti­cally pro­moted his route to set­tlers, hop­ing to sell land in Cal­i­for­nia to the new­com­ers. Hast­ings was fi­nally try­ing out the short­cut him­self weeks ahead of the Don­ner Party,

leav­ing notes to them on the trail about his progress. De­spite warn­ings about the reck­less­ness of di­vert­ing from the proven route west, Don­ner, Reed, and other fam­i­lies and team­sters, run­ning short of time be­fore the com­ing win­ter would make the com­ple­tion of their jour­ney im­pos­si­ble, made the fa­tal choice to fol­low Hast­ings’ lead — and then the 30 miles of parched, bar­ren salt flats that the guide had fore­cast turned into more than 80. Given that they were al­ready the last wagon train on the Cal­i­for­nia Trail that sea­son, the trav­el­ers found them­selves in se­ri­ous trou­ble, lack­ing fresh wa­ter and run­ning low on food. The Hast­ings Cut­off proved dis­as­trous to the fate of the party, not only slow­ing their progress but caus­ing them to aban­don goods and wag­ons and lose valu­able live­stock, which were weak­ened and ail­ing from the ar­du­ous jour­ney across the desert.

Six pages af­ter Hast­ings’ ac­count of the al­ter­na­tive route in The Emi­grants’ Guide, he of­fered much more valu­able ad­vice to those who were bound for Cal­i­for­nia: “Un­less you pass over the moun­tains early in the fall, you are very li­able to be de­tained, by im­pass­able moun­tains of snow, un­til the next spring, or per­haps, for­ever.” By the time the party had reached Truc­kee Lake, on the other side of the Sier­ras from Sut­ter’s Fort, it was too late; win­ter snows had blocked the pass. Wal­lis com­pares the ar­rival of the heavy snow to “a scene from Celtic lore when the dead rose from their graves.” Lewis Ke­se­burg, the last sur­vivor to be found in April 1847, de­scribed the win­try hor­ror years later: “In the night I felt some­thing im­ped­ing my breath. A heavy weight seemed to be rest­ing on me. … The camp, the cat­tle, my com­pan­ions, had all dis­ap­peared. All I could see was snow ev­ery­where. I shouted at the top of my voice. Sud­denly, here and there, all about me, heads popped up through the snow. The scene was not un­like what one might imag­ine at the res­ur­rec­tion, when peo­ple rise up out of the earth. The ter­ror amounted to panic. The mules were lost, the cat­tle strayed away, and our fur­ther progress ren­dered im­pos­si­ble.”

For Wal­lis, what hap­pened next is the an­swer to one sim­ple ques­tion: What would you do? Des­per­a­tion grew in the win­ter camps. As snow piled up and Christ­mas ap­proached, oxen died. Fam­i­lies be­gan boil­ing down bones, cat­tle hides, and twigs into a con­coc­tion de­scribed as “glue,” as well as catch­ing mice and killing dogs for meat. Mothers and fa­thers be­came emo­tion­ally un­sta­ble and deliri­ous, and as peo­ple be­gan to die of star­va­tion, con­sum­ing their re­mains be­came the pri­mary means of sur­vival — though most were care­ful not to par­take of the flesh of fam­ily mem­bers. “There would be no ques­tion in my mind that my knife would be out,” Wal­lis said, de­fend­ing the party’s de­ci­sion to can­ni­bal­ize their dead. “It’s re­ally, par­don the ex­pres­sion, a no-brainer. If your chil­dren are be­fore you, freez­ing to death, starv­ing to death — you’re do­ing the same, and there are these stores of pro­tein in the snow­banks right out­side, there’s ab­so­lutely no ques­tion what you would have to do. If you wouldn’t do that, it would be crim­i­nal. You’re com­mit­ting sui­cide and killing your chil­dren.”

Of the 87 peo­ple trapped in the moun­tains for six months, 46 sur­vived, with the death toll high­est among the very young and the old­est. Wal­lis at­tributes the higher sur­vival rate of the women to their ma­ter­nal roles. “The women of this party are, as a whole, phe­nom­e­nal. More women did sur­vive than men. And of course, some of the first to die were small in­fants and the el­derly, but then those young bucks, the eigh­teen, nine­teen-year-old team­sters who, in fact, had ex­erted a lot of en­ergy. But more im­por­tant than that, what those young sin­gle men did not have was a fam­ily unit. It was re­ally the women, the mothers and the older daugh­ters of this party, who kept their fam­ily alive. That was their fo­cus,” he said. James Reed’s wife Mar­gret doled out small and fiercely guarded ra­tions of meat to her chil­dren, keep­ing the faith that her hus­band would re­turn with a res­cue party, as he even­tu­ally did. “When the go­ing re­ally got tough, it was Mar­gret Reed that kept that fam­ily to­gether,” said Wal­lis. He added, “It re­ally should’ve been called the Reed Party. I mar­vel at the Reed fam­ily. I think they’re a very in­ter­est­ing group. The two fam­i­lies that sur­vived in their en­tirety were the Breens and the Reeds, but the Reeds were the only ones who never par­took of hu­man flesh. They didn’t hold it over any­one for do­ing that. But Mar­gret Reed saw that whole thing through.” Un­til Patty Reed’s older sis­ter Vir­ginia died in 1921 at the age of eighty-seven, she kept cook­ies or candy with her at all times. Af­ter be­ing res­cued from her or­deal, she wrote a few words of re­silient ad­vice to her cousin back in Illi­nois: “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.”

Sev­eral the­o­ries about the Don­ner Party take hold in Wal­lis’ book. In one sense, they were sim­ply the un­luck­i­est pos­si­ble wagon train of 1846. They also fell vic­tim to bad ad­vice, a lack of per­sis­tence, and rash de­ci­sion-mak­ing. But the au­thor main­tains that their fa­tal flaw lay pri­mar­ily in their blind de­vo­tion to Man­i­fest Destiny it­self, with its prom­ise of vast, empty land just wait­ing to be taken and tamed by An­g­los from the East. “This land wasn’t empty,” Wal­lis said, not­ing that most of the South­west and Cal­i­for­nia be­longed to Mex­ico at the time. “And the rest of the land up through the Great Plains into the Northwest was filled with In­dian tribes. But they ra­tio­nal­ized that this didn’t re­ally mat­ter be­cause those weren’t re­ally hu­man be­ings any­way. And that’s an­other thing that back­fired on them his­tor­i­cally, be­cause the hard­core be­liev­ers in Man­i­fest Destiny felt that the Don­ner Party — al­though they may have been foot sol­diers of Man­i­fest Destiny — they to­tally failed be­cause they didn’t con­quer the land.”

“There’s great rel­e­vancy for this story to­day. There are peo­ple liv­ing to­day who are still big be­liev­ers in Man­i­fest Destiny,” Wal­lis said. “Those same thoughts echo to­day with these be­liefs in Amer­ica’s ex­cep­tion­al­ism. As one fel­low his­to­rian told me, what was true in the day of the Don­ner Party and what is true to­day are two words that ring loud and clear in my ears — ig­no­rance and ar­ro­gance. And I still find both in great sup­ply to­day.”


Right, the 4-inch Patty Reed doll in the Sut­ter’s Fort col­lec­tion; above, a page from Pa­trick Breen’s di­ary, Feb. 1847: “Mrs. Mur­phy said here yes­ter­day that she thought she would com­mence on Milton and eat him. I do not think she has done so yet; it is dis­tress­ing.”

View of Truc­kee Lake from Don­ner Pass in 1868, as the Cen­tral Pa­cific Rail­road neared com­ple­tion

This Gothic tale of can­ni­bal­ism draws a real par­al­lel be­tween in­di­vid­u­als con­sum­ing flesh and the de­sire of a coun­try to con­sume the con­ti­nent. — Michael Wal­lis

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