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