How tak­ing a short­cut left the Don­ner Party stranded — and starv­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - HIS­TORY REVIEW BY TI­MOTHY R. SMITH Ti­mothy R. Smith is a for­mer staff mem­ber of Book World.

Sarah Mur­phy Foster sat by a camp­fire in the early win­ter of 1847, griev­ing the death of her brother, Le­muel. “She looked up,” the his­to­rian Michael Wal­lis writes, “and no­ticed some of the em­i­grants on the other side of the fire roast­ing meat spit­ted on sticks. Sud­denly, Sarah re­al­ized she was watch­ing some­one eat the broiled heart of her cher­ished younger brother.”

Her hus­band guided the dis­traught woman away.

Foster was a mem­ber of the Don­ner Party, a band of Amer­i­can pi­o­neers who had set out for Cal­i­for­nia in the spring of 1846. Af­ter a se­ries of mishaps, the party be­came snow­bound in the Sierra Ne­vada moun­tains. Le­muel Mur­phy died of star­va­tion, one of 35 to per­ish that win­ter.

Their story is told by Michael Wal­lis in “The Best Land Un­der Heaven,” an even-handed, briskly writ­ten his­tory of the party, des­tined to be­come the standard ac­count of this hor­rid chap­ter of Amer­i­can his­tory.

Much of the Don­ner Party’s jour­ney was typ­i­cal of the voy­age west. The pi­o­neers traded with In­di­ans, vis­ited fur-trad­ing posts, hunted buf­falo. There were births and mar­riages, deaths and buri­als. A cat­tle driver am­pu­tated a boy’s leg with “a com­mon butcher-knife, a car­pen­ter’s hand­saw, and a shoe­maker’s awl to take up the ar­ter­ies.”

The op­er­a­tion lasted 105 min­utes, and the boy died. Wagon ac­ci­dents, Wal­lis re­ports, were the most fre­quent cause of in­jury and death on the pi­o­neer trails.

That was hardly the worst of it for the Don­ner Party.

The group, much de­layed by a ten­dency to daw­dle, made a cru­cial er­ror when it di­verged from the well-es­tab­lished Cal­i­for­nia Trail above the Great Salt Lake for a short­cut through the desert salt flats be­low the lake. That route was of­fered by Lans­ford Hast­ings in an 1845 guide­book for Ore­gon and Cal­i­for­nia pi­o­neers. It proved to be the party’s un­do­ing.

“The toll of the desert cross­ing was the loss of three dozen animals, four wag­ons, many of the em­i­grants’ be­long­ings and, most im­por­tant, eleven pre­cious days,” Wal­lis writes.

The party en­tered the Sierra Ne­vada in late fall, the worst timing pos­si­ble. Hast­ings ex­plained why: “Un­less you pass over the moun­tains early in the fall,” he wrote, “you are very li­able to be de­tained, by im­pass­able moun­tains of snow, un­til the next spring, or, per­haps, for­ever.”

The group was wal­loped by snow, one of 10 mon­strous, un­for­giv­ing storms to pound the Sier­ras that win­ter.

Stranded in the moun­tains, the party sub­sisted on field mice and twigs and a broth of boiled cat­tle and bi­son hides. The mea­ger sup­plies did lit­tle to stave hunger.

“They grew weaker and fre­quently felt dizzy as their fat re­serves and mus­cles were de­pleted,” Wal­lis writes. “The sim­plest tasks be­came dif­fi­cult. Di­min­ished cir­cu­la­tion caused feet, an­kles, and hands to swell. With con­tin­ued weight loss, the em­i­grants ex­pe­ri­enced painful con­sti­pa­tion fol­lowed by un­con­trol­lable di­ar­rhea. Their im­mune sys­tems broke down, which made them sus­cep­ti­ble to var­i­ous in­fec­tions.”

Some mem­bers of the party re­sorted to can­ni­bal­ism.

It took four re­lief par­ties un­til the spring of 1847 to res­cue the 46 sur­vivors.

The Don­ner Party’s fate, Wal­lis writes, “re­sulted from poor de­ci­sions, in­ad­e­quate prepa­ra­tion, quirks of fate, squadered op­por­tu­ni­ties, and fail­ure to learn from mis­takes.”

One sur­vivor later of­fered a hard-earned les­son: “Re­mem­ber, never take no cut­offs and hurry along as fast as you can.”

THE BEST LAND UN­DER HEAVEN The Don­ner Party in the Age of Man­i­fest Destiny By Michael Wal­lis Liveright. 453 pp. $27.95

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