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


Overview -

"WESTWARD HO FOR OREGON AND CALIFORNIA "

In the eerily warm spring of 1846, George Donner placed this advertisement in a local newspaper as he and a restless caravan prepared for what they hoped would be the most rewarding journey of a lifetime.  Read more...


 
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More About The Best Land Under Heaven by Michael Wallis
 
 
 
Overview

"WESTWARD HO FOR OREGON AND CALIFORNIA "

In the eerily warm spring of 1846, George Donner placed this advertisement in a local newspaper as he and a restless caravan prepared for what they hoped would be the most rewarding journey of a lifetime. But in eagerly pursuing what would a century later become known as the "American dream," this optimistic-yet-motley crew of emigrants was met with a chilling nightmare; in the following months, their jingoistic excitement would be replaced by desperate cries for help that would fall silent in the deadly snow-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada.

We know these early pioneers as the Donner Party, a name that has elicited horror since the late 1840s. Now, celebrated historian Michael Wallis--beloved for his myth-busting portraits of legendary American figures--continues his life's work of parsing fact from fiction to tell the true story of one of the most embroidered sagas in Western history.

Wallis begins the story in 1846, a momentous "year of decision" for the nation, when incredible territorial strides were being made in Texas, New Mexico, and California. Against this dramatic backdrop, an unlikely band of travelers appeared, stratified in age, wealth, education and ethnicity. At the forefront were the Donners: brothers George and Jacob, true sons of the soil determined to tame the wild land of California; and the Reeds, headed by adventurous, business-savvy patriarch James. In total, the Donner-Reed group would reach eighty-seven men, women, and children, and though personal motives varied--bachelors thirsting for adventure, parents wanting greater futures for their children--everyone was linked by the same unwavering belief that California was theirs for the taking.

Skeptical of previous accounts of how the group ended up in peril, Wallis has spent years retracing its ill-fated journey, uncovering hundreds of new documents that illuminate how a combination of greed, backbiting, and recklessness led the group to become hopelessly snowbound at the infamous Donner Pass in present-day California. Climaxing with the grim stories of how the party's paltry rations soon gave way to unimaginable hunger, Wallis not only details the cannibalism that has in perpetuity haunted their legacy but also the heroic rescue parties that managed to reach the stranded, only to discover that just forty-eight had survived the ordeal.

An unflinching and historically invaluable account of the darkest side of Manifest Destiny, The Best Land Under Heaven offers a brilliant, revisionist examination of one of America's most calamitous and sensationalized catastrophes.


 
Details
  • ISBN-13: 9780871407696
  • ISBN-10: 0871407698
  • Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Publish Date: June 2017
  • Page Count: 496
  • Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.85 pounds


Related Categories

Books > History > United States - State & Local - West
Books > History > United States - 19th Century

 
Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2017-02-13
  • Reviewer: Staff

Adopting an empathetic approach bolstered by studious research and geographical contextualization, biographer Wallis (David Crockett) reclaims the horrific story of the infamously ill-fated wagon train from the annals of sensationalism. Though nearly synonymous with cannibalism in pop culture lore, the Donner Party's 18461847 journey receives from Wallis a balanced treatment, showing that the surviving members who chose cannibalism did so as a last resortand largely because saving their starving children was their priority. Wallis effectively mixes survivors' accounts, trip diaries, and other contemporary sources, delving deep into the backgrounds and dynamics of the multiple families involved in the four-months-long winter wilderness encampment. For example, Tamzene Donner transformed from a botanist who planned to open a school into a resilient mother and wife who fed her children human flesh and refused to leave her desperately ill husband during three different rescue efforts. Wallis explains that the caravan suffered multiple setbacks, including livestock thefts by Native Americans and an unusually long and harsh winter. The leaders also routinely made bad decisions, such as trusting an untested "shortcut" promoted by an armchair guidebook author. The Donner Party's struggles and determination continue to fascinate, and Wallis's comprehensive account of bravery, luck, and failure illuminates the realities of westward expansion. (June)

 
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