Michael Wallis demythologizes the Donner Party’s gruesome trek in an expansive new history of the doomed journey — and westward expansion.
Most C&I readers probably know the story of the Donner Party. Pioneers get stuck in snowstorm, run out of food, eat each other. That, of course, isn’t the whole story. In fact, it may not even be the most interesting part.
In The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny (Liveright, 2017), historian Michael Wallis applies his grasp of the frontier attitude to the ill-fated venture and puts it in the context of the mid-19th-century United States’ westward expansion.
Wallis specializes in examining America’s icons, dispelling inaccuracies while respecting the legends, in books such as Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride and Route 66: The Mother Road, the latter of which led to his voice role as Sheriff in the Cars movie series.
One of the myths Wallis is eager to address is the cannibalism. Members of the Donner and James Reed families exhausted every possible food source before turning to frozen human corpses, he says. They first ate all their stock, oxen, horses, even dogs, then boiled oxen hides into a gelatinous “soup,” and even resorted to chewing pine bark. Even so, not all members ate human flesh. Further, the party did not kill anyone for food but rather harvested from people who’d already died — with one hideous exception, which Wallis describes unflinchingly in the context of the era’s generally accepted attitude of white supremacy. Two Miwok men sent to help were murdered and eaten by rogue members of the party. “The rationale was, ‘They were Indians, not humans, so we can do this,’ ” Wallis says.
The author spoke by phone with C&I about what drew him to such a dark study of American expansion. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Cowboys & Indians: When did you first consider the Donner Party as a book subject?
Michael Wallis: Around 2012 or 2013, I started talking about it with my agent, some of my editors, and, of course, my wife and partner, Suzanne Wallis, and decided it was a good subject. The way I work is I usually pick a subject — people, events, places, whatever — that have been totally wrapped up and tangled in myth and legend. ... I expose the truth without attacking the myth. Myth is very important, and I have nothing against myth, but I love to tell the real story, the more authentic story. ... All kinds of books have been written about the Donner Party, but once again, they jump to the most sensational part of the story, the inevitable cannibalism, the eating of the dead for these poor people to stay alive. Of course, that is an important part of the story. If that hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t know who these people were. ... What I want people to know is who these people were, where they came from, what would possess the people from the nucleus of the party, the two Donner brothers [George and Jacob] and James Reed, to gather up their families and leave that great soil of the Land of Lincoln. ... They bought into the California dream. They bought into the myth. They bought into Manifest Destiny. These were the foot soldiers of Manifest Destiny. In telling their stories, I think we also expose the foibles, the folly, and often the arrogance of Manifest Destiny.
C&I: Was it your plan all along to put it in the context of westward expansion?
Wallis: That was my plan from the get-go, to tell the broad story and to point out some of the ironies too. ... One of James Reed’s young recruits that he wanted to come with him was in fact his young lawyer, who helped him through bankruptcy and everything, a man who wanted to go to California but his wife was pregnant and already had a toddler. They didn’t go. And that was, of course, Abraham Lincoln. So those are the little twists of history that I always look for.
C&I: One line in particular stuck out to me: “The entwining of religion with the ideology of Manifest Destiny served as a creation myth for the country. It soon became so ingrained in the national consciousness that many Americans still accept it to this day.”
Wallis: There are a lot of lessons from this book that are relevant today, if you’re open-minded enough to look at the big picture, if you care to make the comparisons. ... They really believed in their hearts that God gave these good people, these Anglo-Americans, the right to rule the continent.
Michael Wallis is on tour speaking about The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny. Visit splash.liverightpub.com/bestland for more information.
From the July 2017 issue.