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

Michael Wallis (Author)



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.

Product Details

Price: $27.95  $25.16
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
Published Date: June 06, 2017
Pages: 496
Dimensions: 6.1 X 1.6 X 9.3 inches | 1.85 pounds
ISBN: 9780871407696

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About the Author

Michael Wallis is an award-winning historian of the Old West and author of Route 66: The Mother Road and several other books, and the co-author of Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Sante Fe, New Mexico.


You cannot understand the settlement of the American West without understanding the facts and--tellingly--the myths of the tragic Donner Party of 1846. Michael Wallis has done a superb job sifting through the grumblings, resentments, and fatal delays of the wagon train that came to symbolize both the folly and grit of our westward expansion. Once I started, I could not put this account down.--Rinker Buck, best-selling author of The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey and Flight of Passage
Mr. Wallis has succeeded for the first time in compiling all available pertinent historical facts into this book. It is a must-have for everyone wanting the true story of the most epic saga of survival during the westward movement.--William A. "Bill" Springer, Great grandson of Captain George Donner and the Curator of the Donner-Springer Family Collection
Adopting an empathetic approach bolstered by studious research and geographical contextualization, biographer Wallis reclaims the horrific story of the infamously ill-fated wagon train from the annals of sensationalism...The Donner Party's struggles and determination continues to fascinate, and Wallis's comprehensive account of bravery, luck, and failure illuminates the realities of westward expansion.
Michael Wallis takes readers on an adventure full of excitement, intrigue and harrowing results. . . Referencing myriad documents and histories, Wallis presents a well-written and interesting account of this terrible tragedy.--Mike Whitmer
If you want the full, unvarnished, exceptionally researched and documented, day-by-day description of what happened, look no further . . . [Wallis] provides a study of the times and circumstances and pioneer mindset that it took for farmers and businessmen to decide to sell off their property, pack up their families and set off in search of something better beyond the next hill, over the horizon, past where the sun was last seen setting. . . . Fascinating, and horrifying, and inspiring.--Glen Seeber
[An] engaging account of the doomed journey . . . . Mr. Wallis tells the story well and paints interesting portraits of the characters.--David A. Price
Wallis has delved into an extraordinary mass of original material, documents, diaries, accounts and letters, as well as new sources apparently not available to previous authors, and produced not only a definitive account of the Donner tragedy, but also a book so gripping it can scarcely be put down. . . . Wallis has done a superb job sifting through lurid tabloid moralizing and unreliable accounts to explore the complex truths of human beings pushed to the absolute limits of existence.--Douglas Preston
Wallis offers a vivid new look at the ill-fated Donner Party . . . . Wallis's use of primary sources, together with his dynamic writing style, turns a familiar retelling into a real page-turner. A welcome addition to all history collections.--Patricia Ann Owens
An even-handed, briskly written history of the party, destined to become the standard account of this horrid chapter of American history.--Timothy R. Smith