The Best Land Under Heaven

The Best Land Under Heaven

The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny

Book - 2017
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Named "Best Book of 2017" by the Wild West History Association

Cutting through 160 years of mythmaking, best-selling historian Michael Wallis presents the ultimate cautionary tale of America's westward expansion.


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.

Publisher: New York : Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, [2017]
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9780871407696
Characteristics: xx, 455 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm


From Library Staff

The Donner party is definitely something that has become more legend than fact over the years. Wallis does a great job of pulling back the myth and exaggeration to create a true portrait of the Donner and Reed parties who were seeking their future in the great American west. Wallis also puts thei... Read More »

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TSCPL_ScarlettFH Jun 01, 2018

This book provides the ultimate cautionary tale of America’s westward expansion. While we all know how it ended for the Donners, the story of how they ended up there is a story all its own. The ideas, assumptions and beliefs that propelled the Donners and Reeds on their epic, fatalistic journey have been spun into a tale that, 172 years later, has become more myth than truth. Wallis pulls apart the myth and provides an unflinching, engaging examination of this dark event in American history.

Nov 21, 2017

maitre d' on the restaurant p. a. : donner, party of ate, donner, party of ate.

Nov 02, 2017

This is a thoroughly researched history of the Donner Party disaster, but the first half really drags. I skimmed through some pages because there is just soooo much detail! I don't really need to know that someone was an Irish immigrant and who he married and what work he did, if he's never going to figure again in the history. To be frank, I found the first half of this book really dull reading.
It picks up quite a bit once everyone gets stuck in the mountains and I certainly learned much more about what the survivors did to survive at all. The use of actual interview material, or letters, added authenticity to the accounts.
If you can make it through the first dreadfully boring half of the book, the latter part becomes quite the page turner.

Oct 17, 2017

A fascinating topic (the doomed Donner Party) that's well-researched, but somewhat indifferently written. I didn't really like the cannibal parts.

Aug 28, 2017

The subject matter is extremely grim but the book is well-researched and -written. It's illustrative of the truism that a disaster is made up of lack of preparation, a concatenation of a myriad of small errors and mis-calculations and some bad luck. What happened at the end of the trek is well-known. The book explores and clearly sets out how the end rose out of the beginning.

Jul 08, 2017

If you love well written history backed up by solid research this is an author to read. The gory details are well known (the true ones and the exaggerated) but the story of their journey and how the families on the trail reacted as things got worse and worse is fascinating. The strength of some of the individuals (especially the women desperate to keep their children alive) is absorbing and heartbreaking.

Jul 02, 2017

Simon Worrall writes a very interesting article in the National Geographic based on his interview with the author Michael Wallis; Mr. Wallis's research including interviews with descendants of the Donner party; the political climate at the time; as well as the settling of the west known as Manifest Destiny. A book to go on my list for sure.

Jun 21, 2017

My review in a single sentence: The Best Land Under Heaven is a detailed, humanizing portrait of a doomed American migration that underlines the fragility of the human condition.

I, like most people, learned about the Donner Party from a textbook. The gruesome details of their fate are a byline in the narrative of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. In this book, Michael Wallis pulls back the layers of myth and exaggeration and tells the story of the Donner and Reed families. Once I spent some time with them and got to know their dreams and aspirations, each poor decision or stroke of bad luck filled me with dread rather than the derision I felt all those years ago in the classroom.

When their fate in the Sierra Nevada mountains became clear, I was not filled with macabre fascination but with great sorrow. The details of their survival that terrible winter are present in detail, made all the more powerful by the knowledge of who these people were. Their story is framed within the larger context of Manifest Destiny and the arrogant righteousness that blossomed in many westward pioneers.

The narrative that leads the reader on a journey from Illinois to California flows easily thanks to Mr. Wallis' writing style; I read the entire book in two sittings. One might expect such a historical accounting to be dry, but if you've read any of Michael's other books you know he weaves a wonderful tale. The research undertaken was extensive and it shows through the detail present across the pages.

It's a piece of American history, a showcase of frontier survival, and a powerful cautionary tale. Highly recommended.


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