On April 14, 1846, the Donner and Reed families set out from Springfield, Illinois, for Independence, Missouri, to commence their journey to a place that had been advertised to them as “the best land under heaven.” Around this core would gather eighty-seven men, women, and children, from a 70-year-old matriarch to several babes in arms. Their journey has become the most well known of all the emigrant wagon trains that set out for California.
Because the Donner Party is so famous, it is a story I have never felt called upon to deal with. Everyone knows about the Donner Party disaster. It has not only been the subject of numerous books, but has been the basis of a graphic novel, a poetry sequence, and an opera. No one needs my two cents’ worth.
If you want to read about the Donner-Reed Party, I can recommend this book as one of the best in that crowded field. Michael Wallis gives a gripping account of the journey, with all its mistakes and setbacks, and of the tragedy in the mountains and the rescue of the survivors.
The subtitle of the book: “The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny,” is a bit misleading. There is little analysis of the larger context of the USA under the spell of Manifest Destiny. But as a straightforward and thorough account of the Donner experience, this book fills the bill. Wallis has done his research and every detail from every journal or archeological dig is here.
Reading this account is an exercise in “if only.” Even though they were an early wagon train on the California Trail, setting out before the great rush for gold, there had already been successful treks by emigrant parties. As I read, I couldn’t help thinking, “If only they had set out even a week earlier, if only they hadn’t taken such large and over-loaded wagons, if only the had not taken the Hastings Cut-off (a terrible mistake, but not an irretrievable one), if only they had abandoned their slow-moving wagons sooner, if only the storms had not come so early that year to the Sierras.”
The fate of the Donner Party was a terrible lesson for subsequent emigrants of the pitfalls and perils of the journey they were undertaking. This book will keep you reading until the last snowflake melts from the mountains.