The Best Land Under Heaven
"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.

The Best Land Under Heaven Details

TitleThe Best Land Under Heaven
Author
FormatHardcover
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseJun 6th, 2017
PublisherLiveright
ISBN0871407698
ISBN-139780871407696
Number of pages496 pages
Rating
GenreHistory, Nonfiction, North American Hi..., American History, Biography, Environment, Nature

The Best Land Under Heaven Review

  • Diane S ☔
    March 10, 2017
    Westward Ho! Manifest destiny, the American dream, new land, and many in the mid 1800's followed it's siren call. For the Donner Brothers who had already successfully farmed in a few different states, it was the chance for adventure, new land in a new place, a new start. Many were traveling over the Sierra Nevadas heading to Oregon or California and the Donner families wanted to be part of this large exodus.Remember studying this in school, know I read another book about this expedition that wen Westward Ho! Manifest destiny, the American dream, new land, and many in the mid 1800's followed it's siren call. For the Donner Brothers who had already successfully farmed in a few different states, it was the chance for adventure, new land in a new place, a new start. Many were traveling over the Sierra Nevadas heading to Oregon or California and the Donner families wanted to be part of this large exodus.Remember studying this in school, know I read another book about this expedition that went so horrifically wrong, though I don't remember the title. This book starts with the beginning of the journey, the background of the family, and the gathering of supplies, the others that eventually joined this ill fated party and the high hopes and optimism of which they started out. What made this book so poignant was the human element. The author, though he does touch on other events happening at the time, very much concentrates on the people. Those stuck in the mountains, the ones who tried walk out to get help and supplies, and the eventual rescuers. Made it personal as we get to know the people involved. The mistakes they made, the bad advice they followed and the good advice they ignored. Heartbreaking. Cannibalism of course it what is most mentioned when people talk about this event, but reading this gives a more detailed view and I just can't imagine, nor hopefully never have to, be in a situation like these people. Mothers, children starving, people dying, the horrific cold, and reading this I could feel the desperation, feel the cold, the intensive snow fall. The back of the book has pictures of some and brings the reader up to date on what happened to the survivors afterward. How they fared and what their lives were like. An intense reading experience.ARC from publisher.Publishes May 26th by Liveright.
    more
  • Kristin
    March 15, 2017
    Determined to reap the benefits of Manifest Destiny, the Donner Party was destined for despair and death from the very start of their westward journey. A combination of indecision, infighting amongst families and a lack of leadership contribute to their tragic downfall at Truckee Lake. In “The Best Land Under Heaven,” author Michael Wallis recreates the Donner Party’s ill-fated attempt to cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range during the violent winter season of 1846, their imminent starvation, Determined to reap the benefits of Manifest Destiny, the Donner Party was destined for despair and death from the very start of their westward journey. A combination of indecision, infighting amongst families and a lack of leadership contribute to their tragic downfall at Truckee Lake. In “The Best Land Under Heaven,” author Michael Wallis recreates the Donner Party’s ill-fated attempt to cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range during the violent winter season of 1846, their imminent starvation, reduced to catastrophic cannibalism to survive. The result is a cautionary tale infamously staining the chase of the American Dream forevermore.
    more
  • Kusaimamekirai
    June 18, 2017
    In 1846, The Reed and Donner families along with many others set off from Illinois to embark on a new life in California. What happened after that is one of the more infamous and famous stories of the American frontier. Reading this very well researched and engaging book, I was struck by the fact that things by no means had to happen like they did. The Donner party as they came to be known had to be the victims of the worst convergence of circumstances and bad luck anyone has ever had. Of the In 1846, The Reed and Donner families along with many others set off from Illinois to embark on a new life in California. What happened after that is one of the more infamous and famous stories of the American frontier. Reading this very well researched and engaging book, I was struck by the fact that things by no means had to happen like they did. The Donner party as they came to be known had to be the victims of the worst convergence of circumstances and bad luck anyone has ever had. Of the dozens of bad decisions and circumstances they encountered, just one or two of them going a different way might have resulted in a completely different story. However between winter coming a month early in the Sierra Nevadas, the worst series of snowstorms that region had ever seen (20 foot high snowbanks!), and trusting the horrible, horrible advice of a self promoting, snake oil salesman like huckster who sent them on the world's worst shortcut, they were doomed. This is not to say that they didn't bring a lot of this on themselves with their own hubris because they certainly did. They ignored multiple warnings about taking this "shortcut" instead dog sticking to the tried and true trail. They burdened themselves with ridiculous items like double decker wagons complete with furniture sets, and chimneys(!). Most importantly, they were incredibly cavalier and reckless with their time considering how often they stopped to sing, get drunk, or collect wildflowers and flora. Seriously. All leading to them being late to arrive and eventually stranded in the snow covered mountains of California. All that being said, once tragedy began to strike, there were some incredible instances of heroism and selflessness. I was quite moved for example by Tamezen Donner's refusal on three separate occasions to escape to safety with rescue parties because it would have meant abandoning her sick husband. Sadly, for every Tamezen Donner there were cases of unspeakable callousness and cowardice. Murder, betrayal, the abandoning of small children and stealing their merger possessions in the process, all seemed to be common occurrences that seemed unfathomable to me. Yet perhaps I should reserve judgement even for these heinous acts. Simply because there is no precedent for what these people went through. Visualize it as I might, I know I'll never be able to fully understand what went through their minds and what influenced their choices. Were I to be put in their shoes I'd like to think I would choose the road of a Tamezen Donner but as this book makes abundantly clear, when faced with extraordinary circumstances human beings react in unpredictable ways, for good and bad.
    more
  • Robert Melnyk
    June 27, 2017
    Interesting account of a group of people who set out from the mid-west in 1846 to journey to California in search of a new life in a new land. The book details the lives of 87 people who became known as the Donner Party as they made their trek across the wilderness. It describes their many bouts with bad luck, poor decisions, and lack of leadership which led to their mostly disastrous fate. Out of the 87 people, 41 died in their attempt to reach California, most of them in the heart of the bruta Interesting account of a group of people who set out from the mid-west in 1846 to journey to California in search of a new life in a new land. The book details the lives of 87 people who became known as the Donner Party as they made their trek across the wilderness. It describes their many bouts with bad luck, poor decisions, and lack of leadership which led to their mostly disastrous fate. Out of the 87 people, 41 died in their attempt to reach California, most of them in the heart of the brutal winter of 1846-1847 in the Sierra Nevadas. Out of the 41 who dies, 19 were cannibalized by others in order to survive. As horrible as that sounds, if not for that, mostly likely they would have all perished.
    more
  • Marika
    March 1, 2017
    Finally, an authoritative book about what truly happened in 1846 to the Donner Party. Much has been written about the brave souls who traveled west in search of a better life, and sadly many of their names have been forgotten. Historian Michael Wallis sets the record straight, including the rifts between some of the travelers, how it impacted their journey and the greed that drove some men to disaster. Wallis does a tremendous job of telling the story amidst the political backdrop of that time a Finally, an authoritative book about what truly happened in 1846 to the Donner Party. Much has been written about the brave souls who traveled west in search of a better life, and sadly many of their names have been forgotten. Historian Michael Wallis sets the record straight, including the rifts between some of the travelers, how it impacted their journey and the greed that drove some men to disaster. Wallis does a tremendous job of telling the story amidst the political backdrop of that time and what Manifest Destiny really meant to the men, women and children of what was then, the official States. This is not to be read for shock value, as Wallis deftly writes about that which can not be spoken.
    more
  • Rhys
    May 29, 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 so 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.
    more
  • Sarah McGowan
    June 26, 2017
    What a great book. Michael Wallis is an excellent writer and takes a subject we all briefly learned about in history class and weaves a really engaging story. I highly recommend this book and look forward to reading more of Wallis' work.
  • Patrick Ewing
    April 5, 2017
    Excellent.
  • Pamela
    April 21, 2017
    very excited to get this book, looking forward to reading it! :DThanks Norton!
  • RMazin
    April 30, 2017
    Like most people I thought I knew the story of the Donner Party, but reading Michael Wallis’s Best Land Under Heaven has proved me wrong and improved my understanding of those who hazarded the journey to fulfill their Manifest Destiny.Wallis takes us back to the families who decided to abandon farms, friends and the familiar in search of an optimistic future. It was to be a future that would bring them a new start and success. It would insure the lives of their children and bring prosperity. Wal Like most people I thought I knew the story of the Donner Party, but reading Michael Wallis’s Best Land Under Heaven has proved me wrong and improved my understanding of those who hazarded the journey to fulfill their Manifest Destiny.Wallis takes us back to the families who decided to abandon farms, friends and the familiar in search of an optimistic future. It was to be a future that would bring them a new start and success. It would insure the lives of their children and bring prosperity. Wallis starts his book by detailing the circumstances of the Donner Party participants in the context of the political and economic climate of the country. This was not an easy decision to make. Yet based on dreams, tales from travelers (not often accurate) and faith in their abilities, these pioneers united to go West. The group had the same goal but sometimes had different values and ideas on how to achieve it. None imagined the horror that the journey would become.Wallis humanizes these strong men and women so one feels awe and even empathy for their travails rather than revulsion. This was especially true for the women who were left behind at different sites near the Truckee Lake and mountainous areas. Almost as remarkable as the well-known Donner story, is the story of the rescue attempts made by volunteers (and family members) willing to risk their lives for those who may well have already died. This book needs to be shared and read by readers of history and those seeking to understand the founding of this country. Highly recommended.Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the opportunity to review this book.
    more
  • Kristine
    April 18, 2017
    The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in mid-April.This book covers the travail of what has become known as the 'Donner Party' chronologically from the early spring of 1846 in Springfield, Illinois, to the early winter of 1847 in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Wallis offers motivated, steadfast narration for each of the many, many characters amid their own words from journals and letters, as well as outco The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in mid-April.This book covers the travail of what has become known as the 'Donner Party' chronologically from the early spring of 1846 in Springfield, Illinois, to the early winter of 1847 in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Wallis offers motivated, steadfast narration for each of the many, many characters amid their own words from journals and letters, as well as outcomes of dissension, sickness, injuries, and death among the Donner, Reed, and Boggs parties, followed (finally) by several relief efforts to equip and rescue survivors.
    more
Write a review