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Thursday, July 6, 2017 12:11 am

Timeless hunger

A sparkling new account of the doomed Donner Party

The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, by Michael Wallis. Liveright Publishing Company, 2017.
Of all the stories of the settling of the American West, none is as compelling, heroic and tragic as that of the Donner Party, which stepped into history on April 15, 1846, from Springfield, Illinois. Now Michael Wallis has given us an impeccably researched book that tells this history with a sparkling narrative and far greater context than we’ve previously seen, placing the unfortunate emigrants in the center of the era of Manifest Destiny, when American hope and ambition ran unbridled to the Pacific Coast.

Though the subtitle repeats the myth that the ill-fated brothers George and Jacob Donner were the leaders of the doomed caravan that rolled out of Springfield, Wallis’ book is about James Frazier Reed and his family. Reed also led and traveled with the Donners for most of the journey, and survived the impossible ordeals in the Great Salt Desert and the Sierra Nevada mountains. Reed, an early Sangamon County entrepreneur who ran a mill on the Sangamon River, was the namesake of Jamestown, or “Jimtown,” as it was called when he lived here, a community we know today as Riverton. Wallis provides far more biographical information about Reed than we’ve seen before in print, and he helps us understand why the word “Persevere” is his apt motto.

Proud, impetuous, arrogant, calculating, literate and loyal to a fault to those in his care, Reed was the real catalyst of the Donner Party. He left Springfield a failed business owner, chased by creditors, yet with enough cash reserve to travel in style in a two-story wagon that could accommodate his dying mother-in-law. He rode Glaucus, a champion race horse who matched his master in deed and bravado. Reed’s wife, Margret, her daughter, Virginia, and the couple’s three other children, accompanied by five dogs and a host of hired hands, rolled out of Springfield with the Donners on that fateful spring morning, trusting their lives to fate, providence and the plentiful provisions they’d packed for the 3,000-mile journey to California. But it was Reed, by sheer force of will, who makes the Donner story worth revisiting.

Wallis takes us every step of the way, across swollen rivers, over the expansive prairie where black gnats and mosquitoes swarm and bite relentlessly, through narrow boxed-in canyons where wagons are double-teamed to get them over impassible obstacles. We see the emigrants, one by one, succumb to the privations, diseases and hardships of the road – the very old and the very young falling first, sustained only by the hands of a slowly disintegrating community.

We meet heroes and villains, scoundrels and saints, and hapless victims who, when challenged by fate, rise and fall according to the dictates of their character. Tamzene Donner, wife of George Donner, is deservedly the most revered woman of the American frontier and the subject of epic poems, ballets, histories and novels. Not surprisingly, she was the emotional opposite of James Reed, which created great tension along the trail.

Like Homer’s Odyssey, the Donner Party caravan moves unrelentingly toward home, whether imagined as California or the hallucinations of heaven brought on by starvation. When we finally arrive at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek, we know the end is near, but never near enough.

If there is any fault in Wallis’s book, it is his caving in to the urge to bring Abraham Lincoln into the narrative. Lincoln is presented as Reed’s friend, legal counsel and complicit conspirator in the salvaging of Reed’s once considerable wealth in Sangamon County. There is sparse evidence for this, no letters between Reed and Lincoln to draw inference from, and only their shared experience in the Black Hawk War to hint at a friendship. Indeed, the derailment of the Internal Improvement Acts of the 1830s and the subsequent panics, which cost Reed considerably and pulled the proverbial rug out from under Lincoln and the Whig Party of Sangamon County, logically suggest animus.

Nevertheless, Wallis’s narrative is a very good read, well worth a portion of your summer. There is far more compelling drama, romance and horror in the Donner Saga than in a season of anything on Netflix or Amazon Prime. If anything, a summer in the Sierra Nevadas could prove the perfect antidote to the humidity of central Illinois.

William Furry is the executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society and a former editor of Illinois Times.

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