Prolific popular writer Wallis (David Crockett: Lion of the West, 2011, etc.) brings his storytelling skills to an unusual episode in American westward expansion.
Within the grand story of Manifest Destiny, the quest for land and settlement from coast to coast, lies the ill-fated saga of two diverse families that set out by wagon train from Springfield, Illinois, and then to the traditional jumping-off point of Independence, Missouri, en route to California. When they began their trek in early 1846, the extended Donner and Reed families had already been part of the great wave of immigration from Europe as well as Southern, border, and Midwestern states. Initially part of a larger convoy, they and their employees—eventually nearly 90 people in all—chose to break off and pursue a separate, nontraditional route. That proved to be a disastrous mistake, both because of their relative inexperience and the string of obstacles that confronted them. Internal dissension, wagon breakdowns, the loss of livestock, difficult terrain, and extreme weather dogged the travelers. But looming ahead was the most difficult challenge: the impending winter in the Sierra Nevada. As Wallis recounts in his fluid narrative, heavy snow brought widespread starvation and death. Nearly half the party perished, and after four relief efforts, the most shocking aspect of the expedition was discovered: some survivors had resorted to cannibalism. Although the Donner Party has attracted attention over the years and has achieved a certain macabre fascination in Western lore, Wallis succeeds in offering new documentary evidence as well as an absorbing narrative. He provides valuable insight into a 19th-century phenomenon in which thousands of pioneers sought land, new opportunities, and adventure in support of American exceptionalism.
Solid Western history that enhances the understanding of a tragic tale by highlighting the strong human dimension through the accounts of participants before, during, and after the expedition.