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'The Best Land Under Heaven': The Donner-Reed Party revealed

"The Best Land Under Heaven" is by Michael Wallis.
"The Best Land Under Heaven" is by Michael Wallis.
W. W. Norton

"THE BEST LAND UNDER HEAVEN: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny," by Michael Wallis, Liveright Publishing, $27.95, 376 pages (f)

On April 15, 1846, an excited group of emigrants departed Springfield, Illinois, on a trek that they believed would take them to the glories of California. George Donner and James Reed had no idea that their saga would become a cautionary tale for all later groups who sought a new life in the Western United States.

Reed and Donner were ambitious men with wanderlust in their hearts. Both had families and were reasonably wealthy and well-to-do. But their desire to explore further possibilities led them to leave all for the beauty and glory of California.

Referencing the American doctrine of manifest destiny, in his new book "The Best Land Under Heaven," author Michael Wallis takes readers on an adventure full of excitement, intrigue and harrowing results. His attention to detail gives the reader insight to decisions and experiences that eventually led the ill-fated group to the horrific experiences in the High Sierras of modern-day Nevada and California.

Reed always had an "itch" to try new things. When the idea of emigrating to California was proposed, he was excited to test his mettle — and maybe escape some of the creditors hounding him. His sometime-business partner and friend, Donner, was also interested in the opportunities that awaited. With their wives and children, the men planned and executed all the arrangements necessary for the journey. Reed’s mind was especially attracted to the writings of Lansford Hastings who claimed there was a quicker route to the West — if one was brave enough to try. In the end, Reed discovered that it might have been better to burn the book rather than follow its advice.

Wallis is a well-known writer who specializes in Western biographies. This work is a painstaking effort to put the tragedy of the Donner-Reed Party in perspective. Referencing myriad documents and histories, Wallis presents a well-written and interesting account of this terrible tragedy. While some of the events are gruesome, the author is careful to keep descriptions appropriate for all ages. There is no offensive language or sexual references, but there are some murders and deaths.

There are a few mentions in the book of groups and individuals of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a running fear that the Mormons might interfere with the party because Lilburn Boggs was one of the emigrants in the company for a time. Additionally, when the Latter-day Saints made their own trek West, the work the Donner-Reed Party completed in their cutoff was very helpful to the journey to the Salt Lake Valley.

Mike Whitmer lives in West Valley City and can be reached at grundelwalken@gmail.com.