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The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  1,501 ratings  ·  205 reviews

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 emigr
Hardcover, 496 pages
Published June 6th 2017 by Liveright
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Julie Scott I also preferred "The Indifferent Stars Above" over this book I learned a lot more about pioneer life, Oregon Trail, etc. in that book. It was a more …moreI also preferred "The Indifferent Stars Above" over this book I learned a lot more about pioneer life, Oregon Trail, etc. in that book. It was a more fascinating read. (less)
The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James BrownOrdeal by Hunger by George R. StewartThe Best Land Under Heaven by Michael WallisThe Hunger by Alma KatsuPatty Reed's Doll by Rachel K. Laurgaard
Donner Party
22 books — 17 voters
Killers of the Flower Moon by David GrannMy Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Vol. 1 by Emil FerrisGlass House by Brian  AlexanderGirls & Sex by Peggy OrensteinAl Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken
Fresh Air 2017
147 books — 41 voters

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Jul 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
“It’s supposed to be a challenge, that’s why they call it a shortcut. If it was easy, it’d just be the way.”
- Paulo Costanzo, as Rubin, in Road Trip

“Unless you pass over the mountains early in the fall, you are very liable to be detained, by impassable mountains of snow, until the next spring, or, perhaps, forever.”
- Lansford W. Hastings, The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California (1845)

“Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.”
- Virginia Reed, Donner Party Survivor
Diane S ☔
Mar 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: lor
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
Jun 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
Dramatic and poignant, a compelling read. Using letters, memoirs and firsthand accounts Wallis pieces together the story of the Donner Party revealing intimate details. He delivers a gripping tale as they slowly cross the continent from Illinois to California in 1846. Wallis makes us feel like we are along for the trip. He delves into the family histories of George and Tamzene Donner and their five children as well as James Reed, his wife Margret and their four children. Along with George’s brot ...more
Rae Meadows
Feb 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is not for everyone. It is gruesome. But it is fascinating. What I knew of the Donner party was from school, and it was minimal. This is a super-researched book that follows the doomed wagon train as its leaders make bad decision after bad decision that lead them to the Sierras too late to cross. It is a portrait of humanity at its best and at its worst. I always thought there was some cannibalism at the end--turns out half the party of 90 perished and ALL of them were eaten. Not only ...more
David Eppenstein
I suppose I should say that it was a pleasure to finally read something about our history of westward expansion that wasn't all about depredations being committed by or upon native Americans. While Indians do make very minor appearances in this tragic tale their involvement is not worth noting and for that I was grateful. While everybody is familiar with the Donner Party story I can't say that is what attracted me to this book. Reading a GR friend's review of this book gave me the idea that this ...more
Jul 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely riveting and impeccably researched. I have read a lot about the Donner party. You might say I have a Donner Party Thing. This is by far the most illuminating and multi-faceted look at their story, as well as the book that best placed the Donner Party's trek in its historical context. Another reviewer called it humanizing, and that's exactly what it does -- strips away the hype and mythology and tells a really exciting and heartbreaking story.

(And I'm not going to lie...the short chap
This was interesting, even fascinating, very engagingly written and absorbing. I appreciated very much that the author gave an overview of the times as well as history of this expedition.
While the author clearly felt much empathy for the subjects of this story and had some knowledge of the involved Indigeous peoples of north america, he stubbornly refers to all indigenous peoples of north america as 'In*ian'. It's just not appropriate. I understand that's how the journals and letters of members
Aug 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult-nonfic
Well-researched and detailed account of the Donner party. But a more detailed map of the journey would have been nice.
Jan 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: i-own, non-fiction
I have discovered a new favorite hobby: eating lots of snacks while reading about cannibalism! But really...this book was fantastic - a new, clear perspective on the Donner party. Carefully researched - even the early parts of the journey - and richly populated - even the less “important” members of the various pioneer groups. It took this good of a book to finally make me feel guilty about all my family’s Donner jokes when we drive through the pass.
Aug 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Holy flipping bleep!! Holy moly bleepity bleep! It will take me some time to process this book. 🤯 More to come...
Jan 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
First part is a rather dry account of the family backgrounds of the principle families in what became the Donner Party, and the social environment of the times. Doesn't really pick up steam until the wagon train runs into disaster taking the Hastings shortcut. Then we get a thorough and engaging account of the unfolding disaster at the camp in the Sierras and the various rescue missions. The author mostly sticks to facts and steers clear of conjecture.

Could have used a detailed map of the route
Bill Powers
Sep 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
I had not previously read a serious version of the story of the Donner Party and thought they were a wagon train that got stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountains, ran out of food and several died. The story is far more nuanced, complicated and interesting than that. Wallis has done a good job presenting the information in a serious, factual manner without over-focusing on the more gory aspects of the story. My criticism and reason for giving 4 rather than 5 stars is the author's constant harping on ...more
Allison Sesame
Nov 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Fascinating, riveting, and humanizing.
Katie V.
Dec 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
Most know of the Donner Party’s infamous “cannibalism,” but few know of the absolute desperation these people experienced. What began as a hopeful journey to cultivate new, prosperous lives out west became a living nightmare. The book was dry at times, and there were places where I felt the author rambled a little, but overall I appreciated how thorough he was in his research. He also told the story of the Donner Party in a way that conveyed compassion, and highlighted the strength of the human ...more
Dec 08, 2017 added it
Shelves: 2017
This history of the Donner saga claims to do two things others don’t: to separate myth from fact and to place the emigrants within the context of Manifest Destiny. I picked it up in a bookstore in Truckee in part because it was the staff pick—if you’re looking for a book on the Donner Party, the locals in an indie bookstore ought to know the contenders—and because of those two, self-proclaimed selling points.

The book succeeds admirably in its first goal. The Best Land Under Heaven is incredibly
Jill Crosby
Jul 06, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good narrative of the Reed-Donner Party’s hamstrung attempts to fulfill their dreams of putting down roots on the golden California coast, only to be duped by bad intel on routes and incredibly poor choices made by the group’s leaders.
Appreciated the frequent inclusion of journal entries by various members of the party to capture the mood and mindset of the pioneers.
Liss Carmody
Aug 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Cannibals! There, got that out of the way. I realized quite suddenly a few weeks ago that the things I knew about the infamous Donner Party were extremely cursory and almost nonexistent, which is weird from a person as fascinated by the history of the macabre and gruesome as I am. I set out to rectify this oversight immediately by ordering two books from the library. This one arrived first, so this is the first one I read. My impression of the research, writing, and structure of this book is lar ...more
Mar 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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, ...more
Jul 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This was a riveting account of the journey of the Donner party. My only complaint was that more detailed maps, especially a blow-up of the western part of the trail, would have been very beneficial in following the various landmarks encountered in the travel and the relief efforts. I must say that the detailed account of the relief parties was the most exciting part of the book.

I also notified Norton of an egregious typo on the timeline on the map, indicating that the stranded travelers were th
Jul 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Wow. It starts kind of slowly, but when it picks up, it's intense. I had to keep reminding myself that this is a true story because at times it seems unbelievable. I've always been fascinated by the Donner party, but this book was so well-researched and detailed that I gained a new appreciation for the immigrants. By the end, I had cried at least 3 times. And I found myself telling everyone I encountered about the incredible details of the story.
Aug 23, 2017 rated it liked it
Exhaustively researched and grueling account of the Donner Party...ok, nowhere near what they experienced themselves but just so appalling. The fact that homicidal ethnocentrism played a role was a 'new' fact for me but shouldn't have been surprising. Never plan a trip using just one source for information, women are hardier but suffer more, taboos only go so far when you are starving, greed is an essential part of the human condition, and many more lessons. Grim read but compelling.
Becky Loader
Oct 18, 2017 rated it it was ok
Wallis is definitely a good historian and has done a lot of research into a rather chilling episode of the American West. I have read other accounts of the Donner Party, and this is the first time I learned about the bad decisions made about their journey. Somehow, that made it even more anguishing to read about their experiences. Not for the squeamish.
Jan 24, 2018 rated it liked it
This book promised "new" information about the Donner Party based on research and findings, etc, but I didn't find that. I haven't read every book about the Donner Party, but I've read a lot, and this was a passable telling of the tale. The only thing that seemed "new" to me was extra info about Reed's time in the war before mustering the relief parties, and that felt unimportant.
Jun 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
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
Amy Layton
Mar 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
At this point, I think we all know how obsessed I am with The Donner Party.  It certainly spurred from my childhood dream of going to live in a little house on a prairie, and churning butter whilst travelling by covered wagon seemed like the best way to spend a life.  And like always, this book about the Donner Party gave a different perspective than other books about the same topic do.  Where some focus on the high emotions and reasons that lead to survival cannibalism, others focused on the pa ...more
Robert Sutherland
Aug 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
In the summer of 2019, I took my family to see the Sierras. With a morbid fascination with the Donner Party, we visited Truckee and the state park that bears their name. The guide was asked the best book about the Donner party, and she recommended The Best Land Under Heaven. It was a great recommendation.

Describing the backstory of the principle characters, Wallis sets up the wanderlust that leads midwesterners to strike out for the Pacific coast. The main characters are the Donners and James R
Sep 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
If you can make it through the beginning of this book, it is a very good read. The first few chapters are dedicated to family histories of the two most prominent families: the Donners and Reeds. Unfortunately, this makes for confusing reading, given how many of them have same or similar names and each adult married at least twice before settling into the final marriage that would take them and their offspring across the country.

This is a gripping tale of hardship and survival, risks that should
Robert Melnyk
Jun 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
This was a compelling and heartbreaking history of the Donner-Reed Party journey west in 1846-47. I only knew a little about the Donner Party-basically what everyone knows-so it was very interesting to learn the background and the details of the unfortunate decisions that led to their being stranded in the Sierra Nevadas during the winter of 1846-47. There were a lot of families and family members involved, and I wouldn’t have been able to keep track of them without the helpful appendix.
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Michael Wallis is the bestselling author of Route 66, Billy the Kid, Pretty Boy, and David Crockett. He hosts the PBS series American Roads. He voiced The Sheriff in the animated Pixar feature Cars. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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