DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Tales from the American West are marked by heroism, romance and plenty of cruelty. But among those stories, the saga of the Donner Party stands alone. A band of pioneers sets out in covered wagons for California and eventually stranded, snow-bound and starving resort to cannibalism.
Our guest, Michael Wallis, says the story of the Donner Party has been sensationalized over the years, sometimes casting the settlers as inhuman ghouls. Wallis' new book chronicles the journey of the Donner Party from its beginning, illuminating the challenges the families faced and the fatal error that set them on a tragic course - accepting treacherous advice that an uncharted shortcut would ease their passage to California. Wallis concludes that in their desperation, they did what anyone would have done, and more than half the party survived.
Michael Wallis has written several books about the American West. He's also a voice actor who played the sheriff in the animated films "Cars" 1, 2 and 3. His new book is the "Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party In An Age Of Manifest Destiny."
Well, Michael Wallis welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, this is a story of people taking this journey of hundreds of miles at enormous risk. And you know, as I thought about this, I was thinking about how modern immigrants, people who go into boats in the Mediterranean, are desperate, fleeing, you know, war and violence and poverty. A lot of these people were people of ambition and means and accomplishment. Tell us about some - these leaders of this expedition.
MICHAEL WALLIS: The three principle leaders of what came to be commonly called the Donner-Reed Party were the two Donner brothers, George and Jacob Donner, and James Reed, an Irish immigrant who struck it rich in the lead mines of Illinois. Reed became friends - at least good strong acquaintances - of the Donner brothers. And those were the three that forged this plan to take their families, to take their livestock, to take their belongings and to move West to follow the California trail to the so-called land of milk and honey.
Reed was a self-made man. This Irish immigrant who came here very early to this country ended up in Sangamon County in Springfield, an entrepreneur, built a mill, worked in early railroad development, had businesses and ultimately ran into some business difficulties due to the Great Depression of 1837 and had to soon declare bankruptcy. And that was his reason for leaving to start his life over again.
DAVIES: So these were really some ambitious and accomplished people on this journey. A former governor of Missouri, Mr. Boggs, was along there. And wasn't there some chance that Abraham Lincoln might have been on this trip?
WALLIS: There was a very good chance that Lincoln could have been on this trip because Lincoln of course was a young attorney in Springfield and was in fact a former messmate. He soldiered in the Black Hawk War with James Reed, and they knew each other quite well. And Lincoln in fact became his attorney and helped him in his business dealings, helped him in all legal matters. And when the toll from that Great Depression of 1837 struck Reed with such gravity, it was Lincoln who counseled him. And eventually right before the party left - they left in April 1846 - Lincoln helped Reed get through the bankruptcy proceedings and very cleverly helped him, for Reed's sake, to stash some money away, a significant amount of money, which came in handy down the road, so to speak, in California for Reed.
But Lincoln wanted to go to California. He did his whole life even up until the time of his death in 1865. That's - he was such a promoter of the transcontinental railroad. He was even offered a governorship in the Pacific Northwest during his political career. But - and all these occasions, Mary Todd Lincoln, his wife, thought better of it.
DAVIES: So we have these ambitious people moving to California hoping to make their fortunes. You know, these were the days when the phrase Manifest Destiny was used to describe this impetus for settlers to move West and populate the continent. Did this matter to these people in the Donner-Reed Party, or were they just thinking about their own futures?
WALLIS: A little bit of both. They were obviously people of their time. Most of them were quite literate and, as you say, well-off. They had to be in order to make this journey to afford the wagons and oxen and all the rest that went with it - the herds of cattle, the servants, the hired hands. And they were certainly aware of these words, Manifest Destiny, that God Almighty had given the Anglo population of the eastern United States. It made it manifest that they could conquer, they could take, they could consume the rest of the continent.
DAVIES: So as they prepared to go hundreds of miles over land, give us a sense of, you know, kind of how they prepared, what kinds of animals they had to acquire, what they traveled in.
WALLIS: They were actually quite well prepared when they embarked on this long journey across the rest of the continent. They knew that oxen - big, strong yokes of oxen, as many as four to six oxen, were necessary to pull those wagons loaded with all of their belongings that they wanted to bring with them to start these new lives.
They brought with them cattle and spare horses, saddle horses. They brought essentials that they thought they would need along the way and once they got to California, including items that they could use to trade and win the good graces of people they might encounter along the way, such as the various Indian tribes or when they got into Mexico, which is - essentially they were going Alta California to barter out there with the Mexican natives. They brought books. They brought bottles of fine wine. And most of this material of course never made it to the Sierras. It eventually had to be discarded along the way.
DAVIES: A lot of settlers these days headed to Oregon. Everybody knew about the Oregon Trail. These folks wanted to go to California. Why?
WALLIS: They had swallowed the propaganda coming out of California. There were actually people in California, Anglos living in Alta California, the Mexican province, such as John Sutter, who is famous - sometimes infamous - in his own right for Sutter's Fort and, a few years later, the discovery of gold. He was - had a lot of real estate that he wanted to sell. And he and others put out the word. Come to California.
One of the chief promoters was a man named Lansford Hastings, a young attorney who saw an opportunity here to make some money. And he wrote an "Emigrants Guide To California And Oregon" (ph). And thousands and thousands of people read this book, including the Donner brothers and James Reed. And this was part of their research. And they followed Lansford Hastings' text religiously and actually to a fault. But they didn't obviously know that at the time. By the time they figured it out, it was too late.
DAVIES: Lansford Hastings and his advice becomes a critical part of this whole story. And there was an established route to get to California, but he had this shortcut that he wanted people to take, the Hastings Cutoff, and the party had to figure out whether they wanted to take this allegedly shorter and easier route or the more established one. And at one point, they go to a trading post, Fort Bernard, and there's a mountain man there named James Clyburn, who gives them some advice. Tell us about that.
WALLIS: James Clyburn gave them some great, sage wisdom and advice. James Clyburn was indeed a authentic mountain man and knew the ways of the woods like no other. He had served in the Black Hawk War back East with Abraham Lincoln and James Reed, knew them well. But years before that when he was a youth, he had already traveled throughout the Rocky Mountains as a trapper and trader, and he was out there again.
And when he came back to make a visit to Illinois, that's where he encountered the Donner-Reed Party and sat down over beverages that evening around a fire with members of the Donner-Reed Party and focused on James Reed and said, don't take this shortcut. Lansford Hastings doesn't know what he's talking about. He's - he in fact has never taken this cutoff himself. And I advise you strongly. Don't take it. Stick to the known California trail. Don't take this shortcut that's going to save you time because it won't. And unfortunately James Reed didn't heed his old friend's advice.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Michael Wallis. His new book about the story of the ill-fated Donner Party is called "The Best Land Under Heaven." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIE NILE'S "I'M ON FIRE")
DAVIES: In this is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Michael Wallis. He is a writer, a storyteller who's written a lot about the American West. His new book which tells the story of the Donner Party that faced starvation trying to make it to California in 1846 is "The Best Land Under Heaven." So the interesting thing about this - as the Donner-Reed Party is making its way and they have this guidebook from Hastings who encouraged them to take this risky, as it turned out, shortcut, Hastings himself was out in the region, assisting some parties. And...
DAVIES: ...They would at times come across notes, like a note on a sagebrush from Hastings. This is amazing.
WALLIS: It is. It is. There were old ways communicating on the trail, and this was the - literally the post office for them to leave these notes. But Hastings's advice was so, so terrible. And the irony is that his description of the Hastings cutoff in that guidebook is only a short paragraph. But, oh, my goodness, that paragraph was - put everyone in deep peril.
DAVIES: I'd like for you to read from a part of the book where you're describing part of the effort that the Donner Party is making to get through this cutoff that Hastings had recommended. It's - well, why don't you just set this up and read this for us?
WALLIS: Well, they had been out among the trail a good, long time, and now they were out in what eventually became the state of Utah and facing not only these incredible, impenetrable thickets but eventually salt desert. It was just one of the most difficult parts of the journey. And so Reed is out and some of his companions hunting around for Mr. Hastings, and they eventually found him. And he's giving them further advice and so forth. And so when he got back to his party, they decided to take the route that he suggested. And that's what this particular paragraph talks about.
(Reading) Five miles did not seem like much, but the company learned quickly enough that for the next two weeks, any progress at all would be hard to come by. Some days, the wagon sat still while the men hacked their way through Aspen groves and ravines covered with dense brush. Large trees had to be felled and dragged off, and boulders rolled aside. At times, the loads of debris were so great that it required double- and triple-yoked oxen teams to get the loads up the steep rises. Women and children stayed in the wagons. They prepared meals for the ravenous work parties that helped Tamsen Donner and Peggy Breen care for Luke Halloran and little Eddie Breen. The long, hard days took a toll on the immigrants and the animals.
DAVIES: And of course the awful thing is that when they hacked their way through this area, they found it lead nowhere - right? - to a canyon.
WALLIS: Yes. It was the worst possible scenario. All of that time, all of that expended energy, blood, sweat and tears was for naught. And we're talking about almost three weeks. And, as I also say in that chapter, concluding sadly, the worst was yet to come.
DAVIES: Right. The next challenge they faced was the Great Salt Lake Desert. They found this note, this torn-up note from the guy, Hastings.
WALLIS: Yes, yes.
DAVIES: And when they pieced it together, it warned them that what he thought would be not such a difficult trek across this desert - the Great Salt Lake Desert - was going to be a lot tougher. What did it mean for them? How did they prepare?
WALLIS: Well, in fact it was a lot tougher, and they found that out soon enough. So what happened very quickly is, this is when they needed to trim down the physical size of their caravan. And that meant leaving behind any non-essentials like big feather beds and iron cookstoves and, sadly, some of the animals that couldn't make the journey. Some things were cached, were buried in the desert sands - always hopeful that they'd come back and get them. But alas, that really never happened.
But they pressed on, facing this horrific heat and agony of this salt desert - and then at night, the freezing temperatures. And it just took toll after toll after toll on these people and on their animals. And they're - began to break up a little bit physically, and people move ahead and so forth. This happened throughout the whole journey.
DAVIES: And it was fascinating. They crossed - they had to travel how many days without any water supply, like, a week or so?
WALLIS: Oh, yes. At least a week. And this was so detrimental. Water, they soon learned, was every bit as important as food. They found that out on the desert. They found that out in the mountains. And they certainly found that out even after they were marooned in the snow. Water was very, very key to their survival.
DAVIES: There were attacks from Indian tribes too, here.
DAVIES: So what was the toll as they got through this desert and tried to push on? What had been the impact on the party?
WALLIS: Well, there were some deaths. There was the death of a young infant. There was a death of a sick man they had picked up along the way. They lost a lot of their animals. They had to leave behind certain wagons belonging to the different families and groups. They had to consolidate. They had to hopefully learn to work together, something that proved to be very difficult.
There was, you know, already a force at work, you know, undermining what should have been a cohesive group. And part of that I think is just human nature. It was starting to be a survival of the fittest and families pulling themselves into themselves and being concerned mostly with their immediate family as opposed to the whole group.
DAVIES: So the Donner-Reed party has a point where they're short of food, and they still have to make it over the Sierra Madre Mountains into California, their destination. Before we get to that, there was a point where they dispatched a couple of people - Charles Stanton and a guy named McCutchen - right? - who were going to go...
DAVIES: ...Try and make it to California because they knew they were short of supplies and get to the fort of John Sutter, bring some provisions and some fresh animals back to kind of rejuvenate the rest of the party. They get to John Sutter. He is a character. I mean tell us about this guy.
WALLIS: Well, Sutter was, to coin a phrase, a real piece of work. He was Swiss by birth, came early on into California with a lot of early Anglo immigrants and set up his base of operations there in Alta California, where he had a great deal of land, built a post, a so-called fort, had a fairly big operation - agricultural, cattle and so forth - and employed a great - a workforce of native Californian Indians, many of them Miwok Indians.
When I say employed, I use that word with - (laughter) considering the fact that they weren't really working for a salary. They were working for subsistence. They were in fact basically a slave force. He treated them very cruelly. They were not given very much to eat, very little shelter. He took great advantage of them. He liked to take great advantage especially of the women and girls and farm them out to his friends.
And - but he wanted to make money off these immigrant trains that he was beckoning with people like Lansford Hastings to come to California, to sell them land, to reap the benefits of all these new Californians. So when he sent help out to people like the Donner party - either his Miwok Indians or food supplies for the various relief parties - he made damn sure that all of that would be paid back. And he kept (laughter) - diligently kept records of everything that came out. Nothing was given away. He was not as benevolent as people might think he was.
DAVIES: Michael Wallis' new book is "The Best Land Under Heaven." After a break, he'll describe what happened when starving members of the Donner Party confronted the grim prospect of eating those who died. And critic Justin Chang reviews the new film from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF VLADIMIR HOROWITZ PERFORMANCE OF SCHUMANN'S "ARABESKE, OP. 18")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest is Michael Wallis, whose new book, "The Best Land Under Heaven," tells the story of the Donner Party, a group of pioneers who set out for California in 1846 and met with disaster. When we left off, Wallis was explaining that the party lost time, livestock, food and many of their possessions when they took an uncharted shortcut on the trail. I should warn that in a few minutes, in discussing the desperate situation the settlers faced, we'll talk briefly about the cannibalism that occurred. This is a particularly upsetting part of the story.
So the Donner Party is making its way, you know, in terrible shape...
WALLIS: Terrible shape.
DAVIES: ...Short of food, and two members of their party have made their way to California. And what - they would eventually hear from them again. One was James Reed, who was banished after killing another member of the party, the other these two guys, Staunton and McCutchen, who had gone to this fellow Sutter to get supplies. But I want you to just tell us what the circumstance this - the remainder of the party faced when they kind of came up to this one spot where they ended up camping at Truckee Lake. What was their circumstance, and what was the challenge they faced finishing the journey?
WALLIS: By October, it became evident that winter was setting in much earlier than expected, and in fact it did. And that of course was another big problem, another big reason for this tragedy. They made it up to what's called Truckee Meadows right around where Reno now is and were looking towards the Sierras and scaling that peak and going through what was then called Fremont Pass down the western slope.
They got to these meadows, and they decided to - oh, my God, we've made it this far; let's rest. So they rested and rested a bit too long. And they ended up literally stopped by these winter storms. They could go no farther. So they set up two camps - the so-called lake camp near the banks of Truckee Lake, now Donner Lake, and one down - camps with the Donner Parties down on the - on Alder Creek. And there they stayed from October throughout the winter of 1846, 1847 just trying to survive.
DAVIES: There was one point where early in the game they made it almost over the pass, right? What happened?
WALLIS: There were a few times when - they didn't just get into these camps and give up and sit down. There were forays out, one in particular which ended up ultimately being successful. But there were different tries. And they'd get up as far as they could go, and then they'd be repelled by this incredibly deep snow. We're talking about snow 20 and 25 feet deep, and it was just impossible to get through. They would even make - fashion snowshoes. And they tried all kinds of ways to get through the snow and couldn't.
And at the same time, Reed and others who had made it in were trying to get back to them, and they in fact were repelled coming up the western side. So there was kind of this impasse there. One party was formed that eventually became known as The Forlorn Hope, a large group of men, women and young lads, and they struck out. And that's the party that eventually - the survivors from that party did make it into Johnson's ranch and onto to Sutter's place.
DAVIES: They were the ones who had fashioned snowshoes, right?
WALLIS: They were some of those that fashioned snowshoes. Others had tried the snowshoes and failed, but they had snowshoes, and that helped them a great deal. But they - it was at a great cost. In fact it was this group that we now call The Forlorn Hope. That's the group where we find the first evidence of cannibalism occurring.
DAVIES: Yeah, so let's just stop there. What happens? How do they end up eating human flesh?
WALLIS: People are very squeamish about this whole idea of cannibalism. And I can't tell you how many times people have said, you're writing a book about the Donner party. Weren't those the pioneers who got stuck in the snow and ate each other? And the short answer is yes. And that's important because if that hadn't happened, they would be a footnote. They would have slipped over the Sierras. But it did in fact happen. There's much, much more to the story than the cannibalism, but the cannibalism definitely did occur. We have written accounts of it from the survivors themselves.
So it - in the camps and on The Forlorn Hope Party both, they ate literally everything before they had to turn to human flesh. They of course killed the great oxen, the horses, everything and ate that meat. They boiled the hides. They picked out the bone marrow. They made this gelatinous, awful goo from the hides, and it had very little, if any, nutritional value. They ate field mice they caught in their cabins and camps. They finally got to the point where they had to kill all their beloved dogs, very sadly, and eat all of them. And then they were chewing on pine cones and on Ponderosa pine bark. They're starving, and they're freezing to death. They're becoming delirious. They had to chew on something. And so they chewed on anything they could find.
But ultimately they turned to the protein that was the human, the dead companions, friends, family that they had storehoused that had already died from starvation and from hypothermia in the snow banks. And they did that totally to survive. But it was very much the last resort. And it was the last resort for The Forlorn Hope Party as well. They were beginning to die. And so they also turned to human flesh.
DAVIES: You write of a moment - the first time - I don't know where the description comes from - but the first time one of that party - when they sat down and started to eat the roasted remains of one of the party. And...
WALLIS: Yes, it was it was a young woman. And as she was sitting there already weeping, eating this flesh, she saw across the fire others eating, and she realized that they were eating some of the remains of her own dear younger brother. And she became quite hysterical. They tried their best not to consume flesh of family members. They were so careful. They cut small pieces of flesh and dried it or roasted it so it didn't even look like human flesh. And that's what they did.
And so when people say to me oh, how can this cannibalism - how awful. I always just turn it right around on them and say, what would you do? What would you do if you were starving to death, freezing to death and your children were around you and you saw them and they were dying and you knew that this store of protein was there? What would you do? I know what I would do. I would brandish my knife.
DAVIES: You know, this happened among the various camps there on the eastern side of the Sierra Madre and among this group The Forlorn Hope who set out, some of whom eventually made it to California. All eventually made that choice. When rescue parties came from California to try and get to the members of the camp, they found they couldn't make it through the snow with animals or wagons. They had to hike, right? They could only bring what they could carry.
WALLIS: That's right. Ultimately they had to hike - pack it in, yes.
DAVIES: And then when - they did reach these camps, and what did they find?
WALLIS: Over time during that four months these people were entrapped and the two months - a little more than two months it took the rescue - the four relief parties - the four separate parties to go in, each time there was of course more deterioration, more death until ultimately, with the four reliefs, there was just but one survivor. But when they first got to these camps, both the lake camp and the Alder Creek camp, often they arrived, and they saw nothing except snow.
And some parties remembered when finally a woman emerged, kind of a ghastly, ghostly figure. And she looked at them, and they could hardly recognize her as a human. And she said to them, are you men from California, or are you from heaven? And then more bodies kind of came up. I mean it sounds like "The Walking Dead." And in fact in many cases, they were.
So they had to tend to these people right away. And they had to make sure that they didn't stampede to the food like they tried to do with the cattle back at the watering holes. They knew that if they ate too much and too fast, it would kill them. In a case or two, it did in fact kill them.
DAVIES: Michael Wallis' new book about the story of the Donner Party is called "The Best Land Under Heaven." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RON FLATTER'S "HUMBUG")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Michael Wallis. He is a writer who's written a lot about the American West. His new book tells the story of the Donner Party that faced starvation as they tried to get to California. It's called "The Best Land Under Heaven."
You make the point that those who ate human flesh in this disaster did so - ate the bodies of people who had already died. There is this one unproven accusation that this guy, Lewis Keseberg, killed a kid that he would later devour...
DAVIES: ...But not proven. There was one case where two people were actually killed with the intention of eating them, right?
WALLIS: It's probably one of the saddest episodes in the entire Donner-Reed story. And these were two noble Miwok Indians, Luis and Salvador - that's all we know about them, their names - that were sent out by Sutter with a party survivor who made it in and came back with pack animals, pack mules, with supplies. They didn't last.
These two Miwoks were with the Forlorn Hope Party. And after cannibalism in the Forlorn Hope Party began, the two Indians refused to eat human flesh. They were growing weaker and weaker. And ultimately the rationalization was once again, well, these are Indians, so they're fair game. So they were shot, field dressed and eaten. And it's so sad because ironically, a few days later, there were Miwok Indians who came to the aid of the Forlorn Hope and made sure they got down to safety. It's truly sad that those two murders happened at all.
DAVIES: In the end, how many people survived? How many died?
WALLIS: Well, basically it ended up this way. Forty-one people died. Now, this is talking about once they were into the camps. And 46 survived. Several of them perished before they even reached the Sierra Nevada. And as we said, one died just after reaching the valley. But the rest of them of course were physically and psychologically scarred and some of them for life.
I think it's very important to say, though, that out of all those parties that did make it, survive, two entire families survived, two large families - the Reed family and the Breen family, this Irish family from Iowa. They all survived. But it was just the Reed family alone that never partook of a piece of human flesh. They somehow were able to avoid that due to the diligence and the care of the mother, Margret Reed.
DAVIES: She managed to squirrel away a little bit of food here and there and ration it.
WALLIS: She did.
DAVIES: This became a well-known story immediately and for decades after.
DAVIES: How was it told?
WALLIS: It was told with a lot of garnish. It was totally exaggerated, a lot of yellow journalism, exaggerations, blown totally out of proportion. And a lot of that had to do, too, with the fact that the Donner-Reed Party ended up - these foot-soldiers of Manifest Destiny were greatly ridiculed by a lot of the other Manifest Destiny proponents and principally for one reason - because according to the unwritten rules of Manifest Destiny, you were to go out and conquer nation - conquer nature. You were to take the land. You were to cut down the trees. You were to take over other people's country. And they did none of that. They failed, according to the proponents of Manifest Destiny. They let nature beat them, so they were considered failures.
DAVIES: Do you think this story tells us something about the American character or the American West?
WALLIS: Well, I think it does. I think it tells us not only about the American West, but really about the whole nation. I think that's why a lot of people who are reading the book are finding that there's great relevance for this book, for this story, today - because so many people find that really, the idea of Manifest Destiny still exists in this country - this whole idea of American exceptionalism. And I find that too.
I find that we - the editorial - we are so guilty of committing that common mistake. And that's produced this great cliche that is so true. Those of us who do not learn our history are doomed to repeat it - the sins of the past. And that is certainly the case with the Donner Party. And the words that just ring out to me continually are two very - two words that, combined, can be very fatal, then as now. And those words are ignorance and arrogance - very potent, very deadly.
DAVIES: You end the book with this lovely note that Patty Reed wrote to a cousin after she was rescued. You want to just share that with us?
WALLIS: I would. Just a sentence from her long, long letter that I think serves as, as I say, a fitting benediction for this whole story. And this is what she wrote. (Reading) We have left everything, but I don't care for that. We have got through with our lives. Don't let this letter dishearten anybody. Remember; never take no cut-offs and hurry along as fast as you can.
DAVIES: Michael Wallis, thanks so much for sharing it with us.
WALLIS: It's been my pleasure.
DAVIES: Michael Wallis' book is "The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party In An Age Of Manifest Destiny." Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. This is FRESH AIR.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, the guest and host incorrectly identify an American explorer as James Clyburn. His name was James Clyman. In the audio the host also incorrectly identifies a mountain range in the Western U.S. as the Sierra Madre. It is the Sierra Nevada mountain range.]
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