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New Donner Party book one of the best
Our History

We don’t often plug books, but once in a great while I come across one chronicling an important part of Nevada County history with a Nevada City aspect. The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny is such a book.

Author Michael Wallis has compiled an account of the ill-fated Donner Party that stands apart from all other accounts I have read.

History of the Donner Party, a 19th century book by Truckee newspaperman Charles McGlashan, was overly melodramatic and lacked objectivity. And George Stewart’s 1963 bestseller, Ordeal by Hunger, although well-researched, fell short of telling a complete story.

Wallis, however, has ventured deeper into the tragedy––and especially into the people––than any previous writer. The book was released earlier this year by Liveright Publishing, a division of W. W. Norton & Co.

In case you’re not familiar with the story, the Donner Party––more than 80 men, women and children––became snowbound in the eastern part of what is now Nevada County during the brutal winter of 1846-47. The wagon train from Illinois, led by George Donner, was late getting to California and, unfortunately, winter came early that year.

The long trip west was delayed for reasons Wallis explains, noting that by the time they reached Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake) in October, there was no way to take their wagons over the Sierra Nevada mountains at present-day Donner Pass.

From October 1846 until a rescue team reached them the following February, (the first of four relief parties that spring), members of the Donner Party suffered unimaginable hardships. And while Wallis explains how and why cannibalism became a matter of survival for many of the starving, entrapped pioneers, he matter-of-factly describes that aspect of the experience.

Next time you pass the Donner Trail historical marker on Highway 49, about ten miles south of Grass Valley, you will be passing over the escape route (via the Bear Valley) that eventually brought 45 emaciated survivors to safety.

At its 1909 Grand Parlor in Marysville, the Native Sons of the Golden West committed to erecting a monument at the Donner Lake camp site where many entrapped pioneers wintered. (Others, including the Donner family, hunkered down at Alder Creek, couple miles north of what is now Truckee).

Dr. Chester W. Chapman, a Nevada City dentist, was named chairman of the NSGW Monument Committee and put in charge of fundraising. Chapman was born in Nevada City in 1864 and died here in 1956. He was an important figure in political and community affairs, serving as mayor for several years.

With Dr. Chapman as committee chair, Native Sons (and Daughters) initiated a statewide fundraising campaign. A year later the cornerstone was dedicated, followed by construction of a 22-foot tall stone and cement pedestal.

By 1918, NSGW members had contributed $10,000 and NDGW an additional $2,000. The Nevada County Board of Supervisors tossed in $500 and Nevada City-born mine owner and engineer Fred Bradley donated $1,500. In all, the persuasive Dr. Chapman raised over $30,000––--enough to fund the project and schedule a June 1918 dedication ceremony for the 16-foot-tall John McQuarrie bronze sculpture.

Grand President of the Native Sons in 1918 was Grass Valley native Jo V. Snyder, (1873-1922), longtime business manager of the Grass Valley Daily Union newspaper. On June 6, three of the then-eight surviving members of the Donner Party stood with Snyder and Chapman, along with the governors of California and Nevada and other dignitaries, to dedicate the towering monument near the eastern tip of Donner Lake.

Next month, I will share more about Dr. Chapman and his tireless effort to fund the monument. Meantime, grab a copy of The Best Land Under Heaven. You won’t be disappointed.

Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing exnevadacitymayor@gmail.com.
Courtesy of Michael Wallis
Michael Wallis of Tulsa, Oklahoma, author of The Best Land Under Heaven, an account of the 1846-47 Donner Party ordeal.