History of the Donner Party

It was nobly said. If the Breens had been left at Starved Camp, even
until the return of Foster, Eddy, Miller, and Thompson from the lake,
none would have ever reached the settlements. In continuation of the
above narration, the following is taken from the manuscript of John
Breen: “Stark was finally left alone. To his great bodily strength, and
unexcelled courage, myself and others owe our lives. There was probably
no other man in California at that time, who had the intelligence,
determination, and what was absolutely necessary in that emergency, the
immense physical powers of John Stark. He was as strong as two ordinary
men. On his broad shoulders, he carried the provisions, most of the
blankets, and most of the time some of the weaker children. In regard to
this, he would laughingly say that he could carry them all, if there was
room on his back, because they were so light from starvation.”

By every means in his power, Stark would cheer and encourage the poor
sufferers. Frequently he would carry one or two ahead a little way, put
them down, and return for the others. James F. Breen says: “I distinctly
remember that myself and Jonathan Graves were both carried by Stark, on
his back, the greater part of the journey.” Others speak similarly.

Regarding this brave man, Dr. J. C. Leonard has contributed much
valuable information, from which is selected the following:

“John Stark was born in 1817, in Wayne County, Indiana. His father,
William Stark, came from Virginia, and was one of the first settlers of
Kentucky, arriving there about the same time as Daniel Boone. He married
a cousin of Daniel Boone, and they had a family of eight children. T. J.
Stark, the oldest son, now lives at French Corral, Nevada County,
California. John Stark, the younger brother, started from Monmouth
County, Illinois, in the spring of 1846, but taking the Fort Hall road,
reached California in safety. He was a powerfully built man, weighing
two hundred and twenty pounds. He was sheriff of Napa County for six
years, and in 1852 represented that county in the State Legislature. He
died near Calistoga, in 1875, of heart disease. His death was
instantaneous, and occurred while pitching hay from a wagon. He was the
father of eleven children, six of whom, with his wife, are now living.”

Each one of the persons who were taken from Starved Camp by this man and
his two companions, reached Sutter’s Fort in safety. James F. Breen had
his feet badly frozen, and afterwards burned while at the camp. No one
had any hope that they could be saved, and when the party reached the
fort, a doctor was sought to amputate them. None could be found, and
kind nature effected a cure which a physician would have pronounced
impossible.

In concluding this chapter, it is quite appropriate to quote the
following, written by J. F. Breen: “No one can attach blame to those who
voted to leave part of the emigrants. It was a desperate case. Their
idea was to save as many as possible, and they honestly believed that by
attempting to save all, all would be lost. But this consideration – and
the further one that Stark was an entire stranger to every one in the
camps, not bound to them by any tie of blood or kindred, nor having any
hope of reward, except the grand consciousness of doing a noble act –
makes his conduct shine more lustrously in the eyes of every person who
admires nature’s true and only nobility.”

Chapter XVIII.

Arrival of the Third Relief
The Living and the Dead
Captain George Donner Dying
Mrs. Murphy’s Words
Foster and Eddy at the Lake
Tamsen Donner and her Children
A Fearful Struggle
The Husband’s Wishes
Walking Fourteen Miles
Wifely Devotion
Choosing Death
The Night Journey
An Unparalleled Ordeal
An Honored Name
Three Little Waifs
“And Our Parents are Dead.”

Eddy, Foster, Thompson, and Miller passed Nicholas Clark and John
Baptiste near the head of Donner Lake. These starving fugitives had
journeyed thus far in their desperate effort to cross the mountains. Of
all those encamped at Alder Creek the sole survivors now were George
Donner, the captain of the Donner Party, and his faithful wife, Tamsen
Donner. Under the snowdrifts which covered the valley, lay Jacob Donner,
Elizabeth Donner, Lewis Donner, Samuel Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Joseph
Rhinehart, and James Smith. One more was soon to be added to the number.
It was the man whose name had been given to the company; the only one
who died of a lingering, painful disease. The injury of George Donner’s
hand had grown into a feverish, virulent ulceration, which must have
partaken of the nature of erysipelas. At all events, mortification had
set in, and when the third relief party arrived it had reached his
shoulder. In a few hours at most he must die.

Foster’s party found that much suffering had occurred at Donner Lake
during the tearful days which elapsed between Reed’s departure and their
own arrival. Mrs. Lavina Murphy had charge of her son, Simon Murphy, her
grandchild, George Foster, of the child James Eddy, and of the three
little Donner girls, Frances, Georgia, and Eliza. All dwelt in the same
cabin, and with them was Lewis Keseberg. Foster and Eddy found all
there, save their own children. They were both dead. Keseberg has
generally been accused of the murder of little George Foster. Except
Mrs. Murphy, the oldest of those who were with Keseberg was only nine
years of age. All that the children know is that Keseberg took the child
to bed with him one night, and that it was dead next morning. One of the
little ones who survived – one whose memory has proven exceedingly
truthful upon all points wherein her evidence could be possibly
substantiated – and who is now Mrs. Georgia A. Babcock – gives the
mildest version of this sad affair which has ever appeared in print. She
denies the story, so often reiterated, that Keseberg took the child to
bed with him and ate it up before morning; but writes the following: “In
the morning the child was dead. Mrs. Murphy took it, sat down near the
bed where my sister and myself were lying, laid the little one on her
lap, and made remarks to other persons, accusing Keseberg of killing it.
After a while he came, took it from her, and hung it up in sight, inside
the cabin, on the wall.”

Foster, Eddy, Thompson, and Miller remained but a little while at the
mountain camp. During this time Mr. Foster had no opportunity to talk
with Mrs. Murphy save in Keseberg’s presence. Afterwards, when the
children told him of the suspicions expressed in their presence by Mrs.
Murphy, Foster deeply regretted that he had not sought a private
interview with her, for the purpose of learning the reasons for her
belief.

In the morning the relief party was to start back to the settlements.
Eddy was to carry Georgia Donner; Thompson, Frances Donner; Miller,
Eliza Donner; and Foster was to carry Simon Murphy. John Baptiste and
Nicholas Clark remained at the head of Donner Lake, and were to
accompany the party. This left Mr. and Mrs. Donner at Alder Creek, and
Keseberg and Mrs. Murphy at the cabins. Mrs. Murphy had cared for her
children and her grandchildren, and ministered to the wants of those
around her, until she was sick, exhausted, and utterly helpless. She
could not walk. She could scarcely rise from her bed. With all the
tenderness of a son, Mr. Foster gave her such provisions as he could
leave, procured her wood, and did whatever he was able to do to render
her comfortable. He also promised to return speedily, and with such
assistance that he could carry her over the summits to her children.

The very afternoon that the third relief party reached the cabins, Simon
Murphy discovered a woman wandering about in the snow as if lost. It
proved to be Mrs. Tamsen Donner. She had wearily traveled over the deep
snows from Alder Creek, as narrated in a previous chapter, to see her
children, and, if necessary, to protect their lives. Oh! the joy and the
pain of the meeting of those little ones and their mother. As they wound
their arms about her neck, kissed her lips, laughed in her eyes, and
twined their fingers in her hair, what a struggle must have been taking
place in her soul. As the pleading, upturned faces of her babies begged
her not to leave them, her very heart-strings must have been rent with
agony. Well may the voice quiver or the hand tremble that attempts to
portray the anguish of this mother during that farewell interview. From
the very first moment, her resolution to return to her husband remained
unshaken. The members of the relief party entreated her to go with her,
children and save her own life. They urged that there could only be a
few hours of life left in George Donner. This was so true that she once
ventured the request that they remain until she could return to Alder
Creek, and see if he were yet alive. The gathering storm-clouds, which
had hovered over the summit for days, compelled them to refuse this
request. An hour’s delay might be fatal to all.

George Donner knew that he was dying, and had frequently urged his wife
to leave him, cross the mountains, and take care of her children. As she
held her darlings in her arms, it required no prophetic vision to
disclose pictures of sadness, of lonely childhood, of longing girlhood,
of pillows wet with tears, if these three little waifs were left to
wander friendless in California. She never expressed a belief that she
would see that land of promise beyond the Sierra. Often had her calm,
earnest voice told them of the future which awaited them, and so far as
possible had she prepared them to meet that future without the counsel
or sympathy of father or mother.

The night-shadows, creeping through the shivering pines, warned her of
the long, dreary way over which her tired feet must pass ere she reached
her dying husband’s side. She is said to have appeared strangely
composed. The struggle was silent. The poor, bleeding heart brought not
a single moan to the lips. It was a choice between life, hope, and her
clinging babes, or a lonely vigil by a dying husband, and an unknown,
shroudless death in the wintry mountains. Her husband was sixty-three;
he was well stricken in years, and his life was fast ebbing away. If she
returned through the frosty night-winds, over the crisp, freezing snow,
she would travel fourteen miles that day. The strong, healthy men
composing the relief parties frequently could travel but five or six
miles in a day. If she made the journey, and found her husband was dead,
she could have no hope of returning on the morrow. She had suffered too
long from hunger and privation to hope to be able to return and overtake
the relief party. It was certain life or certain death. On the side of
the former was maternal love; on the side of the latter, wifely
devotion. The whole wide range of history can not produce a parallel
example of adherence to duty, and to the dictates of conjugal fidelity.
With quick, convulsive pressure of her little ones to her heart; with a
hasty, soul-throbbing kiss upon the lips of each; with a prayer that was
stifled with a sob of agony, Tamsen Donner hurried away to her husband.
Through the gathering darkness, past the shadowy sentinels of the
forest, they watched with tearful eyes her retreating form. As if she
dared not trust another sight of the little faces – as if to escape the
pitiful wail of her darlings – she ran straight forward until out of
sight and hearing. She never once looked back.

There are mental struggles which so absorb the being and soul that
physical terrors or tortures are unnoticed. Tamsen Donner’s mind was
passing through such an ordeal. The fires of Moloch, the dreadful
suttee, were sacrifices which long religious education sanctioned, and
in which the devotees perished amidst the plaudits of admiring
multitudes. This woman had chosen a death of solitude, of hunger, of
bitter cold, of pain-racked exhaustion, and was actuated by only the
pure principles of wifely love. Already the death-damp was gathering on
George Donner’s brow. At the utmost, she could hope to do no more than
smooth the pillow of the dying, tenderly clasp the fast-chilling hand,
press farewell kisses upon the whitening lips, and finally close the
dear, tired eyes. For this, only this, she was yielding life, the world,
and her darling babes. Fitted by culture and refinement to be an
ornament to society, qualified by education to rear her daughters to
lives of honor and usefulness, how it must have wrung her heart to allow
her little ones to go unprotected into a wilderness of strangers. But
she could not leave her husband to die alone. Rather solitude, better
death, than desert the father of her children. O, Land of the Sunset!
let the memory of this wife’s devotion be ever enshrined in the hearts
of your faithful daughters! In tablets thus pure, engrave the name of
Tamsen Donner.

When the June sunshine gladdened the Sacramento Valley, three little
barefooted girls walked here and there among the houses and tents of
Sutter’s Fort. They were scantily clothed, and one carried a thin
blanket. At night they said their prayers, lay down in whatever tent
they happened to be, and, folding the blanket about them, fell asleep in
each other’s arms. When they were hungry, they asked food of whomsoever
they met. If any one inquired who they were, they answered as their
mother had taught them: “We are the children of Mr. and Mrs. George
Donner.” But they added something they had learned since. It was, “And
our parents are dead.”

Chapter XIX.

False Ideas about the Donner Party
Accused of Six Murders
Interviews with Lewis Keseberg
His Statement
An Educated German
A Predestined Fate
Keseberg’s Lameness
Slanderous Reports
Covered with Snow
“Loathsome, Insipid, and Disgusting”
Longings toward Suicide
Tamsen Donner’s Death
Going to Get the Treasure
Suspended over a Hidden Stream
“Where is Donner’s Money?”
Extorting a Confession.

Keseberg is one of the leading characters in the Donner Party. Usually,
his part in the tragedy has been considered the entire story.
Comparatively few people have understood that any except this one man
ate human flesh, or was a witness of any scene of horror. He has been
loathed, execrated, abhorred as a cannibal, a murderer, and a heartless
fiend. In the various published sketches which have from time to time
been given to the world, Lewis Keseberg has been charged with no less
than six murders. His cannibalism has been denounced as arising from
choice, as growing out of a depraved and perverted appetite, instead of
being the result of necessity. On the fourth of April, 1879, this
strange man granted an interview to the author, and in this and
succeeding interviews he reluctantly made a statement which was reduced
to writing. “What is the use,” he would urge, “of my making a statement?
People incline to believe the most horrible reports concerning a man,
and they will not credit what I say in my own defense. My conscience is
clear. I am an old man, and am calmly awaiting my death. God is my
judge, and it long ago ceased to trouble me that people shunned and
slandered me.”

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