History of the Donner Party

“I told them they ought to give me something to eat, and that I would
talk with them afterwards, but no, they insisted that I should tell them
about Donner’s money. I asked them who they were, and where they came
from, but they replied by threatening to kill me if I did not give up
the money. They threatened to hang or shoot me, and at last I told them
I had promised Mrs. Donner that I would carry her money to her children,
and I proposed to do so, unless shown some authority by which they had a
better claim. This so exasperated them, that they acted as though they
were going to kill me. I offered to let them bind me as a prisoner, and
take me before the alcalde at Sutter’s Fort, and I promised that I would
then tell all I knew about the money. They would listen to nothing,
however, and finally I told them where they would find the silver
buried, and gave them the gold. After I had done this, they showed me a
document from Alcalde Sinclair, by which they were to receive a certain
proportion of all moneys and property which they rescued.”

The men spoken of by Keseberg, were the fourth relief party. Their names
were, Captain Fallon, William M. Foster, John Rhodes, J. Foster, R. P.
Tucker, E. Coffeemire, and – Keyser. William M. Foster had recrossed the
mountains the second time, hoping to rescue his wife’s mother, Mrs.
Murphy. Alas! he found only her mutilated remains.

Chapter XX.

Dates of the Rescues
Arrival of the Fourth Relief
A Scene Beggaring Description
The Wealth of the Donners
An Appeal to the Highest Court
A Dreadful Shock
Saved from a Grizzly Bear
A Trial for Slander
Keseberg Vindicated
Two Kettles of Human Blood
The Enmity of the Relief Party
“Born under an Evil Star”
“Stone Him! Stone Him!”
Fire and Flood
Keseberg’s Reputation for Honesty
A Prisoner in his own House
The Most Miserable of Men

December 16, 1846, the fifteen composing the “Forlorn Hope,” left Donner
Lake. January 17, 1847, as they reached Johnson’s ranch; and February
5th Capt. Tucker’s party started to the assistance of the emigrants.
This first relief arrived February 19th at the cabins; the second
relief, or Reed’s party, arrived March 1st; the third, or Foster’s,
about the middle of March; and the fourth, or Fallon’s, on the
seventeenth of April. Upon the arrival of Capt. Fallon’s company, the
sight presented at the cabins beggars all description. Capt. R. P.
Tucker, now of Goleta, Santa Barbara County, Cal., endeavors, in his
correspondence, to give a slight idea of the scene. Human bodies,
terribly mutilated, legs, arms, skulls, and portions of remains, were
scattered in every direction and strewn about the camp. Mr. Foster found
Mrs. Murphy’s body with one of her limbs sawed off, the saw still lying
by her remains. It was such scenes as these which gave this party their
first abhorrence for Keseberg. The man was nowhere to be seen, but a
fresh track was discovered in the snow leading away from the cabins
toward the Dormer tents. The party pressed forward to Alder Creek.
Captain Tucker writes: “The dead bodies lay moldering around, being all
that was left to tell the tale of sorrow. On my first trip we had cut
down a large pine tree, and laid the goods of the Donners on this tree
to dry in the sun. These goods lay there yet, with the exception of
those which Reed’s party had taken away.”

George Donner was wealthy. His wealth consisted not merely of goods, as
many claim, but of a large amount of coin. Hiram Miller, of the relief
parties, is authority for the statement that Mr. Donner owned a quarter
section of land within the present city limits of Chicago. This land was
sold for ten thousand dollars, shortly before Mr. Donner started for
California. Mr. Allen Francis, who has been mentioned as the very best
authority concerning this, family, camped with them on the evening of
their first night’s journey out of Springfield, Illinois, saw Mr.
Donner’s money, and thinks there was ten thousand dollars. Mrs. F. E.
Bond, of Elk Grove, Sacramento County, California, does not remember the
exact amount, but knows that Mr. Donner started with a great deal of
gold, because she helped make the belts in which it was to be carried in
crossing the plains. The relief parties always understood there was at
Donner’s camp a large sum of money, estimated at from six to fourteen
thousand dollars. It is not disputed that Halloran left about fifteen
hundred dollars to this family. Yet Capt. Fallon’s party could find no
money. It was clear to their minds that some one had robbed the Donner
tents.

Remaining over night, thoroughly searching in every place where the
supposed money could be concealed, this party returned to Donner Lake.
On their way they found the same mysterious track, also returning to the
cabins. They probably discovered Keseberg in about the manner described.
It is plain to be seen that they regarded him as the murderer of Mrs.
Donner. In forcing him to tell what he had done with the money, they,
too, claim to have choked him, to have put a rope around his neck, and
to have threatened to hang him. On the other hand, if Keseberg’s
statement be accepted as truth, it is easy to understand why he refused
to surrender the money to men who treated him from the outset as a
murderer and a robber.

Let the God to whom Lewis Keseberg appeals be his judge. It is not the
part of this book to condemn or acquit him. Most of the fourth relief
party have already gone before the bar at which Keseberg asks to be
tried. Capt. Tucker is about the only available witness, and his
testimony is far more lenient than the rumors and falsehoods usually
published.

If Keseberg be guilty of any or of all crimes, it will presently be seen
that the most revengeful being on earth could not ask that another drop
be added to his cup of bitterness. His statement continues:

“These men treated me with the greatest unkindness. Mr. Tucker was the
only one who took my part or befriended me. When they started over the
mountains, each man carried two bales of goods. They had silks,
calicoes, and delames from the Donners, and other articles of great
value. Each man would carry one bundle a little way, lay it down, and
come back and get the other bundle. In this way they passed over the
snow three times. I could not keep up with them because I was so weak,
but managed to come up to their camp every night. One day I was dragging
myself slowly along behind the party, when I came to a place which had
evidently been used as a camping-ground by some of the previous parties.
Feeling very tired, I thought it would be a good place to make some
coffee. Kindling a fire, I filled my coffee-pot with fresh snow and sat
waiting for it to melt and get hot. Happening to cast my eyes carelessly
around, I discovered a little piece of calico protruding from the snow.
Half thoughtlessly, half out of idle curiosity, I caught hold of the
cloth, and finding it did not come readily, I gave it a strong pull. I
had in my hands the body of my dead child Ada! She had been buried in
the snow, which, melting down, had disclosed a portion of her clothing.
I thought I should go frantic! It was the first intimation I had of her
death, and it came with such a shock!”

“Just as we were getting out of the snow, I happened to be sitting in
camp alone one afternoon. The men were hunting, or attending to their
goods. I was congratulating myself upon my escape from the mountains,
when I was startled by a snuffling, growling noise, and looking up, I
saw a large grizzly bear only a few feet away. I knew I was too weak to
attempt to escape, and so remained where I sat, expecting every moment
he would devour me. Suddenly there was the report of a gun, and the bear
fell dead. Mr. Foster had discovered the animal, and slipping up close
to camp, had killed it.”

When the party arrived at Sutter’s Fort, they took no pains to conceal
their feelings toward Keseberg. Some of the men openly accused him of
Mrs. Donner’s murder. Keseberg, at the suggestion of Captain Sutter,
brought action against Captain Fallon, Ned Coffeemire, and the others,
for slander. The case was tried before Alcalde Sinclair, and the jury
gave Keseberg a verdict of one dollar damages. The old alcalde records
are not in existence, but some of the survivors remember the
circumstance, and Mrs. Samuel Kyburz, now of Clarksville, El Dorado
County, was a witness at the trial. If Keseberg was able to vindicate
himself in an action for slander against the evidence of all the party,
it is clear that such evidence was not adduced as has frequently
appeared in books. For instance, in Captain Fallon’s report of this
trip, he alleges that “in the cabin with Keseberg were found two kettles
of human blood, in all supposed to be over one gallon.” Had this been
proven, no jury would have found for Keseberg. Fresh blood could not
have been obtained from starved bodies, and had the blood been found,
Keseberg would have been adjudged a murderer.

Speaking upon this point, Keseberg denies the assertion that any blood
was discovered, calls attention to the length of time Mrs. Donner had
been dead, to the readiness with which blood coagulates, and adds that
not a witness testified to such a circumstance at the trial. Why should
Keseberg murder Mrs. Donner? If he wanted her money, it was only
necessary to allow her to go out into the mountains alone, without
provisions, without any one to point out the way, and perish in the
trackless snows. She could not carry any considerable portion of her
money with her, and he, had only to go back to Alder Creek and secure
the treasure. He bears witness that she never tasted human flesh; that
she would not partake of the food he offered; how reasonable, then, the
story of her death. The fourth relief party expected to find a vast sum
of money. One half was to be given them for their trouble. They regarded
the man Keseberg as the murderer of George Foster, because of the
reports given by the little children brought out by the third relief.
The father of this child was with both the third and fourth reliefs.
Arriving at the cabins, they were amazed and horrified at the dreadful
sights. Hastening to the tents, they found no money. Their idea that
Keseberg was a thief was confirmed by his disgorging the money when
threatened with death. There was much reason for their hatred of the man
who crossed the mountains with them, and this was intensified by their
being brought before Alcalde Sinclair and proven slanderers. Out of this
hatred has grown reports which time has magnified into the hideous
falsehoods which greet the ear from all directions. Keseberg may be
responsible for the death of Hardcoop, but urges in his defense that all
were walking, even to the women and the children. He says Hardcoop was
not missed until evening, and that it was supposed the old man would
catch up with the train during the night. The terrible dangers
surrounding the company, the extreme lateness of the season, the
weakness of the oxen, and the constant fear of lurking, hostile Indians,
prevented him or any one else from going back. Keseberg may be
responsible for the death of Wolfinger, of George Foster, of James Eddy,
of Mrs. Murphy, and of Mrs. Tamsen Donner, but the most careful searcher
for evidence can not find the slightest trace of proofs. In his own
mournful language, he comes near the truth when he says:

“I have been born under an evil star! Fate, misfortune, bad luck,
compelled me to remain at Donner Lake. If God would decree that I should
again pass through such an ordeal, I could not do otherwise than I did.
My conscience is free from reproach. Yet that camp has been the one
burden of my life. Wherever I have gone, people have cried, ‘Stone him!
stone him!’ Even the little children in the streets have mocked me and
thrown stones at me as I passed. Only a man conscious of his innocence,
and clear in the sight of God, would not have succumbed to the terrible
things which have been said of me – would not have committed suicide!
Mortification, disgrace, disaster, and unheard-of misfortune have
followed and overwhelmed me. I often think that the Almighty has singled
me out, among all the men on the face of the earth, in order to see how
much hardship, suffering, and misery a human being can bear!”

“Soon after my arrival at the Fort, I took charge of the schooner
Sacramento, and conveyed wheat from Sacramento to San Francisco, in
payment of Capt. Sutter’s purchase of the Russian possessions. I worked
seven months for Sutter; but, although he was kind to me, I did not get
my money. I then went to Sonoma, and worked about the same length of
time for Gen. Vallejo. I had a good position and good prospects, but
left for the gold mines. Soon afterward I was taken sick, and for eight
months was an invalid. I then went to Sutter’s Fort and started a
boarding-house. I made money rapidly. After a time I built a house south
of the Fort, which cost ten thousand dollars. In 1851 I purchased the
Lady Adams hotel, in Sacramento. It was a valuable property, and I
finally sold it at auction for a large sum of money. This money was to
be paid the next day. The deeds had already passed. That night the
terrible fire of 1852 occurred, and not only swept away the hotel, but
ruined the purchaser, so that I could not collect one cent. I went back
to Sutter’s Fort and started the Phoenix Brewery. I succeeded, and
acquired considerable property. I finally sold out for fifty thousand
dollars. I had concluded to take this money, go back to Germany, and
live quietly the rest of my days. The purchaser went to San Francisco to
draw the money. The sale was effected eight days before the great flood
of 1861-2. The flood came, and I lost everything.”

Thus, throughout his entire career, have business reverses followed
Lewis Keseberg. Several times he has been wealthy and honorably
situated. At one time he was a partner of Sam. Brannan, in a mammoth
distillery at Calistoga; and Mr. Brannan is one among many who speak in
highest terms of his honesty, integrity, and business capacity. On the
thirtieth of January, 1877, Phillipine Keseberg, his faithful wife,
died. This was the severest loss of all, as will presently be seen.

Eleven children were born to them, and four are now living. One of
these, Lillie, now lives in Sacramento with her husband. Another,
Paulina, a widow, resides in San Rafael. Bertha and Augusta live with
the father at Brighton, Sacramento County. Both these children are
hopelessly idiotic. Bertha is twenty-six years of age, and has never
uttered an intelligible word. Augusta is fifteen years old, weighs two
hundred and five pounds, and possesses only slight traces of
intelligence. Teething spasms, occurring when they were about two years
old, is the cause of their idiocy. Both are subject to frequent and
violent spasms or epileptic fits. They need constant care and attention.
Should Bertha’s hand fall into the fire, she has not sufficient
intelligence to withdraw it from the flames. Both are helpless as
children. The State provides for insane, but not for idiots. Keseberg
says a bill setting aside a ward in the State Asylum for his two
children, passed the Legislature, but received a pocket veto by the
Governor. Sacramento County gives them eighteen dollars a month. Their
helplessness and violence render it impossible to keep any nurse in
charge of them longer than a few days. Keseberg is very poor. He has
employment for perhaps three months during the year. While his wife
lived, she took care of these children; but now he has personally to
watch over them and provide for their necessities. While at work, he is
compelled to keep them locked in a room in the same building. They
scream so loudly while going into the spasms that he can not dwell near
other people. He therefore lives isolated, in a plain little house back
of his brewery. Here he lives, the saddest, loneliest, most pitiable
creature on the face of the earth. He traces all his misfortunes to that
cabin on Donner Lake, and it is little wonder that he says: “I beg of
you, insert in your book a fervent prayer to Almighty God that He will
forever prevent the recurrence of a similar scene of horror.”

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