Friday, December 04, 2009

Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, Part XI

Read Part I

Read Part II

Read Part III

Read Part IV

Read Part V

Read Part VI

Read Part VII

Read Part VIII

Read Part IX

Read Part X


After the Reed and McCutchen relief party left Truckee Lake with its refugees on March 2nd, those who remained at the main encampment continued to slowly starve to death. James Reed stated that he had left them with seven days’ worth of provisions, but these provisions were scant and highly rationed. Furthermore, it took nearly twice that long for any further help to arrive.

Frances Donner, who was six at the time, would later remark: “Able bodied men and women and strong children died, yet we poor helpless little mites survived.”

Frances Donner

On March 5th, several days after Reed’s party of refugees had left, two of the men he had left behind to help the victims at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek decided to leave. According to one later biographer, these two men determined that it was “sheer madness” for them to stay. Tamzene Donner, wife of George Donner, refused again to leave her sick husband’s side at Alder Creek, but talked the two rescuers into taking her three remaining children – all under the age of seven. Several sources suggest Mrs. Donner paid them to do this. However, the rescuers took them only as far as the Truckee Lake encampment, where the children were left with Mrs. Murphy and Louis Keseberg. The rescuers, with money in hand, apparently didn’t feel the urge to follow through with their agreement, no doubt believing that both George and Tamzene Donner would never make it out of Alder Creek alive.

By the following day, the storm that had passed the Starved Camp now reached Alder Creek, and during the night three-year-old Louis Donner succumbed to starvation. He was the youngest son of Jacob and Elizabeth Donner – Jacob having died several months earlier. His mother was still there at Alder Creek, and the account given by Nicholas Clark (the last of the three rescuers Reed had left behind) states that she was “frantic with grief.” She appears to have joined her son in death within a day or two.

After the storm had finally passed, Nicholas Clark succeeded in shooting a bear cub, finally providing much needed food for the emigrants at Alder Creek. Up until this time, during the second week of March, they had been primarily subsisting on human flesh since late February.

On the evening of March 10th, young George Foster perished in the Murphy cabin at Truckee Lake. Foster was the son of William and Sarah Foster, both of whom had survived the Forlorn Hope expedition.

By this time, the cabin was housing Mrs. Murphy, her son Simon, her grandson George, Louis Keseberg, and four other children, including the three Donner girls left there by the rescuers who had deserted Alder Creek.

According to later accounts, Mrs. Murphy accused Louis Keseberg of killing the child. George Foster was very ill, and Keseberg lay down with him that night to sleep. The next morning he was dead, and Mrs. Murphy believed Keseberg had killed him. It’s hard to know for sure what exactly transpired that night. It is certainly possible that Lavinah Murphy’s accusation was borne from months of physical starvation and mental exhaustion. However, Keseberg’s decision to take the child to bed with him that night also seems strange. Yet the reports we have of this event come from survivors who were no more than six years old at the time, and one account states that Louis Keseberg hung the child “on the wall” after it had died – as though to dry out the flesh. This sounds like polemics against a disliked enemy more than literal history.

In any case, George Foster was dead, and later rescuers would report that his body was cannibalized.

Around the same time that George Foster died, the other infant in Mrs. Murphy’s care – James Eddy – also seems to have perished, although we have no explicit accounts of his death. We know only that he was still alive when Reed’s party left, but was found dead when the third relief party arrived. With his death, William Eddy – who had survived the Forlorn Hope expedition – lost his only remaining family member. His wife and daughter had died a month earlier.

William Eddy

On March 12th, Nicholas Clark – still at Alder Creek – agreed to make the short trip to the Truckee Lake cabins to see if they had any news from the mountains. Since Tamzene Donner’s children had set out with the other two rescuers the day before the most recent snow storm, she feared they had been caught out in the storm. Clark returned to her with news that they had been left safe at Truckee Lake, but he reported to her that “their lives were in danger of a death more violent than starvation.” He reported that he had “witnessed such scenes of horror and suffering” at the Murphy cabin that he decided to leave right away for Sutter’s Fort. One can no doubt use one’s own imagination to figure out what he must have seen at the Murphy cabin.

Clark, together with Jean Trudeau – a Donner family employee who had joined the party in Wyoming – left again the following day, intending to return to California.

Jean Trudeau, one of the few teamsters to survive the disaster.

When they reached Truckee Lake, they ran into the third relief party headed by William Eddy and William Foster.

Biographer Quinn Thornton, writing in 1849 based on Eddy’s account:

A more shocking picture of distress and misfortune cannot be imagined than the scene they witnessed upon their arrival. Many of those who had been detained by the snows had starved to death. Their bodies had been devoured by the wretched survivors and their bones were lying in and around the camps.

Thornton goes on to say that Louis Keseberg made it a point to tell William Eddy that he had eaten Eddy’s dead son. The only thing, according to Thornton’s account, that kept Eddy from killing him on the spot was that Keseberg was so emaciated with hunger and starvation.

Thornton goes on to say that Tamzene Donner offered Eddy “fifteen hundred dollars” to take her children to safety, but Eddy refused to take even a penny, insisting instead on saving them out of his own saintly concern for their well-being.

Though Thornton’s account was the earliest of the Donner Party tragedy, written just two years later, his primary source for the account was William Eddy, and Eddy is always portrayed as the virtuous hero and savior, while the other adult male survivors are always depicted as desperate, vicious cannibals. This is no doubt the reason why some survivors of the Donner Party later came to refer to William Eddy as “Lying Eddy.”

Thornton states that Eddy’s relief party was not able to give any provisions to the camp, and instead left with the only children they could take – the three Donner girls and Simon Murphy. Thornton makes it a point to mention that Nicholas Clark – the rescuer who had been in the process of leaving when the relief party arrived – carried only his pack, leaving “[another] child of the Donners to perish.” This last child was four-year-old Samuel Donner, son of Elizabeth Donner, whose other son, Louis, had died several days earlier. Earlier in his account, Thornton had stated in regards to Clark:

Clark had gone out with Mr. Reed…under the pretense of assisting the emigrants. He was found with a pack of goods upon his back, weighing about forty pounds, and also two guns, about to set off with his booty. This man actually carried away this property, which weighed more than did a child he left behind to perish.

As always, this appears to be Thornton, through Eddy, writing polemically against another legitimate “hero” of the Donner Party. Eddy and Foster, in fact, set out on this “third relief” party to save their own sons. They brought no provisions for anyone but their own team. When they arrived and found their sons dead, only then did they agree to carry out Tamzene Donner’s children.

Left at the camp now were George and Tamzene Donner, their nephew Samuel Donner, Levinah Murphy, and Louis Keseberg. A statement by one of the rescuers with Eddy and Foster, given about two weeks later, on April 1st, said:

When I left the mountains there was still remaining at the cabins: Mr. Keseberg and George Donner the only two men; Mrs. George Donner, one child, and Mrs. Murphy. Mrs. Murphy, Mr. Donner, and the child could not survive many more days when [we] left, but Mrs. Donner and Keseberg could subsist upon the remaining bodies yet some ten days.

Thus, a fourth relief party was formed and set out immediately. The primary purpose of this party, however, was to salvage the campsite, as they did not expect to find anyone alive.

Within a day or two of the third relief party’s exit, Samuel Donner died. He was four years old. Several days after that – roughly a week after Eddy’s party left, and after another snow storm – Mrs. Murphy died. Keseberg was left alone in the Murphy cabin with only human flesh to eat.

Around the end of March, according to Keseberg, Tamzene Donner arrived at his cabin alone, telling him that George Donner - namesake of the Donner Party - had finally died. According to Keseberg’s account, she was determined to set out on foot by herself. Keseberg claimed that she told him there was money in their camp at Alder Creek, and asked him to retrieve it for her and make sure her family received it if she died and he survived. He apparently talked her into staying, however, as he goes on to say that she lay down in the cabin and fell asleep. He stated that she was freezing cold; he believed she had perhaps fallen in the Alder Creek. After falling asleep, she did not wake up again. Keseberg later said: “I think the hunger, the mental suffering, and the icy chill of the preceding night caused her death.”

Thus, Louis Keseberg was the only person left alive at the winter camps of Truckee Lake and Alder Creek. At some point, he moved from the Murphy cabin to the Breen cabin, which had been unoccupied since Reed’s party had left a month earlier. This may have been after he returned from Alder Creek. According to his account, he traveled there in early April and found about 500 dollars in gold and silver. He took the gold and said that he buried the silver beneath a tree.

Read Part XII


Anonymous said...

How absolutely horrific to find yourself alone in a camp full of corpses, knowing that you have been and must continue to subsist on them. You've done a great job with these posts!

Scott said...

Thank you. Yes, Louis Keseberg's story is one that is really sad, in my opinion. I wax a little philosophical about it in the last chapter, which is already posted.

Because he was the last one left alive, and he subsisted on human flesh for a good month completely alone, he became the "cannibal" of the Donner Party, accused of murdering people for food, accused of stealing money, accused, in fact, of staying behind on purpose so that he could do these things. He really had a sad life after he returned from the mountains.

Anonymous said...

I find it unfathomable that the Donner family left for California with $10,000 dollars! I'm not saying they didn't but, in those days, how in the world could a family, especially in Springfield, IL have ever made that much money?

fyi. At the website --> <-- estimates a figure of $100.00 in 1840 would be worth approx. $276,000 in 2002 currency.

That would be AMAZING!!!

Scott said...

You've misread the information on your link. According to that link, $100 in 1840 was equivalent to $2600 modern dollars. So $10K in 1847 would have been like $250K today. A lot of money, yes, but not more than a large and somewhat prosperous family in the 1840s might have had if they'd sold home and farm and everything else and headed west. Which, of course, is what the Donners did.