Saturday, December 05, 2009

Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, Part XII

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

Read Part XI


Louis Keseberg, the most notorious member of the Donner Party

On April 17th, the fourth relief party arrived. According to a diary kept by the team leader: “Entered the cabins and a horrible scene presented itself – human bodies terribly mutilated, legs, arms, and skulls scattered in every direction.”

The historical existence of this diary, however, has been the subject of debate. It was published in a California newspaper later that year, but this paper had a record for grossly exaggerating and sensationalizing the accounts of the Donner Party.

The journal in question has never been found, and most historians doubt that it ever existed; it was supposedly written by the team’s leader – a fur tracker who was probably illiterate and certainly not educated enough to have written the flowery language the diary contains. In addition to that, the diary misspells the name of its supposed author – spelling it “Fellun” instead of “Fallon.” Most likely, this diary was invented by the newspaper that published it.

In any event, the “diary” goes on to describe at length rather ghastly discoveries on the part of the rescuers, with numerous accusations against Louis Keseberg. He is accused of raiding the dead bodies for their organs. He is accused of making soups out of livers and intestines. He is accused of eating brains and hearts. He is accused of ignoring available cattle beef, uncovered by the melting snow, in favor of human flesh. He is further accused of stealing the Donners’ money. On this account, Keseberg’s own story agrees. Keseberg stated that they accused him of stealing the money and threatened to hang him if he didn’t tell them where it was. He finally relented out of fear of his life, giving them the gold he had and telling them where he had buried the silver.

In later years, Louis Keseberg would become the most infamous member of the Donner Party, largely thanks to the sensationalist frontier newspapers of California. As the last survivor – one who had lived out of necessity for at least six to seven weeks solely on human flesh – he was vilified as a “man-eater” and cannibal. As we have already seen, he was accused of killing young George Foster for food. We have also seen that he was accused of proudly telling William Eddy that he had eaten his son. Because of the issue of the Donners' money, he was accused of staying put on purpose, despite being strong enough to leave with earlier parties, in order to loot the belongings of everyone who had died or fled. He was accused not only of stealing the Donners' money, but also of killing Tamzene Donner in order to take it. After returning to California following his ordeal, he actually sued one of his rescuers for spreading slanderous stories about him. He won the suit, but was awarded only one dollar in compensation. He became the butt of jokes and was referred to as “Keseberg the Cannibal.” Rumors were passed that he still had the “taste” for cannibalism and would frequently threaten to eat people.

There are, no doubt, several reasons why Keseberg was vilified this way. The first is that he was simply an easy target, having been the last survivor at the winter encampment – who was left to dispute his story about the Donners' money and the death of Tamzene Donner? Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he was apparently one of those people who tended to leave a bad impression on others. Even before his trip with the Donner Party, acquaintances had described him in letters as “eccentric” and “unsociable.” Having traveled with him for months prior to the winter captivity, the members of the Donner Party saw that he had a violent and explosive temper. He was widely known to verbally and even physically abuse his wife. He was apparently banished temporarily from the wagon train over this. In later life, he was tried for assault on two different occasions – although with the ridicule and vilification he must have constantly received, it is little wonder he wound up in fights.

In any case, Louis Keseberg’s story is a sad one. Despite being apparently well-educated, his life seems to have been one tragedy after another. The Donner Party tragedy took both his children (he had already lost another child prior to 1846), and left him with the reputation of being a thief, liar, murderer, and mindless cannibal. Afterwards, he had eight more children; all but one predeceased him (the last lived to the age of ninety, dying in the late 1940’s). Two of these children were evidently mentally handicapped. He outlived his wife by nearly twenty years. In every new business venture he started, he was vilified and treated as a laughingstock. After serving as the skipper of one of John Sutter’s river supply boats for several years, he was said to have lost his job because the passengers feared he would kill and eat them while they slept. One passenger, in what is no doubt a much more honest account, said that during the night he could hear Keseberg crying out in nightmares. When Keseberg purchased a small hotel in Sacramento, jokes abounded about the dangers of boarding in his rooms. The hotel burned down about a year later. Sometime afterward, he bought a brewery – it was destroyed after several years by a flood. By the time Keseberg died in the late 1890’s, he was penniless and apparently homeless, dying in a hospital for the poor.

No amount of historical revision can justify Keseberg’s apparently violent temper and tendency to abuse his wife. And while it is impossible to know his motivations for certain, his decision to remain behind and not travel with the third relief party seems difficult to explain. The others who stayed were all too sick to travel, with the exception of Tamzene Donner. But Mrs. Donner is reported in numerous sources to have insisted upon staying with her dying husband. Keseberg had evidently seriously injured his foot sometime during the winter, and this was his reason for not joining the earlier refugee parties (such as the first party, which took out his wife and daughter). Patrick Breen refers twice to Louis Keseberg being sick and unable to get out of bed. But it seems that this foot injury was sufficiently healed by March that he could have left with Eddy and Foster. Yet those same accounts that tell us Keseberg was healthy enough to travel also tell us all the other outrageous stories about Keseberg boiling brains for soup. Keseberg himself insisted that his foot did not heal sufficiently until long after Eddy and Foster had left. But was he lying? Again, it’s impossible to say for sure.

Despite all those difficulties, what seems apparent is that Keseberg did not deserve the treatment he got later in life. He became the cannibalistic face of the Donner Party; he literally was never able to live that reputation down. Although he survived for nearly fifty years after the Donner Party tragedy, it’s not unreasonable to say that his life was taken from him during the winter of 1846-1847.


In all, forty-one members of the Donner Party met their end in the winter of 1846-1847. Additionally, two young children of the Graves family, having survived the rescue and the trip into Sacramento, died later that summer, having never recovered from their ordeal. Thus, the total casualties from the Donner Party tragedy were forty-three lives.

The Breen family was the only family group of the Donner Party to survive completely intact, including an infant that was still nursing. That infant, Isabella Breen, would become the last surviving member of the Donner Party, dying in 1935 in California.

The Breen Family

The Reed family also survived the winter in the mountains, but Margaret Reed’s mother, Sarah Keyes, died earlier in 1846, on the wagon train in Kansas.

The Reed family in the early 1850's. James is to the far left, and the woman on the far right is Virginia Reed. Mary Donner is standing on the right side of the steps in the center. There are nine people in this photograph, but two of those standing on the steps in the center of the picture are difficult to see, as they are blurred out. In the 1850's, pictures required long exposure times, and the children standing there were unable to stand still, thus resulting in a blurry, ghostly image. (Thanks to Donner historian Kristin Johnson for the identifications.)

Patty Reed in old age

All the children of George Donner’s family survived. George and his wife, however, perished in the mountains. Eliza Donner, three years old in 1846, later wrote a book about the events, the only surviving member to write a book-length account. It was published in 1911.

Eliza Donner

Eliza Donner as a young woman

George’s daughter Leanna, twelve years old at the time, became the last living member of the Donner Party old enough to remember the events, dying in 1930.

Leanna Donner

Jacob Donner went west with his wife, six children, and two stepchildren. Of those nine people, only three survived the winter. Among the dead were Jacob and his wife Elizabeth, their three youngest sons Isaac, Samuel, and Lewis, and Jacob’s stepson William Hook.

George Donner, son of Jacob. He is sometimes confused with his uncle, also named George Donner. It was his uncle who was the namesake of the Donner Party. This "young" George was 9 years old during the winter of 1846-1847.

"Young" George Donner in later life

The Murphy family was the largest single family of the Donner Party, with thirteen people. Five of them died in the mountains, and another was killed when a firearm he was cleaning accidentally discharged. Included among the dead were Levinah Jackson, the matriarch of the clan, her grandson George Foster, son-in-law William Pike, granddaughter Catherine Pike, son Landrum, and son Lemuel.

William Murphy in later life

Mary Murphy. A teenager during the winter of 1846-1847, she remained deeply troubled for many years after surviving the Donner Party tragedy, as her expression in this picture seems to indicate. She died young, at the age of 35.

William Eddy had traveled west with his wife and two children. All three of them died in the Sierra Nevada, but William survived to become one of the heroes of the Donner Party, though his exaggerated accounts would cause other survivors to dub him “Lying Eddy.”

Among the four members of the Keseberg family – immigrants from Germany – their two children both perished. Louis and his wife Philippine survived to have eight more children, but their lives were marred by stories of cannibalism that haunted Louis until his death.

Nearly as large as the Murphy family, the Graves family brought twelve people west with them, joining the Donner Party shortly after they entered Utah. Both Franklin Graves and his wife Elizabeth died in the mountains, as did their son-in-law Jay Fosdick, and their five-year-old son Franklin Jr. Son Jonathan and daughter Elizabeth survived the ordeal in the mountains, only to die later in the year from continued illness. The oldest Graves daughters, Sarah and Mary, were both married shortly after their rescue from the mountains.

Sarah Graves

Mary Graves

Both their husbands would eventually be murdered – Mary’s just a year later, in 1848, and Sarah’s about six years later in 1854. Sarah Graves was thus widowed twice in eight years, and lost both parents and three siblings to starvation and exposure, all before the age of 30. She eventually died early of heart disease at the age of 46.

William McCutchen and his wife joined the Donner Party in Wyoming. They had one child, an infant daughter named Harriet. William left the Donner Party in October to ride ahead for supplies and was not able to return until late February. In the meantime, his wife Amanda left in December with the Forlorn Hope, one of only seven to survive that group. Their daughter was left in the care of the Graves family. It’s hard to imagine how Amanda McCutchen could have left her daughter behind in the care of strangers in the frozen wilderness, but she no doubt hoped to be able to return quickly, or even meet her husband on the way, coming in the other direction. In any case, Harriett McCutchen did not survive the winter. The McCutchens would later have four more children, and Amanda would die giving birth to the fourth.

The final family of the Donner Party consisted of a German man and woman whose last name was Wolfinger. Little is known about them. Mr. Wolfinger died before the caravan reached the mountains, apparently killed by one of his assistants. His wife survived the ordeal and remarried later in life.

Traveling together with the families of the Donner Party were a number of hired hands, mostly cow herders, wagon drivers, and handymen. They totaled twenty-one in all, including two Indians sent by John Sutter to help guide Charles Stanton’s relief party. Of these twenty-one, only five survived. The dead included both Indian guides, who may have been the only two members of the Donner Party actually killed for food. Also perishing were Donner employees Charley Burger, Antonio (surname unknown), John Denton, Luke Halloran, Samuel Shoemaker, and Charles Stanton; Reed employees Baylis Williams, Milt Elliot, and James Smith; Keseberg companions Mr. Hardcoop, August Spitzer, and Joseph Reinhardt; Breen companion Patrick Dolan; and Graves wagon driver John Snyder. The high mortality rate among these teamsters is no doubt the result of families becoming more and more stingy with their own provisions once starvation and rationing began to set in. Furthermore, as workers employed to keep the cattle and drive the wagons, these men no doubt carried the burden of the hardest work throughout the time on trail and after arriving in camp. By the time the food began to run out, they were likely the first to go hungry, and the least prepared for it. Three of them, of course, died before ever reaching the mountains (Luke Halloran, Mr. Hardcoop, and John Snyder).

Jean Trudeau. Only five Donner Party teamsters survived the trip west. Two of those actually left the wagon train early and were never part of the winter entrapment. A third was a family maidservant who was not actually a "teamster" for the group. Thus, among the male teamsters who were actually stranded in the mountains with the Donner Party, Jean Trudeau was one of only two who survived. The other was a teenager named Noah James, who appears to have died just a few years later.


The story of the Donner Party has become one of the most infamous events in American pioneer history. If my own familiarity with the event, prior to starting this in-depth account, is any indication, most people’s knowledge of the Donner Party story is that it is about a bunch of people who ate each other during a winter in the mountains. This cultural “meme” is no doubt thanks to the many sensationalist accounts of the event in the years and decades after it happened.

But when one studies the history of the Donner Party, one finds not a bunch of crazed cannibals feasting on each other, but rather an account of pioneer Americans faced with unthinkable life or death decisions which, for the most part, they faced with grace, courage, and dignity. It’s a true “American” story, rife with the pioneer spirit, staring down hardships, and beating the odds.

This story forces us to question some of our most deeply held beliefs, to face one of our most deeply held cultural taboos. Many people might think that if they were faced with the same situation, they would rather expire than eat the flesh of the dead. But the Donner Party story, with its three separate recurrences of cannibalism, demonstrates that this deeply held taboo only goes as far as normative wellbeing allows. When stripped of the security of daily life and routine, and left with nothing but the choice between death and cannibalism, the Donner Party story shows us that, in fact, most – if not all – would choose the latter.


I used a number of sources in compiling this account of the Donner Party. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, nor I have made any attempt to use an official bibliographic format, but I have included all the primary sources that informed my account.

1. New Light on the Donner Party. This site is maintained by Donner historian Kristin Johnson, and it is chock full of everything you need to know about the Donner Party story, including a detailed "chronology of events," as well as extremely well-researched biographical information about every known member of the Donner Party.

2. Donner Party Diary. This site is maintained by Donner historian Daniel Rosen. Like the site listed above, it was invaluable to me in developing my account. Several of my posted pictures, mostly of geographic areas of interest, came from Mr. Rosen's website. This website was also my source for quotations from Quinn Thornton's 1849 book on the Donner Party.

3. The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate. This is an e-book publication of Eliza Donner's book about the Donner Party. Many of the posted pictures of individuals were drawn from this site.

4. Calisphere. This website provided a number of very high quality photographs, particularly the ones of Patrick Breen and his diary.

5. California In-Doors and Out. This is an e-book of Eliza Farnham's 1856 book that discussed the Donner Party, based on interviews with the Breens.

6. History of the Donner Party. This is a late 19th century account of the Donner Party by C.F. McGlashan. As part of his research for this book, he did an extensive interview with Louis Keseberg.


Anonymous said...

It was so easy to "disappear" oneself in those days, I can't imagine that one or some of the surviving members of Donner-Reed Party didn't quickly ride off into sunset, take a new name, create a new identity, and quietly fade into obscurity.

Can all of them have relished their notoriety, their infamy so much that they chose not to?

Maybe some felt they couldn't change their names and identities lest it dishonor those who died.

I just can't figure it out.

Anonymous said...

PS. Thanks SO much again for creating and maintaining this site, and including references.


Chicago, IL
December, 2014

Scott said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Riis. Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

What a heartwrenching story. Truth is stranger than fiction. But what was good that people actually survived. In God's Will! I found the story very interesting thank you.

Scott said...

Thanks for reading, Anonymous. Glad you liked it.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

just discovered the other chapters, my tablet kept skipping the links, but sorted it. I'm now a happy bookworm­čśÇ

Anonymous said...

Please don't forget it was Keseberg who put Mr Hardkoop who was ill out of the wagon leaving him to die. Hardkoop was able to make it to camp the first time and complained to Eddy who campaigned for him. Eventually, Keseberg put Hardkoop out of the wagon again and would not listen to the others who wanted to go back for him. Keseburg had no sympathy for Hardkoop who was last seen on the plains with his feet so swollen he was unable to walk. He was never seen again and most certainly died alone and sick. All this happened before the starvation camp.