The tale of the Donner Party has been told and retold so many times that it can start to feel like an old movie with a stale plot that has no intrinsic value. Sure, everyone seems to know the basic storyline of these wagon-train pioneers trapped by Sierra snow in the winter of 1847, but like most classic tragedies it’s the details and cast of characters that give the narrative wings.
Audience members familiar with this drama-filled adventure know about the flawed hero James Reed and his elderly sidekick George Donner. We cheer on the leading woman Tamsen Donner, only to cry when she dies at the end. And the supporting cast of helpless mothers and fathers, who can only watch as their children die of starvation, makes us grateful for our pampered lives. Their desperate yet inspiring battle against the elements has become a cautionary tale and an educational primer about taking shortcuts in life and dawdling on the trail.
“… I believe that the misfortune which overtook the Donner Party, and the terrible part I was compelled to take in the great tragedy, was predestined. Difficulty and disaster hovered about us from the time we entered this cut-off.” –Lewis Keseberg
German immigrant, Lewis (aka Louis) Keseberg, is often portrayed as the villain in this convoluted narrative, although he was also a victim of harsh fate. Keseberg was generally held in low regard by most members of the wagon train for the rough and abusive treatment of his young wife, Philippine, as well as his abandonment of aged Belgian Jacob Hardcoop who was traveling with them. Keseberg argued that his oxen were so exhausted that his 3-year-old daughter Ada had to walk, as well as his wife, who was carrying their infant son, Louis Jr. At this point the wagon train was so behind schedule that everyone had to keep up or die.
Murder and cannibalism are two of modern society’s most serious legal and cultural taboos. There is no compelling proof Keseberg killed anyone — unlike hired teamsters Joseph Reinhardt and Augustus Spitzer who murdered an affable German immigrant in the party ostensibly to steal his money. And while struggling to snowshoe out of the Tahoe Sierra, a starving William Foster shot to death two Native Americans for food who were trying to reach safety themselves. Instead of accusing Foster of a crime, however, people gave him a pass because he was considered deranged at the time. It was also an era when a California Indian’s life was not worth much to pioneers.
From Prussia to the U.S.
Keseberg was born Ludwig Christian Keseberg in 1814 in Westphalia, Prussia, the son of a famous pastor and noble-born mother. Although Keseberg’s family were practicing Protestants (Lutheran), Westphalia was a stronghold of Catholicism. In 1842, Keseberg married Philippine Zimmerman, an attractive Catholic woman nine years younger than he. Their marriage ceremony was held in the State Protestant Church, which turned Philippine’s Catholic relatives and friends against her.
The scorn and pressure from their orthodox religious community forced the newlyweds to immigrate to the eastern United States, where they arrived on May 22, 1844, Lewis’ 30th birthday. Coincidentally, that same day a wagon train known as the Stephen’s Party was departing Missouri for California. Months later those pioneers would successfully push their wagons over Truckee’s Pass (Donner) and open the long-sought California Trail.
Heinrich Lienhard, a friend of Keseberg, described him as well-educated and a tall intelligent man of military bearing, a Prussian who had served with the infantry. Lienhard said that Keseberg had been a traveling salesman in Europe and spoke French and German fluently.
Once in the United States, Keseberg learned English quickly and later Spanish. Another friend, Joel Wright Harlan wrote that Keseberg was “…a strong, good-looking man, about six feet high. In his health he weighed about 180 pounds.” Harlan also mentioned that “I observed him to be a man, I may say, of much eccentricity. He kept greatly to himself, and his unsociable ways made him unpopular with his fellow emigrants.”
Read more stories about the Donner Party at TheTahoeWeekly.com/donner-party
Trapped at Donner Lake
In the spring of 1846, the young Keseberg family joined the caravans of wagons headed for California. Philippine was only 22 years old and the couple had two young children in tow, Ada and baby Louis Jr. Like the Donner and Reed families, the Keseberg’s chose to try an untested shortcut through the Wasatch Mountains (Utah). It was a decision that had mortal consequences.
Keseberg later said, “If I believe in God Almighty having anything to do with the affairs of men, I believe that the misfortune which overtook the Donner Party, and the terrible part I was compelled to take in the great tragedy, was predestined. Difficulty and disaster hovered about us from the time we entered this cut-off.”
The wagon train reached Truckee Lake (Donner Lake) at the end of October, but early snow blocked the pioneers’ progress. When word reached California that emigrants were snowbound in the mountains several rescue parties were organized. In mid-February the first relief operation rescued Keseberg’s wife Philippine and their daughter Ada. Louis Jr. had died of starvation in January.
Due to an injured foot, he could not escape with his wife and daughter and was forced to remain behind. Keseberg had lost his son, but at least he could find solace in the fact that his wife and daughter had survived.
On April 20, 1847, the fourth (and last) relief effort led by Capt. Thomas Fallon arrived at Donner Lake. Keseberg was the only member of the ill-fated Donner Party still alive. After the previous rescue team had returned to Sacramento, Keseberg had survived for a month subsisting on dead bodies.
The Fourth Relief was primarily a salvage operation sent to recover personal property for the survivors. The men would earn a commission for any valuables hauled out of the mountains. Capt. Fallon and his men found Keseberg in a pitiful condition, disheveled and delirious. Instead of offering solace, they accused Keseberg of robbing the abandoned Donner encampment of gold and silver coins they expected to find, and of foul play in the death of Tamsen Donner. The fact that he admitted consuming her body for food disgusted them. (Of 81 snowbound emigrants, 36 died. Of 45 survivors, 25 resorted to cannibalism.)
Keseberg struggled to keep up with Fallon’s men on the return trek, barely making it into camp each night. One afternoon he discovered a small piece of calico fabric protruding from the snow. When he pulled it free, he discovered his daughter Ada’s frozen body, who had died before reaching safety. Keseberg could only hope his wife Philippine had survived that death march.
On Keseberg’s arrival at Sutter’s Fort (Sacramento), his reputation was attacked with unsubstantiated allegations made by rescuers, survivors and the press. Although Keseberg was not alone in his consumption of human flesh during that sordid ordeal, his public and forthright admissions disturbed his tight-lipped fellow survivors.
Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition and at TheTahoeWeekly.com/history.