An American Tale: Donner Party Sesquicentennial Yearlong observance comes to a close
(Editor’s note: During the Donner Party sesquicentennial, 1846-47 to 1996-97, the Sierra Sun followed the emigrants’ historic journey with the help of Gayle Green, historian and park aide at Donner Memorial State Park’s Emigrant Trail Museum. This column marks the final in Green’s yearlong series.)
April 16 to April 24, 1847
One hundred-fifty years ago, the only remaining survivor, Lewis Keseberg, left his mountain prison where he spent the last five and a half months. It had been approximately one year since the Donner and Reed families, in 1846, first began their trek westward and, ironically, it had been a little over a year since the last member of this party would finally reach his or her destination in California.
By April 16, Keseberg had regained enough strength to make the journey to Alder Creek. His purpose in going there was to find the money Tamsen Donner had hidden away for her children. Keseberg had promised Tamsen that he would see that the girls would get this money. He found approximately $531 in silver and gold coins. He took the gold coins with him to the lake, and along the way hid the silver coins under a large pine tree. It was this money of Tamsen’s, found in his possession by William O. Fallon’s party, that would lead people to accuse him of murdering Tamsen for her gold and silver.
Also on the 16th, the fourth rescue/salvage party, led by Fallon, camped along the Yuba River near the present area known as Kingvale. There is a lot of controversy surrounding this last group of “rescuers,” especially concerning Fallon’s and Coffymer’s questionable integrity. In actuality, this last company of men came for the purpose of salvaging all the remaining goods left from the various cabins and camp sites. There was an agreement made with this party, as Eliza Donner Houghton wrote in her book, Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate:
“Fallon’s party demanded an immediate settlement to his claim. It had gone up the mountains under the promise that is members should not only have a per diem as rescuers, but also one half of all property that they might bring to the settlement.” The rumors of George’s and Tamsen’s wealth, especially the $10,000 that they were to have brought with them, probably played a major role in this party’s initiative to make this last trek over the mountains.
By April 18, Keseberg and Fallon and his men had met up with one another and that meeting appears to have been a hostile one. Fallon distrusted Keseberg’s account of Tamsen’s death, while Keseberg was wary of Fallon’s motives and accusations toward him. Regardless of the ill feelings between them, Keseberg left with this group of men April 21. There was no one left of the Donner Party at any of the encampments. The rumors and stories about this ordeal quickly spread across the country and into Europe. Keseberg became a “man-eating monster,” and the other Donner Party members would be haunted for the rest of their lives by the sensationalism surrounding their survival.
It was not until C.F. McGlashan, owner/editor of the Truckee Republican newspaper, 31 years later in 1878 wrote the first legitimate story about the Donner Party. At the time there were 26 members still living and McGlashan was able to interview 24. More than half of the party survived, with the women and children being the majority of those who made it to safety. By the late 1920s, eight of the women were still alive with four of them reaching the age of 90, three 80 and one the late 70s. The last member to die was Isabella Breen in 1935.
The saga of the Donner Party did not die with this last individual’s death. It has carried on to the present holding the fascination and awe of people today and will probably continue to intrigue people into the next millennium and to future generations.
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