Dark cloud remains over Donner Party’s Keseberg | SierraSun.com
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Dark cloud remains over Donner Party’s Keseberg

This time of the year, attention turns to the onset of winter. With the early snowstorms we’ve had, many people think of the Donner Party tragedy that occurred here in 1845-46 at Alder Creek and Donner Lake. What would you have done to keep yourself and your family alive in those conditions? The issue of cannibalism is a sensitive one, but also a central part of the Donner Party story. One of the survivors of the incident who would be accused of the most blatant cases of cannibalism was Louis Keseberg. A living history presentation of Keseberg’s side of the story, portrayed by David Fennimore of University of Nevada, Reno, will be presented by the Donner Memorial State Park, The Bookshelf at Hooligan Rocks, and the Friends of the Truckee Library tonight, Friday, Nov. 12, at 6:30 p.m. at Donner Memorial State Park.Setting the stageAs the Breen, Reed, Murphy, Graves and other families arrived at what was then called “Truckee Lake” on Oct. 31, 1846, they were already short on food supplies. The Donners were stranded on Alder Creek about eight miles northeast. Several party members had already gone ahead to secure more food from John Sutter of Sutter’s Fort. Their animals were in poor condition, and the men of the group were already near exhaustion from the trials of traveling halfway across the North American continent.Johann Ludwig Christian Keseberg was born in Westphalia, Germany. He was 32 years old when he arrived with his family at the lake. He was an educated man who spoke three languages. He was accompanied by his wife Elizabeth Phillipine and their two children, Ada, 3, and Louis Jr., an infant less than 1 year old. The Keseberg family had recently emigrated from Germany. On the trail west, Keseberg is thought to have stolen a buffalo robe from a Sioux burial scaffold. He was also thought to have abused his wife. He also played a part in the abandonment and death of Mr. Hardcoop, who was left behind when he was too sick to continue.Starvation at the lakeUpon arriving at Truckee Lake, the Keseberg family built a lean-to on the side of the Breen family cabin. On Jan. 14, they moved into the Murphy cabin. Despite the move, infant Louis Jr. died on Jan. 24. When the first relief party arrived on Feb. 22, Mrs. Keseberg and their daughter, Ada, left with them. Louis Keseberg stayed behind again when the second and third party removed the remaining healthy women and children. The third relief party left behind five survivors, two at the lake camp, three at Alder Creek.Keseberg moved into the Murphy cabin, being the last person alive in the camp. When the fourth relief party arrived in early April, they found gruesome evidence of body parts having been recently consumed. Evidence also pointed to one survivor being the perpetrator. When the relief party went to the Donner Camp on Alder Creek, the same situation was encountered with fresh tracks leading back to the lake camp.Tamsen Donner had been left alive and relatively healthy when the third relief party left, with her dying husband George Donner. The fourth relief party had expected to find Tamsen Donner still alive at Alder Creek, but instead found that the remaining bodies had been cannibalized, with no sign of Tamsen Donner. A leftover piece of beef was still good but was untouched.When the last relief party went back to the lake camp. They found Keseberg sitting in the middle of body parts. When asked what had become of the remaining survivors, he replied that they were all dead. No trace of Tamsen Donner was ever found, and Keseberg is said to have admitted to consuming her. The other lake camp survivor, Mrs. Murphy could not be located. Tamsen Donner was known to have $500 in coins at the Alder Creek camp, but the fourth relief party at first could not find any of it. They did find $225 in Keseberg’s possessions, even though his wife told rescuers that there was no money there. He refused to admit taking the Donner money, though he did have other Donner valuables with him.Only when a rope was put around his neck did Keseberg relent, admitting that he had cached the remaining Donner money. He told the rescuers where to find it, and they returned with $273. All through this time, even though the relief party had food supplies, Keseberg reportedly continued to eat the remains of the deceased victims.On April 21, 1847, the last survivor of the Donner Party left with the fourth relief party. Keseberg put many of the remaining bones in a box and placed them in the Murphy cabin, blessed them, then asked for forgiveness. The trip was quick over the remaining snow, and despite his unusual diet for the past months, Keseberg was in good condition.McGlashan interviews KesebergTwenty-two years later, in April of 1879, Truckee journalist Charles Fayette McGlashan interviewed a poverty-stricken Louis Keseberg as part of his research for writing “The History of the Donner Party.” This book was the first attempt, and is still the best historical account of the Donner tragedy. Keseberg was living in Sacramento, after having been unsuccessful in many of his attempts to own and operate various businesses. McGlashan broke through the shroud of secrecy that Keseberg had kept for the years since the tragedy. He denied having killed Tamsen Donner, instead he praised the Donners and showed great respect even then.Keseberg said that after George Donner had died, Tamsen Donner had come to the lake camp in the middle of the night, intending to walk over the Sierra to get to her children. She agreed to wait until morning to continue. She refused to consume any human flesh, but talked extensively to Keseberg. During the night Keseberg said she died.At first, McGlashan was certain that Keseberg was telling the truth, as he later wrote the Donner surviving daughters. After comparing notes with other survivors and rescuers, he wasn’t sure whether to believe all that Keseberg told him. Regarding Tamsen Donner’s death, he still felt that Keseberg was telling the truth.There are still many unanswered questions regarding cannibalism and the Donner Party, some of which cannot be answered. Tonight David Fennimore will present a Keseberg interpretation of the events that occurred 158 years ago at Donner Lake. Come join the Friends of the Truckee Library, the Bookshelf at Hooligan Rocks, and Donner Memorial State Park at the park museum. There is no charge, but donations are encouraged.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is tdhs@inreach.com. You may leave a message at 582-0893.Emigrant Trail Museum , Donner Memorial State Park Nov. 12, 6:30 8 p.m. UNR Professor David Fenimore as Lewis Keseberg of the Donner Party.In partnership with the Donner Memorial State Park and the Friends of the Truckee Library, Bookshelf at Hooligan Rocksinvites you to a chautauqua/living history presentationFenimore has represented a variety of Chautauqua characters, from Woodie Guthrie toJohn Sutter and Zane Grey. Join us in the State Park setting for a look at one of the more controversial members of the Donner Party, Lewis Keseberg.Call Bookshelf at 582-0515 to reserve a seat, as space is limited for this unique opportunity.


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