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Tracking Down the Truth of What Happened to the Donner Party

Times Staff Writer

O Mary I have not rote you half of the truble we have had but I have rote you anuf to let you now that you dont now what truble is but thank god we have all got throw and the only family that did not eat human flesh.

--Donner party survivor Patty Reed, 12,

writing to her cousin in 1847.

At about the age when children are most attracted to scary stories, they’re apt to hear one in fourth-grade history class that tops anything whispered at a slumber party or summer camp.

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It’s the saga of a band of 82 emigrants reduced to cannibalism when they were trapped at Donner Lake by a 22-foot snowfall in the winter of 1846-47.

While some tales lose their power to captivate over time, people can’t seem to forget the Donner party, which set out from Springfield, Ill., 140 years ago last month on what should have been a demanding but routine trip west. The episode, which has been called the most spectacular disaster in the history of Western migration, continues to captivate researchers, descendants of party members and amateur collectors of Donnerana who spend their free time exploring the mysteries and controversy that still surround the event.

“There are so many questions that remain to be answered,” said Susan Lindstrom, an archeologist who recently aided an excavation at the site of a Donner party cabin.

Some of the questions are not isolated to the Donner situation, but have applications for families and individuals in crisis today, Lindstrom said. For instance, “What happens to people in the necessity of the moment? And at what point does the culture we think inbred in us break down?”

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There’s a card file at Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee that contains names of people who have visited the park claiming to be descendants of Donner party members. The 45 survivors (32 were children) and their descendants settled in San Juan Bautista, Hollister, San Rafael and other Northern and Southern California communities.

“Once in a while they (Donner descendants) come through and make a little remark, but generally they don’t have much to say,” supervising ranger Warren Beers said. He explained that these visitors could still be stung by early exaggerated accounts of the tragedy, which had caused many of their ancestors to deny being Donner party members. “It (the tragedy) didn’t happen that long ago,” Beers said.

New developments may relieve Donner descendants from some of the lingering stigma of the episode.

Nona McGlashan, granddaughter of C. F. McGlashan, the newspaperman who was the first to interview the Donner party survivors, is currently editing 450 hand-written letters from 24 Donner party survivors describing events at Donner Lake during that grim winter. The correspondence, discovered recently among C. F. McGlashan’s legal papers, was long thought either to have been burned along with the reporter’s home in Truckee, or destroyed by him out of respect for the secrets of Donner party members.

Excavation of the Breen cabin site is also shedding light on exactly what went on in the lake-side camp. In a project funded by the National Geographic Society, Lindstrom and researchers from the University of Nevada attempted last summer to locate the human remains that were supposedly burned and buried by a horseback party led by Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny in June, 1847. Kearny reported that the campsite looked like the grisly aftermath of a massacre when he arrived. He said that he and his men tidied up the area to protect the sensibilities of future travelers.

The excavators did uncover a pit in the spot Kearny specified, but they found only a small amount of charred and crushed bone. They won’t know until chemical tests are complete whether the bones are human or animal, Lindstrom said, but in any case, “There was not enough (human remains found) to jibe with Gen. Kearny’s story about cleaning up the whole area. We substantiated that Gen. Kearny did not do what he said he did in his journals.”

This discovery could give credence to the argument of some Donner party descendants that cannibalism was not as big a part of the story as most people believe. Lindstrom said, “We might find out that things weren’t so sensational as early reports said, or things could have been even more terrible than we imagined.”

Mary Tamsen Newlin is the great-great-granddaughter of Donner party leader George Donner. A 71-year-old retired schoolteacher living in Santa Barbara, Newlin has had a lifelong curiosity about her namesake, Tamsen Donner.

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Tamsen Donner was the third wife of 62-year-old George Donner (Mary Newlin is descended from Donner’s first wife), a well-to-do farmer from Springfield, Ill. “When she reached California, Tamsen wanted to open a girls’ school,” Newlin said. “She came from a very fine background. She must have been a very ladylike person.”

After several snowbound months in the Sierra, Tamsen Donner had a terrible decision to make: would she remain at camp with her dying husband--a choice that would mean certain death for herself--or leave the mountains with her children and rescuers? She opted to send her children on alone, destined to be orphans in a new land.

Tamsen Donner died at Donner Lake, following the death of her husband. The lone survivor at the camp, Lewis Keseberg, later confessed to cannibalizing her body. Newlin is proud to be associated with the valiant Tamsen Donner, but she doesn’t want to be linked through her ancestors to cannibalism.

“I think there were a lot of things told that maybe weren’t true,” Newlin said. “Maybe there was cannibalism, but I know my people didn’t take part.” (Nona McGlashan said that although Tamsen and George Donner probably did not eat human flesh, the Donner children almost certainly would have had to partake of human nourishment--whether they were told what they were eating or not--in order to survive the journey down the mountain.)

The Sweetest Morsel

When the final rescue party arrived at the Donner camp in April, 1847, Lewis Keseberg was the only survivor. Because Tamsen Donner had appeared quite healthy to an earlier rescue team, Keseberg was accused of murdering the Donner woman. Stories would later circulate that Keseberg bragged about eating flesh, and told barroom cronies in Sacramento that human liver--and specifically Tamsen Donner’s--was the sweetest morsel he’d ever tasted.

Keseberg has since become the most talked-about member of the Donner party. A favorite debate of Donner buffs is: Did Lewis Keseberg murder Tamsen Donner?

“In my personal opinion, Keseberg was guilty,” said Pat Armitage, a ranger at Donner Memorial State Park. “Self-righteous Keseberg did Tamsen in.”

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When C. F. McGlashan was writing his “History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra” (published in 1880, and still the definitive historical account of the incident), he was determined to use his interrogative powers to drag the truth out of Keseberg. As well as being a newspaperman, butterfly collector and astronomer, McGlashan was also a prominent defense attorney.

McGlashan tracked down Keseberg, who was then living near Sacramento. Six feet tall, with a full beard, high forehead and direct blue eyes, Keseberg was afflicted by “misery and desolation,” McGlashan wrote. Keseberg was widowed, poverty-stricken and caring as best he could for his two mentally retarded daughters. He was tormented by accusations that he was an inhuman cannibal.

Dropped to His Knees

After witnessing Keseberg’s plea of innocence, McGlashan arranged a meeting between Eliza Donner Houghton--the youngest surviving child of Tamsen Donner--and the accused killer of her mother. Keseberg dropped to his knees before Eliza, who was only 4 when she was rescued. Now an adult, Eliza bid Keseberg to stand and place his hands between hers. Looking her in the eyes, Keseberg swore he had not murdered her mother, although he did not deny he had eaten her remains after she died of starvation.

Eliza Donner Houghton believed him; many people today do not, and continue to regard Keseberg as evil personified.

Ranger Warren Beers said that Keseberg’s descendants changed the family name when they settled in the Napa area. It’s a rare occasion when a Keseberg descendant visits the Donner Monument, and there is only one person--a Seal Beach woman--claiming to be related to Keseberg on file at the park.

More than 100 years after her grandfather worked to clear the names of the Donner party survivors, Nona McGlashan, 75, is determined to further vindicate party members through her research and writing. Even Keseberg, whom she describes as “a pitiful character,” was unfairly abused by public opinion, she said.

Nona McGlashan said: “Papa (her grandfather) was the first one to say to the world: ‘Don’t judge. What would you do if you were starving?’ ”

Ranger Pat Armitage recently led a group of 10 amateur historians on a snowshoe walk billed as a reenactment of the Donner party escape attempt.

Swaddled in Goretex, down and pile-lined boots, the snowshoers left their cars at the end of a plowed road and began trudging up a snow-covered grade at the western end of Donner Lake (the state park is located at the eastern edge of the lake where the emigrant band wintered). A dense snow was falling. The snowshoes were cumbersome, and people spent a lot of time tripping over the shoes, or readjusting the laces.

One man, engineer Greg LaFramboise, carried his 2 1/2-year-old son, Aaron, on his back. LaFramboise and his wife, Glenda, of Oakley, Calif., said they ventured out in the storm because they wanted to understand more about the Donner party’s hardships than they could learn in books.

“I’ve always wanted to know what it was really like,” Glenda LaFramboise said.

Armitage pointed out to the group that by the time the Donner escape party began trudging up this same path toward what is now Donner Summit, they had been starving for months. “And by the time they got here (to the place the snowshoers stood), they didn’t like each other very much,” Armitage added.

Taking a Shortcut

Bickering erupted among the Donner party several months into their journey when the leaders agreed to split off from the main westward route to try a little-traveled shortcut proposed by Lansford Hastings, author of the “Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California.”

It soon became clear that choosing the cutoff was the fatal decision. (Young Patty Reed would survive the horrid winter only to advise her friends in the East: “Never take no cutofs and hury along as fast as you can.” )

By the time the Donner party came to Truckee Meadows, where Reno is today, they were physically and emotionally depleted by the hardships of a long, dry desert crossing, and from building roads through the mountains when the promised trail turned out to be non-existent.

The party looked up at the Sierra and saw snow. There was nothing to go back to but starvation, thirst and Indian attacks on their weakened party. Ahead, just over the mountains, lay Sutter’s Fort and the mild, hospitable climate of the Sacramento Valley.

The party started the climb up the pass, but was stalled by a snowstorm at Donner Lake on Oct. 28. One family took over an abandoned cabin. The others quickly built primitive lean-tos. Their supplies were nearly gone. What few oxen had survived the trip died standing up and were quickly covered by the snow that continued to fall.

Six weeks after they were trapped at the lake, the 10 men and five women who were still strong enough to walk left camp on snowshoes fashioned of oxbows and rawhide strips. Among them were two Indian guides who were traveling with the Donner party. Thirty-three days later, the two men and five women who had survived the journey reached a Sacramento Valley ranch where they found food and safety.

‘Ordeal by Hunger’

George Stewart described the breakdown of taboos during this escape attempt in his 1936 account, “Ordeal by Hunger”:

. . . the snowshoers had degenerated step by step from the level of civilized men and women. At first they had waited for a comrade who fell behind, and had flinched at drawing lots to see who should die, and had shrunk from cannibalism, even when it meant eating only a man already dead. Then they had eaten the food which centuries of civilization had forbidden them. Then as the mania of starvation worked upon them, they had plotted to kill men of another race (the Indian guides), and then men or even women of their own race.

Back at camp, the starving families were boiling old hides and bones that had previously been tossed to the dogs. There was little communication among the three cabins; each reeked of unwashed bodies, babies, sickness and death. In the Murphy cabin, desperate men and women began to cut up and toast bits of the hearth rug. Cash, the Reed children’s pet dog, was cooked and devoured.

By the time a relief party arrived at the Donner campsite in March, rescuers found evidence that this group too had resorted to cannibalism. The rescuers noted dismembered bodies, bodies with flesh stripped from the arms and legs, and a carcass with the heart and liver cut out.

When the escape party reenactment group reached the top of a long snowy grade on a recent afternoon, the snow flurries abated and the sun came out, revealing Donner Lake below, and trucks passing on Highway 80, which follows the lake-shore. A trio of cross-country skiers took advantage of the path the snowshoes had packed and came down the Donner trail, poling and grinning.

The snowshoers parted ways back at the trail head. The LaFramboises got a sled out of their car and went off to play in the snow with their son.

It was nearly impossible for most of the snowshoers, who live in cities at lower elevations, to imagine the desolation of the area when the Donner party was there. Within a few minutes’ drive from the lake, there are a major highway, hotels, restaurants and convenience stores. Many of the local businesses have taken on the name of the famous emigrant party--there’s a Donner mobile home park, Chevron station, mortgage company and propane supplier.

But for those who live through the harsh winters in Truckee, where Highway 80 still sometimes closes down due to snow accumulation, the travails of the Donner party don’t seem so far away.

“It (the memory of the Donner party) is always there for us, particularly during the bitter weather,” said Minka Scott Friedman, a Truckee writer who joined the snowshoers on the escape reenactment. “People turn to each other and say: ‘This is what the Donner party faced.’ ”


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