[Footnote 18: See Appendix for extract from The California Star.]
NEWS OF THE BRUNNERS—LETTERS FROM GRANDPA.
More than two years had elapsed since we had heard directly from Sonoma, when, on the day before Thanksgiving, 1860, Judge Robert Robinson and wife, of Sacramento, came to the ranch, and he, in his pleasing way, announced that he and Mrs. Robinson had a little story to tell, and a message to deliver, which would explain why they had arrived unexpectedly to spend the national holiday with us. Then seating himself, he bowed to his wife, and listened in corroborative silence while she related the following incident:
"Last Summer when the Judge went on his circuit, he took the carriage, and I accompanied him on his travels. One day we stopped for dinner at the stage station between Sonoma and Santa Rosa. After we had registered, the proprietor approached us, saying: 'I see you are from Sacramento, and wonder if you know anything about a couple of young girls by the name of Downie, who spent some time there in the public school?' He seemed disappointed when we replied, 'We know Donners, but not Downies.' 'Well,' he continued, 'they are strangers to me; but I am interested in them on account of their former connection with an unfortunate little old German woman who frequently comes in on the stage that runs between Sonoma and Santa Rosa. She carries their pictures in her hand-bag and tells a touching story about her happiness when they lived with her.' Just then the stage stopped before the door, and he, looking out, exclaimed, 'Why, she is among the passengers to-day! With your permission, I'll bring her to you.'
"He introduced her as Mrs. Brunner, told her where we were from, and asked her to show us the picture of her little girls. After shaking hands with us, she took the seat offered, and nervously drew from her reticule a handsomely inlaid case, which she opened and handed to us. An expression of pride and tenderness lighted her worn features as Judge and I at once exclaimed, pointing to one and then the other, 'Why, this is Georgia, and this, Eliza Donner. We know them well and call them "our girls" in Sacramento!'"
"She sprang from her seat, and stood with one hand on Judge's shoulder, and the other on mine, saying earnestly,
"'Yes! You do know my children? Be they well, and doing well?'
"We had to talk fast in order to answer all her questions, and a number of listeners drew nearer and were considerably affected as the poor old soul said, 'Please shake hands with me again for them, and tell them that you talked with their old Grandma Brunner, that loves them now just the same as when they was little.'
"Judge and I assured her that we would deliver her messages in person, as soon as we should get time to look you up. After dinner we saw her reseated in the stage, and the black silk reticule containing the picture was upon her lap as the stage carried her homeward."
We learned from them further that grandpa had been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to San Quentin Prison for a term of eleven years, and that grandma had been granted a divorce, and awarded all the property, but was having great trouble because it had since become involved and was being frittered away in litigation.
The information given by the Robinsons increased our uneasiness for our trouble-worn friends. Since the tragedy, Georgia and I had often spoken of them to one another, but to no one else. We knew that few could understand them as we did, and we refrained from exposing them to unnecessary criticism. Anxious as we were to comfort them, it was not in our power to do more than endeavor again to reach them by letter. The first was despatched to grandma at Sonoma, the day after the departure of our guests; and shortly before Christmas I posted one to grandpa. The former was answered quickly, and so pathetically that brother Ben offered to take us to Sonoma for a visit in the early Spring and then to see what could be done for grandma.
The letter to grandpa did not reach him until January 27, 1861, but his reply left San Quentin by Wells-Fargo Express on the twenty-eighth of January. It was a brave letter, closing with the following mystifying paragraph:
Though I may be confined by prison walls, I wish those dear to me to be happy and joyous as they can, and I trust in God to open a way for me out of here, when I can see you all; which will make us all very happy.
Your affectionate grandfather,
His next communication contained a thrilling surprise which cleared the lurking mystery of his former letter, and expressed such joyous appreciation of his regained privileges that I once more quote his own words, from the letter yellowed by age, which lies before me.
SONOMA, March 25, 1861
DEAR ELIZA AND GEORGIA:
Your kind and friendly letter reached me about ten days ago, and I would have responded to the same right away, but waited a few days, so that I could give you some good news, over which you, my dear little girls, will surely rejoice, as you take so much interest in everything which myself concerns. This news is that I am free again.
Last Tuesday I received, through the influence of friends, from the Governor of the State of California, a full pardon, and am again in Sonoma; and as soon as I have my business affairs in such a way settled that I can leave for a week or two, I will come up and see you. I have much to tell you which you will better understand through a personal interview than by writing.
Georgia and I felt this news was almost too good to be true. We wondered how soon he would come to see us; wondered also, if he and grandma had met, and were glad that we had not taken the side of either against the other.
"What next?" was the pertinent question uppermost in our minds. We found the answer in The Sacramento Daily Union, early in April, under title of "Romance in Real Life." After a brief review of the troubles of the Brunners, and reference to their divorcement, the article announced their recent remarriage.
This gratifying circumstance made our long intended trip to Sonoma unnecessary, especially since the reunited couple seemed to have retained the sympathy and loyalty of those who had known them in their days of prosperity and usefulness.
ARRIVAL OF THE FIRST PONY EXPRESS.
I happened to be in Sacramento on the thirteenth day of April, 1861, and found the city full of irrepressible excitement. Men on gayly caparisoned horses galloping hither and thither, unfurled flags, and a general air of expectancy on eager faces everywhere betokened an occasion of rare moment. At times hats were swung aloft and cheers rang out tumultuously, only to be hushed by the disappointing murmur, "Not yet." But an instant's quiet, and there was a mad rush of the populace toward Sutter's Fort; then again enthusiasm died, and the crowds ebbed back up J Street, which, some eight or ten feet higher than any other street in the city, extended straight as an arrow from the fort to where the bay steamer lightly hugged the water front, puffing and impatient to be off to San Francisco.
So the anxious waiting continued until the day was well on to its close, when suddenly, vociferous cheers again rent the air, and this time knew no cessation. What a din! With leap and outcry, all faced Sutter's Fort. That was a spectacle to be remembered.
Pony! The pony, hurrah, hurrah! We see a dark speck in the distance. It grows, as up J Street it comes. Now, the pony foams before us; now, swift as the wind, it is gone. It passes reception committee, passes escort. It reaches the water front; down the gang-plank it dashes; the band plays, the whistle blows, the bell rings, the steamer catches the middle of the stream and is off, leaving a trail of sparks and smoke in the twilight, and bearing away the first "Pony Express," memorable in history.
The baffling problem is solved; the dream of years is realized; expeditious mail service with the East is an accomplished fact.
No wonder the people cheered! It was a gigantic scheme, well conceived, magnificently executed. Think of it, a stretch of two thousand miles of mountain wild and desert plain covered in twelve days!
How was it done? Horses were tested and riders selected by weight and power of endurance. The latter were boys in years—Bill Cody, the youngest, said to be only fourteen years of age. The pouch was light, its contents were limited—but how gladly five dollars per letter was paid for those precious missives.
Every detail was carefully arranged. The first mount left St. Joseph, Missouri, April 2; relay camps were established ten miles apart, with a horse ever in readiness for instantaneous exchange, and a fresh rider, mounted for the next run, was waiting at each successive hundred-mile station along the entire route.
Small wonder those pioneers were beside themselves with enthusiastic excitement. The minds of many reverted to personal experiences with ox team, or jogtrot of horses or mule train. Here was the Overland Stage outdone; even the speed with which Monk Hanks brought Horace Greeley over the mountains was at discount.
WAR AND RUMORS OF WAR—MARRIAGE—SONOMA REVISITED.
The Summer of 1861, now well advanced, was rife with war and rumors of war, and foreshadowings of coming events. The old and the young were flushed with patriotism, each eager to help his country's cause. I, remembering grandma's training, was ready to give my services to hospital work. Earnest as was this desire, however, I was dissuaded from taking definite steps in that direction by those who knew that my slender physique and girlish appearance would defeat my purpose before the board of appointing physicians. Moreover, Mr. Houghton's visits and frequent letters were changing my earlier plans for the future, and finally led to my naming the tenth of October, 1861, as our wedding day.
The ceremony was solemnized by the Rev. J.A. Benton, of Sacramento. The event is also noteworthy as being the occasion of the first reunion of the five Donner sisters since their parting at Sutter's Fort in June, 1847. Georgia's place was by my side, while Elitha, Leanna, and Frances each grouped with husband and children in front among friends, who had come to witness the plighting of vows between my hero and me. Not until I had donned my travelling suit, and my little white Swiss wedding dress was being packed, did I fully realize that the days of inseparable companionship between Georgia and me were past; She had long been assured that in my new home a welcome would be ever ready for her, yet she had thoughtfully answered, "No, I am not needed there, and I feel that I am needed here."
Nature's wedding gift to us was a week of glorious weather, and its first five days we passed in San Francisco, the bustling, historic city, which I knew so well, yet had never seen before. Then we boarded the afternoon boat up the bay, expecting to spend the evening and following morning in Sonoma with Grandpa and Grandma Brunner, but the vessel failed to reach Lakeside Landing in time to connect with the northbound coach. This mischance necessitated our staying overnight at the only hostelry in the place.
The cry, "All aboard for Sonoma!" hurried us from the table next morning, and on reaching the sidewalk, we learned that the proprietor of the hotel had bespoken the two best seats in the coach for us.
I was too happy to talk until after we crossed the Sonoma River, shaded by grand old oak, sycamore, and laurel trees, and then onward, I was too happy to remain silent. Before us lay the valley which brought back memories of my childhood, and I was in a mood to recall only the brightest, as we sped on to our destination. My companion shared my delight and gave heed to each scene I called to his attention.
The coach stopped in front of the hotel, and we alighted upon almost the same spot from which I had climbed into the carriage to leave Sonoma six years earlier. But, oh, how changed was everything! One sweeping glance at the little town revealed the fact that it had passed its romantic age and lost its quickening spirit. Closed were the homes of the old Spanish families; gone were the caballeros and the bright-eyed senoritas; grass-grown was the highway to the mines; the flagstaff alone remained flushed with its old-time dignity and importance. In subdued mood, I stepped into the parlor until our names should be registered. When my husband returned, I said,
"The carpet on this floor, the chairs in this room, and the pictures on these walls were in place in grandma's home when I left her—perhaps she is no longer living."
He left me again to make inquiry concerning those whom we had come to see, and ascertained that the Brunners had remarried for the purpose of facilitating the readjustment of their property rights, and of rescuing them from the hands of a scheming manager, who, with his family, was now living on the estate, and caring for grandma, but would not permit grandpa to enter the house.
After sending a messenger to find grandpa, I led the way to the open door of the old home, then slipped aside to let my husband seek admission. He rapped.
I heard a side door open, uneven footsteps in the hall, and him saying quietly, "I think the old lady herself is coming, and you had better meet her alone." I crossed the threshold, opened my arms, and uttered the one word, "Grandma!"
She came and rested her head against my bosom and I folded my arms about her just as she had enfolded me when I went to her a lonely child yearning for love. She stirred, then drew back, looked up into my face and asked, "Who be you?"
Touched by her wistful gaze, I exclaimed, "Grandma, don't you know me?"
"Be you Eliza?" she asked, and when I had given answer, she turned from me in deepest emotion, murmuring, "No, no, it can't be my little Eliza!" She would have tottered away had I not supported her to a seat in the well-remembered living room and caressed her until she looked up through her tears, saying, "When you smile, you be my little Eliza, but when you look serious, I don't know you."
She inquired about Georgia, and how I came to be there without her. Then she bade me call my husband, and thanked him for bringing me to her. Forgetting all the faults and shortcomings that once had troubled her sorely, she spoke of my busy childhood and the place I had won in the affections of all who knew me.
A tender impulse took her from us a moment. She returned, saying, "Now, you must not feel bad when you see what I have in the hand behind me," and drawing it forth continued, "This white lace veil which I bought at Sutter's Fort when your mother's things were sold at auction, is to cover my face when I am dead; and this picture of us three is to be buried in the coffin with me. I want your husband to see how you looked when you was little."
She appeared proudly happy; but a flame of embarrassment burned my cheeks, as she handed him the picture wherein I showed to such disadvantage, with the question, "Now, doesn't she look lovely?" and heard his affirmative reply.
Upon the clock lay a broken toy which had been mine, and in childlike ecstasy she spoke of it and of others which she had kept ever near her. When invited to go to luncheon with us, she brought first her bonnet, next her shawl, for me to hold while she should don her best apparel for the occasion. Instead of going directly, she insisted on choosing the longer road to town, that we might stop at Mrs. Lewis's to see if she and her daughter Sallie would recognize me. Frequently as we walked along, she hastened in advance, and then faced about on the road to watch us draw near. When we reached Mrs. Lewis's door, she charged me not to smile, and clapped her hands when both ladies appeared and called me by name.
As we were taking leave, an aged horseman drew rein at the gate and dismounted, and Mrs. Lewis looking up, exclaimed, "Why, there is Mr. Brunner!"
It did not take me long to meet him part way down the walk, nor did I shrink from the caress he gave me, nor know how much joy and pain that meeting evoked in him, even after he turned to Mr. Houghton saying fervently, "Do not be angry because I kiss your wife and put my arms around her, for she is my child come back to me. I helped raise her, and we learned her to do all kinds of work, what is useful, and she was my comfort child in my troubles."
My husband's reply seemed to dispel the recollections which had made the reunion distressing, and grandpa led his horse and walked and talked with us until we reached the turn where he bade us leave him while he disposed of Antelope preparatory to joining us at luncheon. Proceeding, we observed an increasing crowd in front of the hotel, massed together as if in waiting. As we drew nearer, a way was opened for our passage, and friends and acquaintances stepped forth, shook hands with me and desired to be introduced to my husband. It was apparent that the message which we had sent to grandpa early in the day, stating the hour we would be at the hotel, had spread among the people, who were now assembled for the purpose of meeting us.
Strangers also were among them, for I heard the whispered answer many times, "Why, that is little Eliza Donner, who used to live with the Brunners, and that is Mr. Houghton, her husband—they can only stay until two o'clock." The hotel table, usually more than ample to accommodate its guests, was not nearly large enough for all who followed to the dining-room, so the smiling host placed another table across the end for many who had intended to lunch at home that day.
Meantime, our little party was seated, with Mr. Houghton at the head of the table, I at his right; grandpa opposite me, and grandma at my right. She was supremely happy, would fold her hands in her lap and say, "If you please," and "Thank you," as I served her; and I was grateful that she claimed my attention, for grandpa's lips were mute.
He strove for calm, endeavoring to eat that he might the better conceal the unbidden tears which coursed down his cheeks. Not until we reached a secluded retreat for our farewell talk, did his emotion express itself in words. Grasping my husband's hand he said:
"My friend, I must leave you. I broke bread and tasted salt with you, but I am too heartsick to visit, or to say good-bye. You bring back my child, a bride, and I have no home to welcome her in, no wedding feast, or happiness to offer. I must see and talk with her in the house of strangers, and it makes me suffer more than I can bear! But before I go, I want you both to make me the promise that you will always work together, and have but one home, one purse, one wish in life, so that when you be old, you will not have to walk separately like we do. You will not have bitter thoughts and blame one another."
Here grandma interrupted meekly, "I know I did wrong, but I did not mean to, and I be sorry."
The pause which followed our given promise afforded me the opportunity to clasp their withered hands together between mine, and gain from grandpa an earnest pledge that he would watch over and be kind to her, who had married him when he was poor and in ill health; who had toiled for him through the long years of his convalescence; who had been the power behind the throne, his best aid and counsellor, until time had turned her back in its tide, and made her a child again.
My husband followed him from the room to bestow the sympathy and encouragement which a strong man can give to a desponding one.
When the carriage was announced, which would take us to Benicia in time to catch the Sacramento steamer to San Francisco, I tied on grandma's bonnet, pinned her shawl around her shoulders, and told her that we would take her home before proceeding on our way, but she crossed her hands in front and artlessly whispered:
"No; I'd like to stay in town a while to talk with friends; but I thank you just the same, and shall not forget that I am to go to you, after you be settled in the new home, and his little daughter has learned to call you 'mother.'"
We left her standing on the hotel piazza, smiling and important among the friends who had waited to see us off; but grandpa was nowhere in sight.
The steamer was at the landing when we reached Benicia so we hurriedly embarked and found seats upon the deck overlooking the town. As the moonlight glistened on the white spray which encircled our departing boat, the sound of the Angelus came softly, sweetly, prayerfully over the water; and I looking up and beyond, saw the glimmering lights of Saint Catherine's Convent, fitting close to scenes of my childhood, its silver-toned bells cheering my way to long life, honors, and many blessings!
Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.
FRIEDRICH VON LOGAU.
ARTICLES PUBLISHED IN The California Star—STATISTICS OF THE PARTY—NOTES OF AGUILLA GLOVER—EXTRACT FROM THORNTON—RECOLLECTIONS OF JOHN BAPTISTE TRUBODE.
In honor to the State that cherishes the landmark; in justice to history which is entitled to the truth; in sympathetic fellowship with those who survived the disaster; and in reverent memory of those who suffered and died in the snow-bound camps of the Sierra Nevadas, I refute the charges of cruelty, selfishness, and inhumanity which have been ascribed to the Donner Party.
In this Appendix I set forth some of the unwarranted statements to which frequent reference has been made in the foregoing pages, that they may be examined and analyzed, and their utter unreliability demonstrated by comparison with established facts and figures. These latter data, for the sake of brevity, are in somewhat statistical form. A few further incidents, which I did not learn of or understand until long after they occurred, are also related.
The accounts of weather conditions, of scarcity of food and fuel, also the number of deaths in the camps before the first of March, 1847, are verified by the carefully kept "Diary of Patrick Breen, One of the Donner Party," which has recently been published by the Academy of Pacific Coast History.
The following article, which originally appeared in The California Star, April 10, 1847, is here quoted from "The Life and Days of General John A. Sutter," by T.J. Schoonover:
A more shocking scene cannot be imagined than was witnessed by the party of men who went to the relief of the unfortunate emigrants in the California Mountains. The bones of those who had died and been devoured by the miserable ones that still survived were around their tents and cabins; bodies of men, women, and children with half the flesh torn from them lay on every side. A woman sat by the side of the body of her dead husband cutting out his tongue; the heart she had already taken out, broiled, and eaten. The daughter was seen eating the father; and the mother, that [viz. body] of her children; children, that of father and mother. The emaciated, wild, and ghastly appearance of the survivors added to the horror of it. Language can not describe the awful change that a few weeks of dire suffering had wrought in the minds of the wretched and pitiable beings. Those who one month before would have shuddered and sickened at the thought of eating human flesh, or of killing their companions and relatives to preserve their own lives, now looked upon the opportunity the acts afforded them of escaping the most dreadful of deaths as providential interference in their behalf.
Calculations were coldly made, as they sat around their gloomy camp fires, for the next succeeding meals. Various expedients were devised to prevent the dreadful crime of murder, but they finally resolved to kill those who had least claims to longer existence. Just at this moment some of them died, which afforded the rest temporary relief. Some sank into the arms of death cursing God for their miserable fate, while the last whisperings of others were prayers and songs of praise to the Almighty. After the first few deaths, but the one all-absorbing thought of individual self-preservation prevailed. The fountains of natural affection were dried up. The chords that once vibrated with connubial, parental, and filial affection were torn asunder, and each one seemed resolved, without regard to the fate of others, to escape from impending calamity.
So changed had the emigrants become that when the rescuing party arrived with food, some of them cast it aside, and seemed to prefer the putrid human flesh that still remained. The day before the party arrived, one emigrant took the body of a child about four years of age in bed with him and devoured the whole before morning; and the next day he ate another about the same age, before noon.
This article, one of the most harrowing to be found in print, spread through the early mining-camps, and has since been quoted by historians and authors as an authentic account of scenes and conduct witnessed by the first relief corps to Donner Lake. It has since furnished style and suggestion for other nerve-racking stories on the subject, causing keener mental suffering to those vitally concerned than words can tell. Yet it is easily proved to be nothing more or less than a perniciously sensational newspaper production, too utterly false, too cruelly misleading, to merit credence. Evidently, it was written without malice, but in ignorance, and by some warmly clad, well nourished person, who did not know the humanizing effect of suffering and sorrow, and who may not have talked with either a survivor or a rescuer of the Donner Party.
When the Donner Party ascended the Sierra Nevadas on the last day of October, 1846, it comprised eighty-one souls; namely, Charles Berger, Patrick Breen, Margaret Breen (his wife), John Breen, Edward Breen, Patrick Breen, Jr., Simon Breen, James Breen, Peter Breen, Isabella Breen, Jacob Donner, Elizabeth Donner (his wife), William Hook, Solomon Hook, George Donner, Jr., Mary Donner, Isaac Donner, Lewis Donner, Samuel Donner, George Donner, Sr., Tamsen Donner (his wife), Elitha Donner, Leanna C. Donner, Frances Eustis Donner, Georgia Anna Donner, Eliza Poor Donner, Patrick Dolan, John Denton, Milton Elliot, William Eddy, Eleanor Eddy (his wife), Margaret Eddy, and James Eddy, Jay Fosdick and Sarah Fosdick (his wife), William Foster, Sarah Foster (his wife) and George Foster, Franklin W. Graves, Sr., Elisabeth Graves (his wife), Mary Graves, William C. Graves, Eleanor Graves, Lovina Graves, Nancy Graves, Jonathan B. Graves, Franklin W. Graves, Jr., and Elizabeth Graves, Jr., Noah James, Lewis S. Keseberg, Philippine Keseberg (his wife), Ada Keseberg and Lewis S. Keseberg, Jr., Mrs. Lovina Murphy (a widow), John Landrum Murphy, Lemuel Murphy, Mary Murphy, William G. Murphy and Simon Murphy, Mrs. Amanda McCutchen and Harriet McCutchen, Mrs. Harriet Pike (widow), Nioma Pike and Catherine Pike, Mrs. Margaret Reed, Virginia Reed, Martha J. Reed, James F. Reed, Jr., and Thomas K. Reed, Joseph Rhinehart, Charles Stanton, John Baptiste Trubode, August Spitzer, James Smith, Samuel Shoemaker, Bailis Williams and Eliza Williams (his sister), Mrs. Woolfinger (widow), Antonio (a Mexican) and Lewis and Salvador (the two Indians sent with Stanton by General Sutter).
Stated in brief, the result of the disaster to the party in the mountains was as follows:
The total number of deaths was thirty-six, as follows: fourteen in the mountains while en route to the settlement; fourteen at camp near Donner Lake; and eight at Donner's Camp.
The total number who reached the settlement was forty-five; of whom five were men, eight were women, and thirty-two were children.
The family of James F. Reed and that of Patrick Breen survived in unbroken numbers. The only other family in which all the children reached the settlement was that of Captain George Donner.
Fourteen of the eighty-one souls constituting the Donner Party were boys and girls between the ages of nineteen and twelve years; twenty-six ranged from twelve years to a year and a half; and seven were nursing babes. There were only thirty-four adults,—twenty-two men and twelve women.
Of the first-named group, eleven survived the disaster. One youth died en route with the Forlorn Hope; one at the Lake Camp; and one at Bear Valley in charge of the First Relief.
Twenty of the second-named group also reached the settlements. One died en route with the First Relief; two at Donner's Camp (in March, 1847); two at Starved Camp, in charge of the Second Relief; and one at the Lake Camp (in March).
Two of the seven babes lived, and five perished at the Lake Camp. They hungered and slowly perished after famine had dried the natural flow, and infant lips had drawn blood from maternal breasts.
The first nursling's life to ebb was that of Lewis Keseberg, Jr., on January 24, 1847. His grief-stricken mother could not be comforted. She hugged his wasted form to her heart and carried it far from camp, where she dug a grave and buried it in the snow.
Harriet McCutchen, whose mother had struggled on with the Forlorn Hope in search of succor, breathed her last on the second of February, while lying upon the lap of Mrs. Graves; and the snow being deep and hard frozen, Mrs. Graves bade her son William make the necessary excavation near the wall within their cabin, and they buried the body there, where the mother should find it upon her return. Catherine Pike died in the Murphy cabin a few hours before the arrival of food from the settlement and was buried on the morning of February 22.
Those were the only babes that perished before relief came. Does not the fact that so many young children survived the disaster refute the charges of parental selfishness and inhumanity, and emphasize the immeasurable self-sacrifice, love, and care that kept so many of the little ones alive through that long, bitter siege of starvation?
Mrs. Elinor Eddy, who passed away in the Murphy cabin on the seventh of February, was the only wife and mother called by death, in either camp, before the arrival of the First Relief. Both Patrick Breen's diary and William G. Murphy, then a lad of eleven years, assert that Mrs. Eddy and little Margaret, her only daughter, were buried in the snow near the Murphy cabin on the ninth of February. Furthermore, the Breen Diary and the death-list of the Donner Party show that not a husband or father died at the Lake Camp during the entire period of the party's imprisonment in the mountains.
How, then, could that First Relief, or either of the other relief parties see—how could they even have imagined that they saw—"wife sitting at the side of her husband who had just died, mutilating his body," or "the daughter eating her father," or "mother that of her children," or "children that of father and mother"? The same questions might be asked regarding the other revolting scenes pictured by the Star.
The seven men who first braved the dangers of the icy trail in the work of rescue came over a trackless, ragged waste of snow, varying from ten to forty feet in depth, and approached the camp-site near the lake at sunset. They halloed, and up the snow steps came those able to drag themselves to the surface. When they descended into those cabins, they found no cheering lights. Through the smoky atmosphere, they saw smouldering fires, and faced conditions so appalling that words forsook them; their very souls were racked with agonizing sympathy. There were the famine-stricken and the perishing, almost as wasted and helpless as those whose sufferings had ceased. Too weak to show rejoicing, they could only beg with quivering lips and trembling hands, "Oh, give us something to eat! Give us something to drink! We are starving!"
True, their hands were grimy, their clothing tattered, and the floors were bestrewn with hair from hides and bits of broken bullock bones; but of connubial, parental, or filial inhumanity, there were no signs.
With what deep emotion those seven heroic men contemplated the conditions in camp may be gathered from Mr. Aguilla Glover's own notes, published in Thornton's work:
Feb. 19, 1847. The unhappy survivors were, in short, in a condition most deplorable, and beyond power of language to describe, or imagination to conceive.
The emigrants had not yet commenced eating the dead. Many of the sufferers had been living on bullock hides for weeks and even that sort of food was so nearly exhausted that they were about to dig up from the snow the bodies of their companions for the purpose of prolonging their wretched lives.
Thornton's work contains the following statement by a member of one of the relief corps:
On the morning of February 20, Racine Tucker, John Rhodes, and Riley Moutrey went to the camp of George Donner eight miles distant, taking a little jerked beef. These sufferers (eighteen) had but one hide remaining. They had determined that upon consuming this they would dig from the snow the bodies of those who had died from starvation. Mr. Donner was helpless, Mrs. Donner was weak but in good health, and might have come to the settlement with this party; yet she solemnly but calmly determined to remain with her husband and perform for him the last sad offices of affection and humanity. And this she did in full view that she must necessarily perish by remaining behind. The three men returned the same day with seven refugees from Donner Camp.
John Baptiste Trubode has distinct recollections of the arrival and departure of Tucker's party, and of the amount of food left by it.
He said to me in that connection:
"To each of us who had to stay in camp, one of the First Relief Party measured a teacupful of flour, two small biscuits, and thin pieces of jerked beef, each piece as long as his first finger, and as many pieces as he could encircle with that first finger and thumb brought together, end to end. This was all that could be spared, and was to last until the next party could reach us.
"Our outlook was dreary and often hopeless. I don't know what I would have done sometimes without the comforting talks and prayers of those two women, your mother and Aunt Elizabeth. Then evenings after you children went to sleep, Mrs. George Donner would read to me from the book she wrote in every day. If that book had been saved, every one would know the truth of what went on in camp, and not spread these false tales.
"I dug in the snow for the dead cattle, but found none, and we had to go back to our saltless old bullock hide, days before the Second Relief got to us, on the first of March."
[Footnote 19: Died while in the mountain camps.]
[Footnote 20: Died en route over the mountains to the settlements in California.]
[Footnote 21: Report brought by John Baptiste to Donner's Camp, after one of his trips to the lake.]
[Footnote 22: Incident related by William C. Graves, after he reached the settlement.]
[Footnote 23: Franklin W. Graves and Jay Fosdick perished in December, 1846, while en route to the settlement with the Forlorn Hope.]
[Footnote 24: One of the stumps near the Breen-Graves cabin, cut for fuel while the snow was deepest, was found by actual measurement to be twenty-two feet in height. It is still standing.]
[Footnote 25: Thornton's dates are one day later than those in the Breen Diary. Breen must have lost a day en route.]
[Footnote 26: The First Relief Corps took six, instead of seven, refugees from Donner Camp, and set out from the lake cabins with twenty-three, instead of twenty-four, refugees.]
[Footnote 27: The journal, herbarium, manuscript, and drawings of Mrs. George Donner were not among the goods delivered at the Fort by the Fallon Party, and no trace of them was ever found.]
THE REED-GREENWOOD PARTY, OR SECOND RELIEF—REMINISCENCES OF WILLIAM G. MURPHY—CONCERNING NICHOLAS CLARK AND JOHN BAPTISTE.
On the third of March, 1847, the Reed-Greenwood, or Second Relief Corps (excepting Nicholas Clark) left camp with the following refugees: Patrick Breen, Margaret Breen (his wife), Patrick Breen, Jr., Simon Breen, James Breen, Peter Breen, Isabella Breen, Solomon Hook, Mary Donner, Isaac Donner, Mrs. Elizabeth Graves, Nancy Graves, Jonathan B. Graves, Franklin W. Graves, Jr., Elizabeth Graves, Jr., Martha J. Reed, and Thomas K. Reed. The whole party, as has been already told, were forced into camp about ten miles below the summit on the west side of the Sierras, by one of the fiercest snow-storms of the season.
All credit is due Mr. and Mrs. Breen for keeping the nine helpless waifs left with them at Starved Camp alive until food was brought them by members of the Third Relief Party. Mr. Breen's much prized diary does not cover the experiences of that little band in their struggle across the mountains, but concludes two days before they started. After he and his family succeeded in reaching the Sacramento Valley, he gave his diary (kept at Donner Lake) to Colonel George McKinstrey for the purpose of assisting him in making out his report to Captain Hall, U.S.N., Sloop of War Warren, Commander Northern District of California.
James F. Reed of the Reed-Greenwood Party, the second to reach the emigrants, has been adversely criticised from time to time, because he and six of his men returned to Sutter's Fort in March with no more than his own two children and Solomon Hook, a lad of twelve years, who had said that he could and would walk, and did.
Careful investigation, however, proves the criticism hasty and unfair. True, Mr. Reed went over the mountains with the largest and best equipped party sent out, ten well furnished, able-bodied men. But returning he left one man at camp to assist the needy emigrants.
The seventeen refugees whom he and nine companions brought over the summit comprised three weak, wasted adults, and fourteen emaciated young children. The prospect of getting them all to the settlement, even under favorable circumstances, had seemed doubtful at the beginning of the journey. Alas, one of the heaviest snow-storms of the season overtook them on the bleak mountain-side ten miles from the tops of the Sierra Nevadas. It continued many days. Food gave out, death took toll. The combined efforts of the men could not do more than provide fuel and keep the fires. All became exhausted. Rescuers and refugees might have perished there together had the nine men not followed what seemed their only alternative. Who would not have done what Reed did? With almost superhuman effort, he saved his two children. No one felt keener regret than he over the fact that he had been obliged to abandon at Starved Camp the eleven refugees he had heroically endeavored to save.
In those days of affliction, it were well nigh impossible to say who was most afflicted; still, it would seem that no greater destitution and sorrow could have been meted to any one than fell to the lot of Mrs. Murphy at the lake camp. The following incidents were related by her son, William G. Murphy, in an address to a concourse of people assembled on the shore of Donner Lake in February, 1896:
I was a little more than eleven years of age when we all reached these mountains, and that one-roomed shanty was built, where so many of us lived, ate, and slept. No!—Where so many of us slept, starved, and died! It was constructed for my mother and seven children (two being married) and her three grandchildren, and William Foster, husband of her daughter Sarah.
Early in December when the Forlorn Hope was planned, we were almost out of provisions; and my mother took the babes from the arms of Sarah and Harriet (Mrs. Pike) and told them that she would care for their little ones, and they being young might with William (Foster) and their brother Lemuel reach the settlement and return with food. And the four became members of that hapless band of fifteen.
Mr. Eddy being its leader, his wife and her two children came to live with us during his absence. When my eldest brother, on whom my mother depended, was very weak and almost at death's door, my mother went to the Breens and begged a little meat, just a few mouthfuls—I remember well that little piece of meat! My mother gave half of it to my dying brother; he ate it, fell asleep with a hollow death gurgle. When it ceased I went to him—he was dead—starved to death in our presence. Although starving herself, my mother said that if she had known that Landrum was going to die she would have given him the balance of the meat. Little Margaret Eddy lingered until February 4, and her mother until the seventh. Their bodies lay two days and nights longer in the room with us before we could find assistance able to bury them in the snow. Some days earlier Milton Elliot, weak and wandering around, had taken up his abode with us. We shared with him the remnant of our beef hides. We had had a lot of that glue-making material. But mark, it would not sustain life. Elliot soon starved to death, and neighbors removed and interred the body in the snow beside others.
Catherine Pike, my absent sister's baby, died on the eighteenth of February, only a few hours before the arrival of the First Relief. Thus the inmates of our shanty had been reduced to my mother, my sister Mary, brother Simon, Nioma Pike, Georgie Foster, myself, and little Jimmy Eddy.
When the rescuers decided they would carry out Nioma Pike, and that my sister Mary and I should follow, stepping in the tracks made by those who had snowshoes, strength seemed to come, so that I was able to cut and carry to my mother's shanty what appeared to me a huge pile of wood. It was green, but it was all I could get.
We left mother there with three helpless little ones to feed on almost nothing, yet in the hope that she might keep them alive until the arrival of the next relief.
Many of the survivors remember that after having again eaten food seasoned with salt, the boiled, saltless hides produced nausea and could not be retained by adult or child.
I say with deep reverence that flesh of the dead was used to sustain the living in more than one cabin near the lake. But it was not used until after the pittance of food left by the First Relief had long been consumed; not until after the wolves had dug the snow from the graves. Perhaps God sent the wolves to show Mrs. Murphy and also Mrs. Graves where to get sustenance for their dependent little ones.
Both were widows; the one had three, and the other four helpless children to save. Was it culpable, or cannibalistic to seek and use the only life-saving means left them? Were the acts and purposes of their unsteady hands and aching hearts less tender, less humane than those of the lauded surgeons of to-day, who infuse human blood from living bodies into the arteries of those whom naught else can save, or who strip skin from bodies that feel pain, to cover wounds which would otherwise prove fatal?
John Baptiste Trubode and Nicholas Clark, of the Second Relief, were the last men who saw my father alive. In August, 1883, the latter came to my home in San Jose.
This was our second meeting since that memorable morning of March 2, 1847, when he went in pursuit of the wounded mother bear, and was left behind by the relief party. We spoke long and earnestly of our experience in the mountains, and he wished me to deny the statement frequently made that, "Clark carried a pack of plunder and a heavy shotgun from Donner's Camp and left a child there to die." This I can do positively, for when the Third Relief Party took Simon Murphy and us "three little Donner girls" from the mountain camp, not a living being remained, except Mrs. Murphy and Keseberg at the lake camp, and my father and mother at Donner's Camp. All were helpless except my mother.
The Spring following my interview with Nicholas Clark, John Baptiste came to San Jose, and Mr. McCutchen brought him to talk with me. John, always a picturesque character, had become a hop picker in hop season, and a fisherman the rest of the year. He could not restrain the tears which coursed down his bronzed cheeks as he spoke of the destitution and suffering in the snow-bound camps; of the young unmarried men who had been so light-hearted on the plains and brave when first they faced the snows. His voice trembled as he told how often they had tried to break through the great barriers, and failed; hunted, and found nothing; fished, and caught nothing; and when rations dwindled to strips of beef hide, their strength waned, and death found them ready victims. He declared,
The hair and bones found around the Donner fires were those of cattle. No human flesh was used by either Donner family. This I know, for I was there all winter and helped get all the wood and food we had, after starvation threatened us. I was about sixteen years old at the time. Our four men died early in December and were buried in excavations in the side of the mountain. Their bodies were never disturbed. As the snows deepened to ten and twelve feet, we lost track of their location.
When saying good-bye, he looked at me wistfully and exclaimed: "Oh, little Eliza, sister mine, how I suffered and worked to help keep you alive. Do you think there was ever colder, stronger winds than them that whistled and howled around our camp in the Sierras?"
He returned the next day, and in his quaint, earnest way expressed keenest regret that he and Clark had not remained longer in camp with my father and mother.
"I did not feel it so much at first; but after I got married and had children of my own, I often fished and cried, as I thought of what I done, for if we two men had stayed, perhaps we might have saved that little woman."
His careworn features lightened as I bade him grieve no more, for I realized that he was but a boy, overburdened with a man's responsibilities, and had done his best, and that nobly. Then I added what I have always believed, that no one was to blame for the misfortunes which overtook us in the mountains. The dangers and difficulties encountered by reason of taking the Hastings Cut-off had all been surmounted—two weeks more and we should have reached our destination in safety. Then came the snow! Who could foresee that it would come earlier, fall deeper, and linger longer, that season than for thirty years before? Everything that a party could do to save itself was done by the Donner Party; and certainly everything that a generous, sympathizing people could do to save the snow-bound was done by the people of California.
THE REPORT OF THOMAS FALLON—DEDUCTIONS—STATEMENT OF EDWIN BRYANT—PECULIAR CIRCUMSTANCES.
The following is the report of Thomas Fallon, leader of the fourth party to the camps near Donner Lake:
Left Johnson's on the evening of April 13, and arrived at the lower end of Bear River Valley on the fifteenth. Hung our saddles upon trees, and sent the horses back, to be returned again in ten days to bring us in again. Started on foot, with provisions for ten days and travelled to head of the valley, and camped for the night; snow from two to three feet deep. Started early in the morning of April 15 and travelled twenty-three miles. Snow ten feet deep.
April 17. Reached the cabins between twelve and one o'clock. Expected to find some of the sufferers alive. Mrs. Donner and Keseberg in particular. Entered the cabins, and a horrible scene presented itself. Human bodies terribly mutilated, legs, arms, and skulls scattered in every direction. One body supposed to be that of Mrs. Eddy lay near the entrance, the limbs severed off, and a frightful gash in the skull. The flesh was nearly consumed from the bones, and a painful stillness pervaded the place. The supposition was, that all were dead, when a sudden shout revived our hopes, and we flew in the direction of the sound. Three Indians who had been hitherto concealed, started from the ground, fled at our approach, leaving behind their bows and arrows. We delayed two hours in searching the cabins, during which we were obliged to witness sights from which we would have fain turned away, and which are too dreadful to put on record. We next started for Donner's camp, eight miles distant over the mountains. After travelling about half-way, we came upon a track in the snow which excited our suspicion, and we determined to pursue. It brought us to the camp of Jacob Donner, where it had evidently left that morning. There we found property of every description, books, calicoes, tea, coffee, shoes, percussion caps, household and kitchen furniture, scattered in every direction, and mostly in water. At the mouth of the tent stood a large iron kettle, filled with human flesh cut up. It was from the body of George Donner. The head had been split open, and the brain extracted therefrom; and to the appearance he had not been long dead—not over three or four days, at most. Near-by the kettle stood a chair, and thereupon three legs of a bullock that had been shot down in the early part of winter, and snowed upon before it could be dressed. The meat was found sound and good, and with the exception of a small piece out of the shoulder, whole, untouched. We gathered up some property, and camped for the night.
April 18. Commenced gathering the most valuable property, suitable for our packs; the greater portion had to be dried. We then made them up, and camped for the night.
April 19. This morning Foster, Rhodes, and J. Foster started, with small packs, for the first cabins, intending from thence to follow the trail of the person that had left the morning previous. The other three remained behind to cache and secure the goods necessarily left there. Knowing the Donners had a considerable sum of money we searched diligently but were unsuccessful. The party for the cabins were unable to keep the trail of the mysterious personage, owing to the rapid melting of the snow; they therefore went directly to the cabins and upon entering discovered Keseberg lying down amid the human bones, and beside him a large pan full of fresh liver and lights. They asked him what had become of his companions; whether they were alive, and what had become of Mrs. Donner. He answered them by stating that they were all dead. Mrs. Donner, he said, had, in attempting to cross from one cabin to another, missed the trail and slept out one night; that she came to his camp the next night very much fatigued. He made her a cup of coffee, placed her in bed, and rolled her well in the blankets; but next morning she was dead. He ate her body and found her flesh the best he had ever tasted. He further stated that he obtained from her body at least four pounds of fat. No trace of her body was found, nor of the body of Mrs. Murphy either. When the last company left the camp, three weeks previous, Mrs. Donner was in perfect health, though unwilling to leave her husband there, and offered $500.00 to any person or persons who would come out and bring them in, saying this in the presence of Keseberg, and that she had plenty of tea and coffee. We suspected that it was she who had taken the piece from the shoulder of beef on the chair before mentioned. In the cabin with Keseberg were found two kettles of human blood, in all, supposed to be over two gallons. Rhodes asked him where he had got the blood. He answered, "There is blood in dead bodies." They asked him numerous questions, but he appeared embarrassed, and equivocated a great deal; and in reply to their asking him where Mrs. Donner's money was, he evinced confusion, and answered that he knew nothing about it, that she must have cached it before she died. "I haven't it," said he, "nor money nor property of any person, living or dead." They then examined his bundle, and found silks and jewellery, which had been taken from the camp of Donners, amounting in value to about $200.00. On his person they discovered a brace of pistols recognized to be those of George Donner; and while taking them from him, discovered something concealed in his waistcoat, which on being opened was found to be $225.00 in gold.
Before leaving the settlement, the wife of Keseberg had told us that we would find but little money about him; the men therefore said to him that they knew he was lying to them, and that he was well aware of the place of concealment of the Donners' money. He declared before Heaven he knew nothing concerning it, and that he had not the property of any one in his possession. They told him that to lie to them would effect nothing; that there were others back at the cabins who unless informed of the spot where the treasure was hidden would not hesitate to hang him upon the first tree. Their threats were of no avail. He still affirmed his ignorance and innocence. Rhodes took him aside and talked to him kindly, telling him that if he would give the information desired, he should receive from their hands the best of treatment, and be in every way assisted; otherwise, the party back at Donner's Camp would, upon arrival, and his refusal to discover to them the place where he had deposited this money, immediately put him to death. It was all to no purpose, however, and they prepared to return to us, leaving him in charge of the packs, and assuring him of their determination to visit him in the morning; and that he must make up his mind during the night. They started back and joined us at Donner's Camp.
April 20. We all started for Bear River Valley, with packs of one hundred pounds each; our provisions being nearly consumed, we were obliged to make haste away. Came within a few hundred yards of the cabins and halted to prepare breakfast, after which we proceeded to the cabin. I now asked Keseberg if he was willing to disclose to me where he had concealed that money. He turned somewhat pale and again protested his innocence. I said to him, "Keseberg, you know well where Donner's money is, and damn you, you shall tell me! I am not going to multiply words with you or say but little about it. Bring me that rope!" He then arose from his hot soup and human flesh, and begged me not to harm him; he had not the money nor goods; the silk clothing and money which were found upon him the previous day and which he then declared belonged to his wife, he now said were the property of others in California. I told him I did not wish to hear more from him, unless he at once informed us where he had concealed the money of those orphan children; then producing the rope I approached him. He became frightened, but I bent the rope around his neck and as I tightened the cord, and choked him, he cried out that he would confess all upon release. I then permitted him to arise. He still seemed inclined to be obstinate and made much delay in talking. Finally, but without evident reluctance, he led the way back to Donner's Camp, about ten miles distant, accompanied by Rhodes and Tucker. While they were absent we moved all our packs over the lower end of the lake, and made all ready for a start when they should return. Mr. Foster went down to the cabin of Mrs. Murphy, his mother-in-law, to see if any property remained there worth collecting and securing; he found the body of young Murphy who had been dead about three months with his breast and skull cut open, and the brains, liver, and lights taken out; and this accounted for the contents of the pan which stood beside Keseberg when he was found. It appeared that he had left at the other camp the dead bullock and horse, and on visiting this camp and finding the body thawed out, took therefrom the brains, liver, and lights.
Tucker and Rhodes came back the next morning, bringing $273.00 that had been cached by Keseberg, who after disclosing to them the spot, returned to the cabin. The money had been hidden directly underneath the projecting limb of a large tree, the end of which seemed to point precisely to the treasure buried in the earth. On their return and passing the cabin, they saw the unfortunate man within devouring the remaining brains and liver left from his morning repast. They hurried him away, but before leaving, he gathered together the bones and heaped them all in a box he used for the purpose, blessed them and the cabin and said, "I hope God will forgive me what I have done. I could not help it; and I hope I may get to heaven yet!" We asked Keseberg why he did not use the meat of the bullock and horse instead of human flesh. He replied he had not seen them. We then told him we knew better, and asked him why the meat on the chair had not been consumed. He said, "Oh, it is too dry eating; the liver and lights were a great deal better, and brains made good soup!" We then moved on and camped by the lake for the night.
April 21. Started for Bear River Valley this morning. Found the snow from six to eight feet deep; camped at Yuma River for the night. On the twenty-second travelled down Yuma about eighteen miles, and camped at the head of Bear River Valley. On the twenty-fifth moved down to lower end of the valley, met our horses, and came in.
The account by Fallon regarding the fate of the last of the Donners in their mountain camp was the same as that which Elitha and Leanna had heard and had endeavored to keep from us little ones at Sutter's Fort.
It is self-evident, however, that the author of those statements did not contemplate that reliable parties would see the Donner camps before prowling beasts, or time and elements, had destroyed all proof of his own and his party's wanton falsity.
It is also plain that the Fallon Party did not set out expecting to find any one alive in the mountains, otherwise would it not have taken more provisions than just enough to sustain its own men ten days? Would it not have ordered more horses to meet it at the lower end of Bear Valley for the return trip? Had it planned to find and succor survivors would it have taken it for granted that all had perished, simply because there was no one in the lake cabins, and would it have delayed two precious hours in searching the lake camp for valuables before proceeding to Donner's Camp?
Had the desire to rescue been uppermost in mind, would not the sight of human foot-tracks on the snow half way between the two camps have excited hope, instead of "suspicion," and prompted some of the party to pursue the lone wanderer with kindly intent? Does not each succeeding day's entry in that journal disclose the party's forgetfulness of its declared mission to the mountains? Can any palliating excuse be urged why those men did not share with Keseberg the food they had brought, instead of permitting him to continue that which famine had forced upon him, and which later they so righteously condemned?
Is there a single strain of humanity, pathos, or reverence in that diary, save that reflected from Keseberg's last act before being hurried away from that desolate cabin? Or could there be a falser, crueler, or more heartless account brought to bereaved children than Fallon's purported description of the father's body found in Donner's Camp?
Here is the statement of Edwin Bryant, who with General Kearney and escort, en route to the United States, halted at the deserted cabins on June 22, 1847, and wrote:
The body of (Captain) George Donner was found in his own camp about eight miles distant. He had been carefully laid out by his wife, and a sheet was wrapped around the corpse. This sad office was probably the last act she performed before visiting the camp of Keseberg.
After considering what had been published by The California Star, by Bryant, Thornton, Mrs. Farnham, and others, I could not but realize Keseberg's peculiarly helpless situation. Without a chance to speak in his own defence, he had been charged, tried, and adjudged guilty by his accusers; and an excited people had accepted the verdict without question. Later, at Captain Sutter's suggestion, Keseberg brought action for slander against Captain Fallon and party. The case was tried before Alcalde Sinclair, and the jury gave Keseberg a verdict of one dollar damages. This verdict, however, was not given wide circulation, and prejudice remained unchecked. There were other peculiar circumstances connected with this much accused man which were worthy of consideration, notably the following: If, as reported, Keseberg was in condition to walk to the settlement, why did the First Relief permit him to remain in camp consuming rations that might have saved others?
Messrs. Reed and McCutchen of the Second Relief knew the man on the plains, and had they regarded him as able to travel, or a menace to life in camp, would they have left him there to prey on women and little children, like a wolf in the fold?
Messrs. Eddy and Foster of the Third Relief had travelled with him on the plains, starved with him in camp, and had had opportunities of talking with him upon their return to the cabins too late to rescue Jimmy Eddy and Georgia Foster. Had they believed that he had murdered the children, would those two fathers and the rest of their party have taken Simon Murphy and the three little Donner girls and left Keseberg alive in camp with lone, sick, and helpless Mrs. Murphy—Mrs. Murphy who was grandmother of Georgia Foster, and had sole charge of Jimmy Eddy?
[Footnote 28: Should be spelled Keseberg.]
[Footnote 29: General Kearney and escort, accompanied by Edwin Bryant.]
[Footnote 30: McGlashan's "History of the Donner Party" (1879).]
[Footnote 31: The old Alcalde records are not in existence, but some of the survivors of the party remember the circumstance; and Mrs. Samuel Kybert, now of Clarkville, Eldorado County, was a witness at the trial. C.F. McGlashan, 1879.]
In March, 1879, while collecting material for his "History of the Donner Party," Mr. C.F. McGlashan, of Truckee, California, visited survivors at San Jose, and coming to me, said:
"Mrs. Houghton, I am sorry that I must look to you and your sisters for answers to the most delicate and trying questions relating to this history. I refer to the death of your mother at the hand of Keseberg."
He was so surprised and shocked as I replied, "I do not believe that Keseberg was responsible for my mother's death," that he interrupted me, lost for a moment the manner of the impartial historian, and with the directness of a cross-questioning attorney asked:
"Is it possible that Mrs. George Donner's daughter defends the murderer of her mother?"
And when I replied, "We have no proofs. My mother's body was never found," he continued earnestly,
"Why, I have enough evidence in this note book to convict that monster, and I can do it, or at least arouse such public sentiment against him that he will have to leave the State."
Very closely he followed my answering words, "Mr. McGlashan, from little girlhood I have prayed that Lewis Keseberg some day would send for me and tell me of my mother's last hours, and perhaps give a last message left for her children, and I firmly believe that my prayer will be granted, and I would not like you to destroy my opportunity. You have a ready pen, but it will not be used in exact justice to all the survivors, as you have promised, if you finish your work without giving Keseberg also a chance to speak for himself."
After a moment's reflection, he replied, "I am amazed; but your wish in this matter shall be respected."
The following evening he wrote from San Francisco:
You will be glad to know that I have put Harry N. Morse's detective agency of Oakland upon the track of Keseberg, and if found, I mean to take steps to obtain his confession.
In less than a week after the foregoing, came a note from him which tells its own story.
SACRAMENTO, Midnight, April 4, 1879
MRS. E.P. HOUGHTON, DEAR MADAM:—
Late as it is, I feel that I ought to tell you that I have spent the evening with Keseberg. I have just got back, and return early to-morrow to complete my interview. By merest accident, while tracing, as I supposed, the record of his death, I found a clue to his whereabouts. After dark I drove six miles and found him. At first he declined to tell me anything, but somehow I melted the mood with which he seemed enwrapped, and he talked freely.
He swears to me that he did not murder your mother. He declares it so earnestly that I cannot doubt his veracity. To-morrow I intend plying him closely with questions, and by a rigid system of cross examination will detect the false-hood, if there is one, in his statement. He gives chapter after chapter that others never knew. I cannot say more to-night, but desire that you write me (at the Cosmopolitan) any questions you might wish me to ask Keseberg, and if I have not already asked them, I will do so on my return from San Francisco.
After his second interview with Keseberg and in response to my urgent appeal for full details of everything relating to my parents, Mr. McGlashan wrote:
I wish you could see him. He will talk to either you or me at any time, unless other influences are brought to bear upon him. If I send word for him to come to Sacramento, he will meet me on my return. If you and your husband could be there on Thursday or Friday of this week, I could arrange an interview at the hotel that would be all you could wish. I asked him especially if he would talk to you, and he said, "Yes."
I dared not tell you about my interview until I had your permission. Even now, I approach the task tremblingly.
Your mother was not murdered. Your father died, Keseberg thinks, about two weeks after you left. Your mother remained with him until the last and laid him out tenderly, as you know.
The days—to Keseberg—were perfect blanks. Mrs. Murphy died soon after your departure with Eddy, and he was left alone—alone in his cabin—alone with the dead bodies which he could not have lifted from the floor, because of his weakness, even had he desired. The man sighs and shudders, and great drops of agony gather upon his brows as he endeavors to relate the details of those terrible days, or recall their horrors. Loneliness, desolation was the chief element of horror. Alone with the mutilated dead!
One night he sprang up in affright at the sound of something moving or scratching at a log outside his cabin. It was some time before he could understand that it was wolves trying to get in.
One night, about two weeks after you left, a knock came at his door, and your mother entered. To this lonely wretch her coming seemed like an angel's. She was cold and wet and freezing, yet her first words were, that she must see her children. Keseberg understood that she intended to start out that very night, and soon found that she was slightly demented. She kept saying, "O God! I must see my children. I must go to my children!" She finally consented to wait until the morning, but was determined that nothing should then prevent her lonely journey. She told Keseberg where her money was concealed, she made him solemnly promise that he would get the money and take it to her children. She would not taste the food he had to offer. She had not tasted human flesh, and would hardly consent to remain in his foul and hideous den. Too weak and Chilled to move, she finally sank down on the floor, and he covered her as best he could with blankets and feather bed, and made a fire to warm her; but it was of no avail, she had received her death-chill, and in the morning her spirit had passed heavenward.
I believe Keseberg tells the truth. Your mother watched day and night by your father's bedside until the end. At nightfall he ceased to breathe, and she was alone in the desolate camp, where she performed the last sad ministrations, and then her duty in the mountains was accomplished. All the smothered yearnings of maternal love now burst forth with full power. Out into the darkness and night she rushed, without waiting for the morning. "My children, I must see my children!"
She arrived at Keseberg's cabin, overwrought mentally, overtaxed physically, and chilled by the freezing night air. She was eager to set forth on her desperate journey without resting a moment. I can see her as he described her, wringing her hands and exclaiming over and over again, "I must see my children!"
The story told by Mrs. Farnham and others about finding your mother's remains, and that of Thornton concerning the pail of blood, are unquestionably false. She had been dead weeks, and Keseberg confessed to me that no part of her body was found by the relief (Fallon) party.
My friend, I have attempted to comply with your request. More than once during this evening I have burst into tears. I am sorry almost that I attempted so mournful a task, but you will pardon the pain I have caused.
Keseberg is a powerful man, six feet in height, with full bushy beard, thin brown locks, and high forehead. He has blue eyes that look squarely at you while he talks. He is sometimes absent-minded and at times seems almost carried away with the intensity of his misery and desolation.
He speaks and writes German, French, Spanish, and English; and his selection of words proves him a scholar. When I first asked him to make a statement which I could reduce to writing he urged: "What is the use of making a statement? People incline to believe the most horrible reports concerning a man; they will not credit what I say in my own defence. My conscience is clear. I am an old man, and am calmly awaiting my death. God is my judge, and it long ago ceased to trouble me that people shunned and slandered me."
He finally consented to make the desired statement, and in speaking of your family he continued: "Some time after Mrs. George Donner's death, I thought I had gained sufficient strength to redeem the pledge I had made her before her death. I went to Alder Creek Camp to get the money. I had a difficult journey. The wagons of the Donners were loaded with tobacco, powder, caps, school-books, shoes, and dry goods. This stock was very valuable. I spent the night there, searched carefully among the bales and bundles of goods, and found five hundred and thirty-one dollars. Part of this sum was gold, part silver. The silver I buried at the foot of a pine tree, a little way from camp. One of the lower branches of another tree reached down close to the ground, and appeared to point to the spot. I put the gold in my pocket, and started back to my cabin; got lost, and in crossing a little flat the snow suddenly gave way, and I sank down almost to my arm-pits. After great exertion I raised myself out of a snow-covered stream, and went round on a hillside and continued my journey. At dark, and completely exhausted, and almost dead, I came in sight of the Graves's cabin, and sometime after dark staggered into my own. My clothes were wet, and the night was so cold that my garments were frozen stiff. I did not build a fire nor get anything to eat, just rolled myself up in the bed-clothes, and shivered; finally fell asleep, and did not waken until late in the morning. Then I saw my camp was in most inexplicable confusion; everything about the cabin was torn up and scattered about, trunks broken open; and my wife's jewellery, my cloak, my pistol and ammunition was missing. I thought Indians had been there. Suddenly I heard human voices. I hurried up to the surface of the snow, and saw white men approaching. I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. I had suffered so much and so long, that I could scarcely believe my senses. Imagine my astonishment upon their arrival to be greeted, not with a 'Good-morning' or a kind word, but with a gruff, insolent demand, 'Where is Donner's money?'
"I told them they ought to give me something to eat, and that I would talk with them afterwards; but no, they insisted that I should tell them about Donner's money. I asked who they were, and where they came from, but they replied by threatening to kill me if I did not give up the money. They threatened to hang or shoot me. At last I told them that I had promised Mrs. Donner that I would carry her money to her children, and I proposed to do so, unless shown some authority by which they had a better claim. This so exasperated them that they acted as though they were going to kill me. I offered to let them bind me as a prisoner, and take me before Alcalde Sinclair at Sutter's Fort, and I promised that I would then tell all I knew about the money. They would listen to nothing, however, and finally I told them where they would find the silver, and gave them the gold. After I had done this they showed me a document from Alcalde Sinclair, by which they were to receive a certain proportion of all moneys and properties which they rescued. Those men treated me with great unkindness. Mr. Tucker was the only one who took my part or befriended me. When they started over the mountains, each man carried two bales of goods. They had silks, calicoes, and delaines from the Donners, and other articles of great value. Each man would carry one bundle a little way, lay it down, and come back and get the other bundle. In this way they passed over the snow three times. I could not keep up with them, because I was so weak, but managed to come up to their camp every night."
Upon receipt of this communication I wrote Mr. McGlashan from San Jose that I was nerved for the ordeal, but that he should not permit me to start on that momentous journey if his proposed arrangements were at all doubtful, and that he should telegraph me at once.
Alas! my note miscarried; and, believing that his proposal had not met my approval, Mr. and Mrs. McGlashan returned to Truckee a day earlier than expected. Two weeks later he returned the envelope, its postmarks showing what had happened.
It was not easy to gain the consent of my husband to a meeting with Keseberg. He dreaded its effect on me. He feared the outcome of the interview.
However, on May 16, 1879, he and I, by invitation, joined Mr. and Mrs. McGlashan at the Golden Eagle Hotel in Sacramento. The former then announced that although Keseberg had agreed by letter to meet us there, he had that morning begged to be spared the mortification of coming to the city hotel, where some one might recognize him, and as of old, point the finger of scorn at him. After some deliberation as to how I would accept the change, Mr. McGlashan had aceeded to the old man's wish, that we drive to the neat little boarding house at Brighton next morning, where we could have the use of the parlor for a private interview. In compliance with this arrangement we four were at the Brighton hotel at the appointed time.
Mr. McGlashan and my husband went in search of Keseberg, and after some delay returned, saying:
"Keseberg cannot overcome his strong feeling against a meeting in a public house. He has tidied up a vacant room in the brewery adjoining the house where he lives with his afflicted children. It being Sunday, he knows that no one will be about to disturb us. Will you go there?"
I could only reply, "I am ready."
My husband, seeing my lips tremble and knowing the intensity of my suppressed emotion, hastened to assure me that he had talked with the man, and been impressed by his straightforward answers, and that I need have no dread of meeting or talking with him.
When we met at his door, Mr. McGlashan introduced us. We bowed, not as strangers, not as friends, nor did we shake hands. Our thoughts were fixed solely on the purpose that had brought us together. He invited us to enter, led the way to that room which I had been told he had swept and furnished for the occasion with seats for five. His first sentence made us both forget that others were present. It opened the way at once.
"Mr. McGlashan has told me that you have questions you wish to ask me yourself about what happened in the mountain cabin."
Still standing, and looking up into his face, I replied: "Yes, for the eye of God and your eyes witnessed my mother's last hours, and I have come to ask you, in the presence of that other Witness, when, where, and how she died. I want you to tell me all, and so truly that there shall be no disappointment for me, nor remorse and denials for you in your last hour. Tell it now, so that you will not need to send for me to hear a different story then."
I took the chair he proffered, and he placed his own opposite and having gently reminded me of the love and respect the members of the Donner Party bore their captain and his wife, earnestly and feelingly, he told me the story as he had related it to Mr. McGlashan.
Then, before I understood his movement, he had sunk upon his knees, saying solemnly,
"On my knees before you, and in the sight of God, I want to assert my innocence."
I could not have it thus. I bade him rise, and stand with me in the presence of the all-seeing Father. Extending my upturned hand, I bade him lay his own right hand upon it, then covering it with my left, I bade him speak. Slowly, but unhesitatingly, he spoke:
"Mrs. Houghton, if I had murdered your mother, would I stand here with my hand between your hands, look into your pale face, see the tear-marks on your cheeks, and the quiver of your lips as you ask the question? No, God Almighty is my witness, I am innocent of your mother's death! I have given you the facts as I gave them to the Fallon Party, as I told them at Sutter's Fort, and as I repeated them to Mr. McGlashan. You will hear no change from my death-bed, for what I have told you is true."
There, with a man's honor and soul to uncover, I had scarcely breathed while he spoke. I watched the expression of his face, his words, his hands. His eyes did not turn from my face; his hand between mine lay as untrembling as that of a child in peaceful sleep; and so, unflinchingly Lewis Keseberg passed the ordeal which would have made a guilty man quake.
I felt the truth of his assertion, and told him that if it would be any comfort to him at that late day to know that Tamsen Donner's daughter believed him innocent of her murder, he had that assurance in my words, and that I would maintain that belief so long as my lips retained their power of speech.
Tears glistened in his eyes as he uttered a heartfelt "Thank you!" and spoke of the comfort the recollection of this meeting would be to him during the remaining years of his life.
Before our departure, Mr. McGlashan asked Keseberg to step aside and show my husband the scars left by the wound which had prevented his going to the settlement with the earlier refugees. There was a mark of a fearful gash which had almost severed the heel from the foot and left a troublesome deformity. One could easily realize how slow and tedious its healing must have been, and Keseberg assured us that walking caused excruciating pain even at the time the Third Relief Corps left camp.
His clothing was threadbare, but neat and clean. One could not but feel that he was poor, yet he courteously but positively declined the assistance which, privately, I offered him. In bidding him good-bye, I remarked that we might not see one another again on earth, and he replied pathetically, "Don't say that, for I hope this may not be our last meeting."
I did not see Keseberg again. Years later, I learned that he had passed away; and in answer to inquiries I received the following personal note from Dr. G.A. White, Medical Superintendent of the Sacramento County Hospital:
Lewis Keseberg died here on September 3, 1895; aged 81 years. He left no special message to any one. His death was peaceful.
Academy of Pacific Coast History Altemera, Padre American Fur Company American Tract Society Arguello, Dona Concepcion
Bartlett, Washington A. Benton, Rev. J.A. Benton, Thomas H. Boggs, ex-Governor of Missouri Bond, Frances Boone, Alphonso Breen, Patrick diary of Brenheim, Adolph Brunner, Christian Brunner, "Grandma" and Napoleon Bryant, Edwin
Cady, Charles California Star Camp of Death Chamberlain, Charlotte (Mrs. Wm. E.) Chamberlain, William E. Church, Mission service Civil War Clark, Nicholas, Cody, Bill Coffemeir, Edward Coon, William Curtis, James
Del, John Denison, Eliza "Diary of Patrick Breen, One of the Donner Party" Dofar, Matthew Dolan, Patrick Donner, Elitha Donner, Frances Donner, George Donner, Mrs. George letters Donner, Georgia Donner, Jacob Donner, Leanna Donner, Mary Donner Party Dozier, Tamsen Eustis see Donner, Mrs. George.
Fallon, Thomas diary Fitch, Capt. "Forlorn Hope" Party Fortune, Padre Fosdick, Jay Foster, John Foster, William Francis, Allen Fremont, John C. Frisbie, Capt. marriage of Fuller, John
Glover, Aguilla Gold, discovery early minings seekers
Graves, W.F. Grayson, Mrs. Andrew J. Great Overland Caravan Greenwood, "Old Trapper"
Halloran, Luke Hardcoop, —— Hastings, Lansford W. Herron, Walter Hook, Solomon Hooker, Capt. Joe Houghton, S.O.
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James, Noah Jondro, Joseph Josephine, Empress
Kerns, Capt. Keseberg, Lewis
Land-grants, Mexican Leese, Jacob "Life and Days of General John A. Sutter"
Maps of territory Maury, William L. McCoon, Perry McCutchen, William McGlashan, C.F. McKinstrey, Col. George Mervine, Capt. Mexican War Miller, Hiram Moutrey, R.S. Murphy, Mrs. Lavina Murphy, William G.
Oakley, Howard Oatman, Eugene "Oregon and California"
Packwood, Mr. and Mrs. Pike, William Pony Express, first Poor, Elizabeth letter to Prudon, Major
Reed, James F. Relief Party, First Relief Party, Fourth Relief Party, Second Relief Party, Third Rhinehart, Joseph Rhodes, Daniel Rhodes, John Richardson, —— Richey, D. Richer, Col. M.D. Robinson, Kate Robinson, Judge Robert Robinson, Hon. Tod Russell, Col.
Sacramento Sacramento Union School, first in California Miss Doty's St. Mary's Hall Miss Hutchinson's St. Catherine's Jefferson Grammar Schoonover, T.J. Sherman, Gen. Wm. T. Shoemaker, Samuel Sinclair, John Sloat, Commodore Smallpox Smith, General Smith, James Snyder, John Sonoma, last visit to, Springfield Journal Stanton, Charles Stark, John Starved Camp Stone, Charles Sutter, Captain John A. Sutter's Fort Swift, Margaret
Thanksgiving celebration Thornton, J.Q., extracts from journal "Thrilling Events in California History" Toll, Agnes "Topographical Report, with Maps Attached" "Travels Among the Rocky Mountains, Through Oregon and California" Trubode, John Baptiste Tucker, Daniel Tucker, George Tucker, Racine Turner, John
Vallejo, Mariano G.
Webster, Daniel "What I Saw in California" White, Dr. G.A. White, Henry A. Wolfinger, —— Woodworth, Midshipman
Yost, Daniel Yount, George