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Tracking Down the Truth of What Happened to the Donner Party

May 11, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

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."

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.

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