The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate
Eliza Poor Donner Houghton
Part 6 out of 6
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
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
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
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
"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,
"On my knees before you, and in the sight of God, I want to assert my
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
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
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
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
American Fur Company
American Tract Society
Arguello, Dona Concepcion
Bartlett, Washington A.
Benton, Rev. J.A.
Benton, Thomas H.
Boggs, ex-Governor of Missouri
Camp of Death
Chamberlain, Charlotte (Mrs. Wm. E.)
Chamberlain, William E.
Church, Mission service
"Diary of Patrick Breen, One of the Donner Party"
Donner, Mrs. George
Dozier, Tamsen Eustis
_see_ Donner, Mrs. George.
"Forlorn Hope" Party
Fremont, John C.
Grayson, Mrs. Andrew J.
Great Overland Caravan
Greenwood, "Old Trapper"
Hastings, Lansford W.
Hooker, Capt. Joe
"Life and Days of General John A. Sutter"
Maps of territory
Maury, William L.
McKinstrey, Col. George
Murphy, Mrs. Lavina
Murphy, William G.
"Oregon and California"
Packwood, Mr. and Mrs.
Pony Express, first
Reed, James F.
Relief Party, First
Relief Party, Fourth
Relief Party, Second
Relief Party, Third
Richer, Col. M.D.
Robinson, Judge Robert
Robinson, Hon. Tod
first in California
St. Mary's Hall
Sherman, Gen. Wm. T.
last visit to,
Sutter, Captain John A.
extracts from journal
"Thrilling Events in California History"
"Topographical Report, with Maps Attached"
"Travels Among the Rocky Mountains, Through Oregon and California"
Trubode, John Baptiste
Vallejo, Mariano G.
"What I Saw in California"
White, Dr. G.A.
White, Henry A.
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