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Chapter 20 Starting Decoration

Chapter XX.

Dates of the Rescues
Arrival of the Fourth Relief
A Scene Beggaring Description
The Wealth of the Donners
An Appeal to the Highest Court
A Dreadful Shock
Saved from a Grizzly Bear
A Trial for Slander
Keseberg Vindicated
Two Kettles of Human Blood
The Enmity of the Relief Party
"Born under an Evil Star"
"Stone Him! Stone Him!"
Fire and Flood
Keseberg's Reputation for Honesty
A Prisoner in his own House
The Most Miserable of Men

December 16, 1846, the fifteen composing the "Forlorn Hope," left Donner Lake. January 17, 1847, as they reached Johnson's ranch; and February 5th Capt. Tucker's party started to the assistance of the emigrants. This first relief arrived February 19th at the cabins; the second relief, or Reed's party, arrived March 1st; the third, or Foster's, about the middle of March; and the fourth, or Fallon's, on the seventeenth of April. Upon the arrival of Capt. Fallon's company, the sight presented at the cabins beggars all description. Capt. R. P. Tucker, now of Goleta, Santa Barbara County, Cal., endeavors, in his correspondence, to give a slight idea of the scene. Human bodies, terribly mutilated, legs, arms, skulls, and portions of remains, were scattered in every direction and strewn about the camp. Mr. Foster found Mrs. Murphy's body with one of her limbs sawed off, the saw still lying by her remains. It was such scenes as these which gave this party their first abhorrence for Keseberg. The man was nowhere to be seen, but a fresh track was discovered in the snow leading away from the cabins toward the Dormer tents. The party pressed forward to Alder Creek. Captain Tucker writes: "The dead bodies lay moldering around, being all that was left to tell the tale of sorrow. On my first trip we had cut down a large pine tree, and laid the goods of the Donners on this tree to dry in the sun. These goods lay there yet, with the exception of those which Reed's party had taken away."

George Donner was wealthy. His wealth consisted not merely of goods, as many claim, but of a large amount of coin. Hiram Miller, of the relief parties, is authority for the statement that Mr. Donner owned a quarter section of land within the present city limits of Chicago. This land was sold for ten thousand dollars, shortly before Mr. Donner started for California. Mr. Allen Francis, who has been mentioned as the very best authority concerning this, family, camped with them on the evening of their first night's journey out of Springfield, Illinois, saw Mr. Donner's money, and thinks there was ten thousand dollars. Mrs. F. E. Bond, of Elk Grove, Sacramento County, California, does not remember the exact amount, but knows that Mr. Donner started with a great deal of gold, because she helped make the belts in which it was to be carried in crossing the plains. The relief parties always understood there was at Donner's camp a large sum of money, estimated at from six to fourteen thousand dollars. It is not disputed that Halloran left about fifteen hundred dollars to this family. Yet Capt. Fallon's party could find no money. It was clear to their minds that some one had robbed the Donner tents.

Remaining over night, thoroughly searching in every place where the supposed money could be concealed, this party returned to Donner Lake. On their way they found the same mysterious track, also returning to the cabins. They probably discovered Keseberg in about the manner described. It is plain to be seen that they regarded him as the murderer of Mrs. Donner. In forcing him to tell what he had done with the money, they, too, claim to have choked him, to have put a rope around his neck, and to have threatened to hang him. On the other hand, if Keseberg's statement be accepted as truth, it is easy to understand why he refused to surrender the money to men who treated him from the outset as a murderer and a robber.

Let the God to whom Lewis Keseberg appeals be his judge. It is not the part of this book to condemn or acquit him. Most of the fourth relief party have already gone before the bar at which Keseberg asks to be tried. Capt. Tucker is about the only available witness, and his testimony is far more lenient than the rumors and falsehoods usually published.

If Keseberg be guilty of any or of all crimes, it will presently be seen that the most revengeful being on earth could not ask that another drop be added to his cup of bitterness. His statement continues:

"These men treated me with the greatest 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 delames 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. One day I was dragging myself slowly along behind the party, when I came to a place which had evidently been used as a camping-ground by some of the previous parties. Feeling very tired, I thought it would be a good place to make some coffee. Kindling a fire, I filled my coffee-pot with fresh snow and sat waiting for it to melt and get hot. Happening to cast my eyes carelessly around, I discovered a little piece of calico protruding from the snow. Half thoughtlessly, half out of idle curiosity, I caught hold of the cloth, and finding it did not come readily, I gave it a strong pull. I had in my hands the body of my dead child Ada! She had been buried in the snow, which, melting down, had disclosed a portion of her clothing. I thought I should go frantic! It was the first intimation I had of her death, and it came with such a shock!"

"Just as we were getting out of the snow, I happened to be sitting in camp alone one afternoon. The men were hunting, or attending to their goods. I was congratulating myself upon my escape from the mountains, when I was startled by a snuffling, growling noise, and looking up, I saw a large grizzly bear only a few feet away. I knew I was too weak to attempt to escape, and so remained where I sat, expecting every moment he would devour me. Suddenly there was the report of a gun, and the bear fell dead. Mr. Foster had discovered the animal, and slipping up close to camp, had killed it."

When the party arrived at Sutter's Fort, they took no pains to conceal their feelings toward Keseberg. Some of the men openly accused him of Mrs. Donner's murder. Keseberg, at the suggestion of Captain Sutter, brought action against Captain Fallon, Ned Coffeemire, and the others, for slander. The case was tried before Alcalde Sinclair, and the jury gave Keseberg a verdict of one dollar damages. The old alcalde records are not in existence, but some of the survivors remember the circumstance, and Mrs. Samuel Kyburz, now of Clarksville, El Dorado County, was a witness at the trial. If Keseberg was able to vindicate himself in an action for slander against the evidence of all the party, it is clear that such evidence was not adduced as has frequently appeared in books. For instance, in Captain Fallon's report of this trip, he alleges that "in the cabin with Keseberg were found two kettles of human blood, in all supposed to be over one gallon." Had this been proven, no jury would have found for Keseberg. Fresh blood could not have been obtained from starved bodies, and had the blood been found, Keseberg would have been adjudged a murderer.

Speaking upon this point, Keseberg denies the assertion that any blood was discovered, calls attention to the length of time Mrs. Donner had been dead, to the readiness with which blood coagulates, and adds that not a witness testified to such a circumstance at the trial. Why should Keseberg murder Mrs. Donner? If he wanted her money, it was only necessary to allow her to go out into the mountains alone, without provisions, without any one to point out the way, and perish in the trackless snows. She could not carry any considerable portion of her money with her, and he, had only to go back to Alder Creek and secure the treasure. He bears witness that she never tasted human flesh; that she would not partake of the food he offered; how reasonable, then, the story of her death. The fourth relief party expected to find a vast sum of money. One half was to be given them for their trouble. They regarded the man Keseberg as the murderer of George Foster, because of the reports given by the little children brought out by the third relief. The father of this child was with both the third and fourth reliefs. Arriving at the cabins, they were amazed and horrified at the dreadful sights. Hastening to the tents, they found no money. Their idea that Keseberg was a thief was confirmed by his disgorging the money when threatened with death. There was much reason for their hatred of the man who crossed the mountains with them, and this was intensified by their being brought before Alcalde Sinclair and proven slanderers. Out of this hatred has grown reports which time has magnified into the hideous falsehoods which greet the ear from all directions. Keseberg may be responsible for the death of Hardcoop, but urges in his defense that all were walking, even to the women and the children. He says Hardcoop was not missed until evening, and that it was supposed the old man would catch up with the train during the night. The terrible dangers surrounding the company, the extreme lateness of the season, the weakness of the oxen, and the constant fear of lurking, hostile Indians, prevented him or any one else from going back. Keseberg may be responsible for the death of Wolfinger, of George Foster, of James Eddy, of Mrs. Murphy, and of Mrs. Tamsen Donner, but the most careful searcher for evidence can not find the slightest trace of proofs. In his own mournful language, he comes near the truth when he says:

"I have been born under an evil star! Fate, misfortune, bad luck, compelled me to remain at Donner Lake. If God would decree that I should again pass through such an ordeal, I could not do otherwise than I did. My conscience is free from reproach. Yet that camp has been the one burden of my life. Wherever I have gone, people have cried, 'Stone him! stone him!' Even the little children in the streets have mocked me and thrown stones at me as I passed. Only a man conscious of his innocence, and clear in the sight of God, would not have succumbed to the terrible things which have been said of me - would not have committed suicide! Mortification, disgrace, disaster, and unheard-of misfortune have followed and overwhelmed me. I often think that the Almighty has singled me out, among all the men on the face of the earth, in order to see how much hardship, suffering, and misery a human being can bear!"

"Soon after my arrival at the Fort, I took charge of the schooner Sacramento, and conveyed wheat from Sacramento to San Francisco, in payment of Capt. Sutter's purchase of the Russian possessions. I worked seven months for Sutter; but, although he was kind to me, I did not get my money. I then went to Sonoma, and worked about the same length of time for Gen. Vallejo. I had a good position and good prospects, but left for the gold mines. Soon afterward I was taken sick, and for eight months was an invalid. I then went to Sutter's Fort and started a boarding-house. I made money rapidly. After a time I built a house south of the Fort, which cost ten thousand dollars. In 1851 I purchased the Lady Adams hotel, in Sacramento. It was a valuable property, and I finally sold it at auction for a large sum of money. This money was to be paid the next day. The deeds had already passed. That night the terrible fire of 1852 occurred, and not only swept away the hotel, but ruined the purchaser, so that I could not collect one cent. I went back to Sutter's Fort and started the Phoenix Brewery. I succeeded, and acquired considerable property. I finally sold out for fifty thousand dollars. I had concluded to take this money, go back to Germany, and live quietly the rest of my days. The purchaser went to San Francisco to draw the money. The sale was effected eight days before the great flood of 1861-2. The flood came, and I lost everything."

Thus, throughout his entire career, have business reverses followed Lewis Keseberg. Several times he has been wealthy and honorably situated. At one time he was a partner of Sam. Brannan, in a mammoth distillery at Calistoga; and Mr. Brannan is one among many who speak in highest terms of his honesty, integrity, and business capacity. On the thirtieth of January, 1877, Phillipine Keseberg, his faithful wife, died. This was the severest loss of all, as will presently be seen.

Eleven children were born to them, and four are now living. One of these, Lillie, now lives in Sacramento with her husband. Another, Paulina, a widow, resides in San Rafael. Bertha and Augusta live with the father at Brighton, Sacramento County. Both these children are hopelessly idiotic. Bertha is twenty-six years of age, and has never uttered an intelligible word. Augusta is fifteen years old, weighs two hundred and five pounds, and possesses only slight traces of intelligence. Teething spasms, occurring when they were about two years old, is the cause of their idiocy. Both are subject to frequent and violent spasms or epileptic fits. They need constant care and attention. Should Bertha's hand fall into the fire, she has not sufficient intelligence to withdraw it from the flames. Both are helpless as children. The State provides for insane, but not for idiots. Keseberg says a bill setting aside a ward in the State Asylum for his two children, passed the Legislature, but received a pocket veto by the Governor. Sacramento County gives them eighteen dollars a month. Their helplessness and violence render it impossible to keep any nurse in charge of them longer than a few days. Keseberg is very poor. He has employment for perhaps three months during the year. While his wife lived, she took care of these children; but now he has personally to watch over them and provide for their necessities. While at work, he is compelled to keep them locked in a room in the same building. They scream so loudly while going into the spasms that he can not dwell near other people. He therefore lives isolated, in a plain little house back of his brewery. Here he lives, the saddest, loneliest, most pitiable creature on the face of the earth. He traces all his misfortunes to that cabin on Donner Lake, and it is little wonder that he says: "I beg of you, insert in your book a fervent prayer to Almighty God that He will forever prevent the recurrence of a similar scene of horror."

Chapter 20 Ending Decoration

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