About Louis Keseberg, Donner Party
Only he and his wife survived. Their two small children and three teamsters all died.
Lewis Keseberg was born in Germany on 22nd May, 1814. He was married on 22nd June, 1842, and two years later emigrated to the United States.
In 1846 he joined the Donner Party wagon train in its journey from Independence, Missouri, to Sutter's Fort in California. His party included his wife Phillipine, his son Lewis and daughter Ada. Keseberg also brought with him three men, Karl Burger, Joseph Reinhardt and Augustus Spitzer. The wagon train also included two Germans known as Hardkoop and Wolfinger.
At one point, Keseberg ejected one of his employees, Hardkoop, from his wagon. He was never seen again and it is not known whether he died of starvation or was killed by local Native American tribes. This was followed by the disappearance of another German named Wolfinger. Joseph Reinhardt and Augustus Spitzer later confessed they had robbed and murdered Wolfinger.
On April 17th, 1847 the fourth relief party arrived. According to a diary kept by the team leader: “Entered the cabins and a horrible scene presented itself – human bodies terribly mutilated, legs, arms, and skulls scattered in every direction.”
The historical existence of this diary, however, has been the subject of debate. It was published in a California newspaper later that year, but this paper had a record for grossly exaggerating and sensationalizing the accounts of the Donner Party.
The journal in question has never been found, and most historians doubt that it ever existed; it was supposedly written by the team’s leader – a fur tracker who was probably illiterate and certainly not educated enough to have written the flowery language the diary contains. In addition to that, the diary misspells the name of its supposed author – spelling it “Fellun” instead of “Fallon.” Most likely, this diary was invented by the newspaper that published it.
In any event, the “diary” goes on to describe at length rather ghastly discoveries on the part of the rescuers, with numerous accusations against Louis Keseberg. He is accused of raiding the dead bodies for their organs. He is accused of making soups out of livers and intestines. He is accused of eating brains and hearts. He is accused of ignoring available cattle beef, uncovered by the melting snow, in favor of human flesh. He is further accused of stealing the Donners’ money. On this account, Keseberg’s own story agrees. Keseberg stated that they accused him of stealing the money and threatened to hang him if he didn’t tell them where it was. He finally relented out of fear of his life, giving them the gold he had and telling them where he had buried the silver.
In later years, Louis Keseberg would become the most infamous member of the Donner Party, largely thanks to the sensationalist frontier newspapers of California. As the last survivor – one who had lived out of necessity for at least six to seven weeks solely on human flesh – he was vilified as a “man-eater” and cannibal. As we have already seen, he was accused of killing young George Foster for food. We have also seen that he was accused of proudly telling William Eddy that he had eaten his son. Because of the issue of the Donners' money, he was accused of staying put on purpose, despite being strong enough to leave with earlier parties, in order to loot the belongings of everyone who had died or fled. He was accused not only of stealing the Donners' money, but also of killing Tamzene Donner in order to take it. After returning to California following his ordeal, he actually sued one of his rescuers for spreading slanderous stories about him. He won the suit, but was awarded only one dollar in compensation. He became the butt of jokes and was referred to as “Keseberg the Cannibal.” Rumors were passed that he still had the “taste” for cannibalism and would frequently threaten to eat people.
There are, no doubt, several reasons why Keseberg was vilified this way. The first is that he was simply an easy target, having been the last survivor at the winter encampment – who was left to dispute his story about the Donners' money and the death of Tamzene Donner? Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he was apparently one of those people who tended to leave a bad impression on others. Even before his trip with the Donner Party, acquaintances had described him in letters as “eccentric” and “unsociable.” Having traveled with him for months prior to the winter captivity, the members of the Donner Party saw that he had a violent and explosive temper. He was widely known to verbally and even physically abuse his wife. He was apparently banished temporarily from the wagon train over this. In later life, he was tried for assault on two different occasions – although with the ridicule and vilification he must have constantly received, it is little wonder he wound up in fights.
In any case, Louis Keseberg’s story is a sad one. Despite being apparently well-educated, his life seems to have been one tragedy after another. The Donner Party tragedy took both his children (he had already lost another child prior to 1846), and left him with the reputation of being a thief, liar, murderer, and mindless cannibal. Afterwards, he had eight more children; all but one predeceased him (the last lived to the age of ninety, dying in the late 1940’s). Two of these children were evidently mentally handicapped. He outlived his wife by nearly twenty years. In every new business venture he started, he was vilified and treated as a laughingstock. After serving as the skipper of one of John Sutter’s river supply boats for several years, he was said to have lost his job because the passengers feared he would kill and eat them while they slept. One passenger, in what is no doubt a much more honest account, said that during the night he could hear Keseberg crying out in nightmares. When Keseberg purchased a small hotel in Sacramento, jokes abounded about the dangers of boarding in his rooms. The hotel burned down about a year later. Sometime afterward, he bought a brewery – it was destroyed after several years by a flood. By the time Keseberg died in the late 1890’s, he was penniless and apparently homeless, dying in a hospital for the poor.
No amount of historical revision can justify Keseberg’s apparently violent temper and tendency to abuse his wife. And while it is impossible to know his motivations for certain, his decision to remain behind and not travel with the third relief party seems difficult to explain. The others who stayed were all too sick to travel, with the exception of Tamzene Donner. But Mrs. Donner is reported in numerous sources to have insisted upon staying with her dying husband. Keseberg had evidently seriously injured his foot sometime during the winter, and this was his reason for not joining the earlier refugee parties (such as the first party, which took out his wife and daughter). Patrick Breen refers twice to Louis Keseberg being sick and unable to get out of bed. But it seems that this foot injury was sufficiently healed by March that he could have left with Eddy and Foster. Yet those same accounts that tell us Keseberg was healthy enough to travel also tell us all the other outrageous stories about Keseberg boiling brains for soup. Keseberg himself insisted that his foot did not heal sufficiently until long after Eddy and Foster had left. But was he lying? Again, it’s impossible to say for sure.
Despite all those difficulties, what seems apparent is that Keseberg did not deserve the treatment he got later in life. He became the cannibalistic face of the Donner Party; he literally was never able to live that reputation down. Although he survived for nearly fifty years after the Donner Party tragedy, it’s not unreasonable to say that his life was taken from him during the winter of 1846-1847.
Louis Keseberg, Donner Party's Timeline
Berleburg, Westphalia, Germany
en route, on the Plains
Sacramento County, CA