The Donner Party: Worse Than You Thought!
Most of you have heard about the Donner Party - the group of white settlers who ventured into California before the Gold Rush, got stuck in the mountains, and had to eat each other to survive. It’s grisly, it’s grotesque, and it’s a staple of American culture. Growing up in California, we learned about it in elementary school. In the Bay Area, we’re close enough to drive to Truckee, where they got stuck. My dad told us the story of the Donner Party every fucking time we drove to Lake Tahoe, which was a lot. I learned that they left too late! They took a shortcut! There was an early storm! THEY HAD TO RESORT TO CANNIBALISM TO SURVIVE! This is some background but also explains a lot about me, no?
I love the saga of the Donner Party, and if you’re following along on Instagram, you’ve already read about the copious misery and suffering on the trail. While we tend to focus on the survival aspects of it - you know, what would *you* do if you had no food? - plenty of morally repugnant shit happened along the way as well. Dire circumstances led to all kinds of questionable behavior. Members were left for dead, robbed, and murdered by their own people. This is a story of Manifest Destiny, an inherently racist idea that unsurprisingly left dead Native Americans in its wake. We tend to think of the Donner Party as heroic for surviving the crossing, but there was a villainous side as well. That’s most apparent in the stories of the murders that occurred on the trail and in the mountains. Four people were killed in cold blood, and three others died under negligent or mysterious circumstances. Out of 36 dead, those aren’t good odds.
The first murder victim on the trail was John Snyder - he was killed by James Reed.
James Reed was the de-facto leader of the Donner Party for the early party of the trip. He was a wealthy man who brought a double decker “palace wagon” along with teamsters and servants to help with the labor. He was by most accounts an arrogant blowhard, and he was arguably the loudest proponent of the Hastings Cutoff, an untested shortcut that set the party back by a month and contributed to their demise. Fucking rich dudes, right??
John Snyder was a teamster working for the Graves family. He was the opposite of James Reed - young, strong, handsome and well-liked. He was known for being a good dancer. If it seems like I am crafting a narrative to create a villain and a victim, you are correct. I’m on team HOT YOUNG GUY WHO CAN DANCE. OBVIOUSLY.
In all fairness, these two men considered each other friends, and John Snyder died in what can be understood today as a road rage incident. As the party was struggling over the Wasatch Mountains, a dispute arose among the teamsters driving the oxen. They yelled at each other and Reed got in Synder’s face, so Snyder hit him with a whip, and Reed pulled out a knife and shanked Snyder in the neck. It happened fast and no one saw it coming. People were hot and tired and hungry and worried and two dudes snapped. It’s not like we’ve never heard that story.
The party argued over how to dispense justice, and decided to banish Reed instead of hanging him. There was a dissenter among the ranks - Lewis Keseberg - who was so gung ho for execution that he started to build a scaffold before the decision was even made. That guy was a trip. More on him later.
James Reed was sent out with a gun, some crackers, and a horse. John Snyder was buried where he fell and the next day the party set back on the trail. Reed survived by meeting up with other parties and crossing the Sierra on horseback before the storms. He straggled into Sutter’s Fort half-dead and General Fremont induced him to join the war against Mexico. This part of the story still baffles me: Reed barely survives the crossing into California, limps into Sacramento, then just up and joins a war?? And somehow finishes fighting in time to go back and rescue his people? I don’t understand the timeline, but it’s real.
When Reed returned from fighting and learned that the Donner Party were stranded in the Sierras, he jumped all the way in to help. I feel compelled to point out that he didn’t just help his family, either. As part of the Second Relief sent from Johnson’s Ranch, he actually crossed paths with the First Relief Party coming out of the mountains. His own family was with them, but he paused only to embrace them before driving forward to rescue the settlers remaining at the camps, including 14 children. I GRUDGINGLY POSIT that the villain came all the way around to a hero in the end.
Not long after Reed killed Snyder, a man named Mr. Wolfinger was murdered. This story is less road rage and more greedy cold-blooded straight up homicide. It’s moving that way with these rest of these deaths, you guys.
Mr. Wolfinger - I cannot find his first name anywhere - was a German immigrant traveling with Lewis Keseberg in a German Wagon Train Gang. After the Snyder murder, further along on the trail, several families were forced to abandon their wagons. While camped near the Humboldt Sink in Nevada, Paiutes killed all of Wolfinger’s cattle, and he had no way to tow his wagon. Wolfinger was rumored to be carrying a lot of cash, and wanted to bury the wagon for safe-keeping and retrieve it later. Two fellow German Wagon Train Gang Members, Augustus Spitzer and Joseph Reinhardt, offered to stay behind and help him. Wolfinger’s young wife Doris went ahead with the rest of the party.
The next day, Spitzer and Reinhardt caught up and breathlessly announced that Wolfinger had been killed by Paiutes, and all of his good stolen. This was a fucking lie! Spitzer and Reinhardt murdered Wolfinger and took his shit. How do we know? Reinhardt confessed on his death bed at Alder Creek.
If you follow my work you may predict that I’m about to launch into a screed about Manifest Destiny and the treatment of Native Americans and you would be correct. It’s not surprising that the settlers blamed the Paiutes, that was kind of de rigueur in those days but also they did kill his cattle. Losing cattle was a big deal, that was their food source and without it, well, we know what happened next. The Donner Party and other emigrants were terrified of running into Native Americans on the trail. They’d been fed a steady diet of stories about bloodthirsty savages that would steal their women and kill their men.
Many of the Donner Party patriarchs, including James Reed, were veterans of the “Blackhawk Wars,” a conflict against the Sauk people in what is now Illinois. The conflict arose when the Sauk, led by their leader Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or “Black Hawk” revolted against an disputed treaty and tried to take their land back from the federal government. It didn’t go well; 400-600 Sauk people were killed. Some were fighters killed in battle, but others died of displacement, disease, or starvation -- including non-combatants. The casualties fell disproportionately on the Sauk; only 70 white militiamen died. This would certainly have affected the way the settlers, especially their leaders, viewed Indians.
Apart from the cattle stealing, however, the settlers didn’t really have much to worry about from the Indian populations in the West. The Party mingled with Native Americans at trading posts along the way, they saw war bands crossing the Plains who just left them the fuck alone, and at the end of the day, several members were saved by the hospitality of the Maidu people in the Sierra foothills.
Luis and Salvador - UGHHHHHH
But Court, that wasn’t dark enough for me! Fear not, gentle reader. The confluence of racism, otherism, and survival is about to take a super fun turn.
Luis and Salvador were Miwok guides who were sent by John Sutter to help guide the settlers through the mountain pass. They were part of the “Forlorn Hope Party” that struck out on foot from Donner Lake to get aid from the nearest settlement.
Some context about John Sutter and the Native people in California is required here: Salvador and Luis didn’t volunteer to risk their lives to go into the Sierras to bring these hapless white people out of the mountains. They were “lent out” by Sutter. Sutter was a Swiss immigrant who ran a plantation style settlement using slave labor. Local Miwok people were conscripted under threat of violence and forced to work his “Fort.” He brutalized them and treated them like animals. They labored without pay. So when Sutter sent them to work as guides, it’s not as if they had a choice.
The Forlorn Hope Party was a stupendously grim situation that was doomed from the outset. Seventeen men and women set out on foot to cross the mountains and get help from Johnson’s Ranch. Only eight of them made it. There was a lot of cannibalism happening here; while there were clearly no other choices, Luis and Salvador were at special risk. When things went from bad to worse, William Foster called a conference with the other white folks and suggested killing the guides for food. William Eddy warned the guides, however, and they escaped overnight.
Eventually the party caught with Luis and Salvador and William Foster pulled out his flintlock pistol and killed them both on sight. He butchered them and carried their remains in his backpack. He carried them with him even as the party received shelter, food, and respite from a local tribe, the Maidu. The Maidu saved the Party’s lives, and they did it all while Foster carried the remains of their Miwok brethren in his fucking backpack.
In his excellent book, “The Indifferent Stars Above,” Daniel James Brown describes the circumstances leading to the murder:
“Why not kill Luis and Salvador for food? While the Miwok boys were at least technically Christians, they remained in the eyes of some of the whites, if not all of them, savages nonetheless -- the same general class of beings many had come to loathe during the Black Hawk War of their youths. Looks at a certain way, they were ignorant, itinerant beggars at best, dangerous cutthroats at worst. Looked at another way, they were simply strangers. When killing to survive, it’s easiest to kill whatever or whomever you are least attached to . . . Luis and Salvador, more than any of the others, were strangers to them all.”
The Miwok were seen as others for a reason: less than human, they were sent as actual property to rescue the Party. To the white settlers, they may as well have oxen on loan. The dehumanizing effect of not only tales of savagery and inferiority, coupled with the inherently racist ideal of Manifest Destiny (THIS LAND IS YOURS! GOD WANTS YOU TO TAKE IT!) was reinforced by the way that Sutter and others treated the Miwok and other nations living in Northern California. They stole their land, enslaved them, and killed them with impunity. William Foster saw the Miwok as animals for a reason. Of course they were the first to be killed and eaten.
The irony of being saved by Native Americans is almost too much at this point. It reads like a polemic about the perils of discrimination. But it’s true! The Maidu took them in, warmed them and fed them. Without that stay in the Maidu village, there’s no way the remaining eight members of the Forlorn Hope would have made it to Johnson’s Ranch (ALSO WORKED BY INDIAN SLAVES BTW). The Maidu people weren’t the only locals to try to help the stranded settlers, either. Anthropologists have recently learned that the Washoe near Alder Creek left food out for the starving whites and even tried to approach to help - only to be shot at by the Donners. Even as they cannibalized their own people, the white settlers were so afraid of the Indians that they attacked them when the Washoe tried to feed them.
The part of the story that will haunt me forever is Foster moving about the Maidu village with the human remains of Luis and Salvador in his backpack. It’s a horrifying physical embodiment of Manifest Destiny. American settlers were like a plague of locusts on the West - consuming everything in their path. Michael Wallis describes it best in The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny:
"The party becomes a microcosm of the United States which, while busily consuming other nations (Mexico and Indian tribes) that stood in the way of westward migration, had the potential to consume itself. This Gothic tale of cannibalism draws a real parallel between individuals consuming flesh and the desire of a country to consume the continent."
Mr. Hardcoop, Baby Foster, and Tamzen Donner
Now it’s time to talk about the most famous villain of the Donner Party, Lewis Keseberg - otherwise known as THE CANNIBAL OF DONNER PASS.
By all accounts, Keseberg was a piece of shit. He was leader of the German Wagon Train Gang that Wolfinger hitched along with. That makes 3 out of the 4 German men murderers, if you’re keeping score. Accounts of Keseberg’s bad behavior abound: he had to be restrained from beating his wife and kids on the trail, he was the first man to suggest hanging Reed for stabbing Snyder, and he abandoned an old man to die on the trail. He’d go on to be accused of even worse shit at Donner Lake.
Keseberg’s trail of destruction starts with Mr. Hardcoop. Hardcoop (like Wolfinger, first name lost to history) was an old man riding with the Germans. As the journey ground on, and the wagons had to be abandoned, the Party were forced to walk. Hardcoop was old, and quickly fell behind. Sometimes he would not reach the camp until the morning, when the rest were packing up to leave. He begged for a ride in a wagon, but there was no space to spare. He was Keseberg’s passenger, and his responsibility. And Keseberg wasn’t having it. Worth noting that it’s not like anyone else stepped up to take the old man, but Keseberg is generally blamed. Eventually Hardcoop fell behind and was abandoned to die.
Is that murder? I don’t know, but given Keseberg’s reputation, it seems like it belongs here. And anyway, that’s just the first death attributed to the man. It doesn’t stop there. Hold on to your bonnets because shit is about to get wild - here comes more cannibalism!
Keseberg was ALSO accused of killing William Foster’s (Yes, that William Foster’s) one year old child at the camp. In between relief parties, Keseberg “had taken one-year-old George Foster into his bed with him. In the morning the boy was dead.” First of all - what? I assume this was to keep the kid warm? This happened in the Murphy cabin, where the Fosters were staying. Keseberg was in a lean-to nearby. The scenario is plausible as an accident, or even a death from starvation or sickness, but Keseberg is described afterward as having HUNG THE BOY UP ON A WALL PEG LIKE A SIDE OF BEEF. The child was later cannibalized by the group. William Foster was a dick who murdered two innocent men but DAMN.
The final, and most horrifying, story about Keseberg involves him and Tamsen Donner. Tamsen and Lewis were both left behind by the early Relief Parties. Tamsen did not want to leave her dying husband, and Keseberg was too weak to travel on foot. When the Fourth Relief Party rolled into Truckee in the Spring, the campsites were a complete fucking horror show and only Keseberg remained alive.
Reason Tucker described the scene as thus: “Death & Destruction. Horrible sight. Human bones. Women’s skulls sawed to get the brains. Better dwell in the midst of alarm than to [remain] in this horrible place.” At the Donner Camp at Alder Creek, they found chunks of flesh laying around and George Donner’s skull split open. His brains were in a pot. A lone set of tracks led out from the site - guess whoooooooo?!
When rescuers arrived at the Lake camp, they found Keseberg alive, “lying among a heap of human remains next to a pan of brains and liver.” Tamsen Donner was nowhere to be found. The rescuers later found out that it was Tamsen that Keseberg was eating. He claimed that she died of natural causes, and he had no choice but to cannibalize her remains, but look at all the shit he got up to before this point!! He beat his wife, built a scaffold before anyone talked about hanging Reed, left an old man to die, hung a dead child up like a piece of meat and then ate him . . . is it really that out of line to suggest that he killed Tamsen so he could eat her?
Then there was the matter of her MONEY. Some of the rescuers had been promised money to bring Tamsen out of the mountains, and her cash and valuables weren’t at the Alder Creek campsite. Keseberg denied knowing about the treasure, but after they searched him they found $225 in gold coins stuffed in his waistband. So, just to recap: she was alive and healthy a week ago, his footprints lead away from her campsite, he’s hidden her money on his person, and HE ALSO CONFESSED TO EATING HER. Case closed, you guys!
The press had a field day with Lewis Keseberg. These stories were (and are, ahem) excellent tabloid fodder. Gossipy accounts in the press claimed that he even said that Tamsen’s liver was the “sweetest bite [he’d] ever tasted,” and he became known as The Cannibal of Donner Pass. Keseberg denied killing Donner, and swore to her children that he had not done it. He lived for many years after the events, but eventually died in poverty.
Was he as bad as the press made him out to be? Who knows! He’s definitely a convenient target for grotesquerie of murder, cannibalism, and racism in this story. He looks like a fucking serial killer in his photo. If he ends up being the folk devil for this series of unfortunate events, I suppose there are worse choices.
Why write 3,000 words about murders on the California-Oregon Trail? Well, this site is about telling stories -- preferably gruesome, spooky shit with a dash of politics and history thrown in. And while you can get analysis on the Donner Party that covers heroism of their survival, the difficulty of their journey, the necessity of cannibalism, did you know that people were murdering each other? Probably not. There is some excellent work out there on how the Donners were the embodiment of Manifest Destiny and harbingers of the shitstorm of the Gold Rush to come, but hearing about how William Foster murdered Indians in cold blood AND THEN CARRIED THEM AROUND IN HIS BACKPACK LIKE BEEF JERKY really drives the point home, doesn’t it?
Buried inside the history and the politics and the horror are some fascinating human stories that help us really understand these ideas. When 86 people crossed the entire continent on foot together, there were bound to be problems. Humans will do what they do. The stories of the killings show the whole range of humanity: anger, frustration, redemption, necessity, exclusion, violence. Even the way the nation responded to the tales of cannibalism by creating a folk monster out of Lewis Keseberg tells us something about how we want a story to understand what happened. And that’s what I'm here for, you guys.
Daniel James Brown
The Last Podcast on the Left: The Donner Party (this is the most entertainment you will ever get about this history)
Ask a Mortician - The Donner Party: What Really Happened? (an excellent YouTube video shot on site!)