Winterkill, 1846


The seven who continued on foot found the climb hard going, even though they were healthy and well fed. Beset by violent rainstorms, fresh snow, and then a blizzard, they would have died if the storms had continued. But they came through it, and crossed over the divide on February 18. When they dropped down to the snowy silence of the lake, they saw nothing but a level plain of snow; no smoke, no sign of life. In the stillness, they wondered if anyone was still alive—until a shout brought a strange, half-human creature clawing its way up out of a hole. Then others appeared. Skinny and white they were, with staring eyes and tiny, lunatic voices. Still others were found under the snow, in their dark, reeking huts: the sick and the dying, who could not move from their beds. The bodies of those who had died since the last storm lay at the top of the ramps, the survivors having had strength to drag them up, but not to bury them.

What had occurred at the camp during the two months since the Forlorn Hope had started for the pass was recorded in the nightmare memories of those who survived and in the diary of Patrick Breen—a spare chronicle of weather and death, of courage, meanness, faith, insanity. The indomitable Mrs. Reed, taking with her her daughter Virginia, Eliza Williams, and a teamster named Milt Elliot, had tried just after New Year’s to get over the pass between storms and had to turn back. “I could get along very well while I thought we were going ahead,” Virginia later recalled, “but as soon as we had to turn back I could hardly walk.” Keseberg’s child had died, and Eddy’s daughter, and a man named Spitzer, and Eddy’s wife, and Milt Elliot. Keseberg had stayed in bed, hoarding valuables that were not his. Eliza Williams’ mind had dimmed; she was an infant now.

At Alder Creek, George Donner lay dying, and Tamsen would not leave his side to go with the relief party. She had come with her husband this far, had followed him despite his stubborn insistence on taking Hastings’ word when all wisdom went against it. She would not abandon him now, nor would Jacob’s wife Elizabeth leave her youngest children or the body of her husband. The rescuers chose the four strongest of the Donner children, and the women dressed them in the good heavy clothes that had been packed the previous spring on the Sangamon. The others would have to wait for the next relief party, which was expected in a few days.

Twenty-three started out with the First Relief, including all of the Reeds. But Tommy and his eight-year-old sister Patty had to be sent back. They were too weak, too slow; they were endangering the whole party. “Well, Mother,” Patty said, “if you never see me again, do the best you can.”

James Reed, leading the Second Relief up the western slopes, met his wife and two children coming down. On March i he arrived at the lake camp, where he found his Tommy and Patty still alive. But Reed had come too late to spare the survivors the final horror. Bones were scattered about, tufts of human hair, half-consumed limbs. Reed recognized the bearded head of his friend Jacob Donner lying in the snow, the skull opened. Inside the Donner hut, he found Jacob’s remaining children devouring the half-roasted heart and liver of their father. Elizabeth was dying. She would not eat the food she had prepared for her children. Reed led her and the children and fourteen others back down the mountain.

Eddy and Foster, who had fought viciously in the snow two months before, led the Third Relief over the divide in March. They discovered that their sons had died, and heard the now deranged Keseberg tell them he had eaten the two boys. George Donner, they found, was somehow still alive. Tamsen wrapped her three remaining children in warm clothes and bade them good-bye. Her body had stood her well; she was still in good strength. She would stay to care for her husband and to close his eyes when he died. Foster’s mother-in-law, aged and dying, would have to stay; she was too far gone to travel. So, it seemed, was Keseberg.

It was the end of April before the last survivor was brought down from the mountains. The final party of rescuers found only carnage at Donner Lake and Donner Creek (as the campsites were soon being called)—carnage and the demented Keseberg. He was lying down, one of the rescuers remembered, “amidst the human bones, and beside him a large pan full of fresh liver and lights.” At the creek, the relief party had found a kettle full of pieces of the body of George Donner. Nearby, on a chair, were ox legs which had been perfectly preserved in the now melting snow but which had not been eaten. Why, they asked Keseberg, had he not used the meat of the bullock instead of human flesh? “Oh! it’s too dry eating!” he’d answered.

And what of Tamsen, who had been in such good health just three weeks before? The party could find no trace of her body, but they believed that Keseberg had killed her. He denied it for the rest of his life. After George Donner died, Keseberg maintained, she had come to the lake in delirium. Keseberg said he had warmed her and put her to bed, and the next morning had found her dead. But he also told the rescuers that “he ate her body and found her flesh the best he had ever tasted. He further stated that he obtained from her body at least four pounds of fat.”