Donner Party Tracker: Last Chapter - April 17, 1847
One hundred and sixty-plus years ago this week, the saga of the Donner Party was just about over. After the middle of March, the third rescue effort had returned to Johnson's Ranch near Sutter's Fort with a group of survivors. Only five pioneers were still alive back in the mountains, and three of them were expected to die there.
Heaven on Earth
When the emaciated emigrants with the third rescue party reached Johnson's Ranch, the pleasant weather and green countryside seemed like a new world. John Breen later recalled their arrival:
"It was long after dark when we got in the valley at Johnson's Ranch, so that the first time I saw it was early in the morning. The weather was fine, the ground was covered with grass, and there was a very fat beef hanging from the limb of an oak tree."
The Sacramento Valley was lush with spring vegetation, but in the upper elevations of the Sierra, winter conditions still prevailed with a snow pack 20 feet deep.
Fourth Rescue Party Delayed
By this time in 1847, a fourth and final relief party was equipped and ready to climb into the mountains to rescue the last of the trapped emigrants. But on March 21 the extended spell of fair weather ended as the first of several cold storms rolled into Northern California. Heavy snow fell in the high country.
The men in the fourth rescue party were still willing to go, but Naval Officer Woodworth withdrew his logistical support. He said that instead of backing another rescue operation, he and his men would focus on evacuating the rescued emigrants out of Bear Valley and Johnson's Ranch and escorting them the forty miles down to Sutter's Fort for medical attention. As a result, no more rescuers from California would enter the snow country for another month. The long delay spelled the end for Tamsen Donner and the others; only Louis Keseberg would survive.
In the middle of April, the fourth relief tramped into the mountains expecting to find Tamsen Donner and Louis Keseberg still alive. The effort was primarily a salvage operation, more focused on recovering material possessions for the survivors already at Sutter's Fort and the rescuers themselves than an effort to save the last of the emigrants.
The rescuers had made a deal with the survivors at the Fort wherein half of the money and property the fourth relief recovered at Alder Creek would go to the estates of George and Jacob Donner, the other half to the rescuers. Since the rescuers only expected to find one or two people alive, the men carried minimal food provisions.
The fourth relief, led by mountain man William O. Fallon, reached the Donner Lake campsite on April 17, but Louis Keseberg was not there. Finding no survivors, the men headed for the Alder Creek campsite. They found George Donner's body, but his wife, Tamsen, was nowhere to be found. (She had refused offers by earlier relief teams to hike out to safety with them.)
The men spent two days gathering up the most valuable property they could, but they did not locate George and Tamsen Donner's $10,000 in cash.
When the men returned to the cabins at Donner Lake, they found Keseberg and immediately interrogated him about Tamsen's whereabouts and the Donner money. Psychotic and delirious, Keseberg admitted consuming Tamsen Donner's body, but he said that he had neither killed her nor stolen the family's money.
On April 21 the fourth relief left the mountains with their booty; Keseberg followed as best he could. Upon their arrival at Sutter's Fort, several of the men spread lurid tales about what they suspected happened at Donner Lake. With no legal proof, they accused Keseberg of theft, cold-blooded murder, rampant cannibalism and other atrocities.
In May, Keseberg sued William Fallon, leader of the fourth relief, for defamation of character. A jury ruled in Keseberg's favor, but instead of $1,000 sought by Keseberg, he was awarded only one dollar.
Editor's Note: This installment is #39 in an exclusive, weekly series tracing the actual experiences of the Donner Party as it worked its way into American history. Mark McLaughlin, a weather historian and photographer, who lives on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, wrote the series. Copies of all the installments can be found by clicking on Donner Party.