The History of the Donner Party was the first complete history of the Donner Party. C.F. McGlashan interviewed participants, read newspaper articles, consulted diaries, and did archeological work at the sites. His report contrasts greatly with other 19th Century reports of which two are below, reporting on the rescue parties arriving at Donner Lake and finding Louis Keseburg, the only survivor.
This first comes from 10,000 Miles by Land and Sea by Rev. W.W. Ross in 1876. Mr. Ross wrote this travelogue about travels he took in 1874. In this excerpt he has come to Donner Lake. See how he describes Louis Keseburg of the Donner Party; this only three years before McGlashan’s true account in The History of the Donner Party.
But this lovely lake will be longest remembered, it maybe, not from its pleasure ·parties and summer songs, but from the dreadful fate of the Donners, after whom it is named. A party of emigrants from Illinois undertook to cross the mountains late in the fall of 1846. Their guide, an old trapper familiar with the terrible snow storms, hurried them forward. The majority pressed on and passed safely over ; but Donner himself, driving a lot of cattle, and kept in company by a party of sixteen, made no haste. Anticipating no danger, he disregarded all warnings, and quietly encamped on the shores of. the lake. In the night the storm burst upon them with the fury of loosened demons. The hurricane howled and raged among the pines, whilst the snow fell fast and thick. At last the morning broke, but brought no abatement of the storm. [M]ost of the cattle and horses had broken from their fastenings and fled… Donner is unable or unwilling to move till the storm stops, and his devoted wife refuses to go and leave him behind. A German resolves to remain with them. The rest, placing the four children of the Donners on horses, start for the other side of the mountains; after many days of toil and peril, they succeed in reaching the valley in safety.
The storm continues for weeks with scarcely any cessation. For the imprisoned to get out or deliverers to get in is impossible. No power but a spring sun can ever open a way of .escape. In the early spring, as soon as there is any hope of succeeding, a party starts to their assistance. After weeks of labor and suffering, they succeed in reaching the camp ; but what a sight meets their horrified gaze ! Before the fire sits a solitary man tearing the flesh from a roasted arm: It ·is the German, and he is raving mad. At the sound of steps he springs to his feet, confronting them with a terrified look, and clutching, like a beast of prey, the remains of his repast. They spring upon him, wrench away the food, and pinion down his arms. The remains of the Donners are found and buried. The German recovered his reason, and declared his innocency ; but whether the Donners died a natural death, or were murdered by the madman, may remain a mystery
until the "Judge of all the earth shall make known."
From the Great Trans-continental Railroad Guide 1870, page 161
To show just how hard our research department works, it followed up on the story above, wondering where the good reverent, above, got his facts. He was traveling across the country by train. in 1874. Perhaps he had a guidebook? Here is an excerpt from a transcontinental railroad guide, dated 1870. People had a lot of fun entertaining the public apparently. To set the stage for this excerpt, it comes from the section the traveler would be reading as the train went up the Sierra past Donner Lake. Here the story of Donner Party is being related. The rescue party has crossed the Sierra and is approaching Donner Lake,
“After a desperate effort, which required weeks of toil and exposure, the party, succeeded in scaling the mountains and reaching Donner Lake. They came to the camp of the Donners, and, pushing open the rude door, entered. What a sigh met the first glance which pierced the semi-darkness of the cabin! There – before the fire – sat the Dutchman, holding, in ha vice-like grasp, a roasted arm and hand, which he was greedily eating. With a wild and frightened look he sprang to his feet and confronted the new-comers, holding on to the arm as though he feared they would deprive him of his repast. the disgusting, horrid sight almost overpowered these brave, rude men, used to scenes of blood and strife. The remains of the arm were taken from him by main force, and the cannibal secured for the time, while an examination disclosed a portion of the remains of the unfortunate lady from whence the art had been severed, frozen in the snow, but was as in possession of perfect health when she met her fate. “
The writer then went on to say the Donners were given a burial and the rescue party returned to the Central Valley. Keseburg related his story saying that Mr. Donner had died of sickness and the cattle has escaped. With little food and being exhausted, Mrs. Donner died. The evidence the author asserted, said something different. Mrs. Donner’s body was “stout and healthy” and was in as good shape as Keseburg. Her remains showed she had not died of illness. That left only one answer: “Suspicion, too horrible for utterance….”