Survivors in History The Donner Party Part 2

About the infamous survivors of the Donner party, history of the snowbound pioneers who were forced into cannibalism.



After 33 days, seven of the "forlorn hope" walked into an Indian camp. (Stanton had died on the sixth day out.) The Indians did what they could to ease their hunger and accompanied the group to Sutter's Fort. John Sutter immediately organized a rescue party. When news of the stranded party's plight reached the California Star, it spearheaded a drive to get more rescuers into the tragic camp. It took four rescue parties to bring out all of the survivors. The camp the rescuers found was horrible. The survivors were walking skeletons with sunken eyes. The dead bodies were missing limbs, organs, and brains. The bones of the livestock had been cooked into powder and eaten. Hides had been removed from cabin roofs and cooked into a kind of glue, which formed their staple diet for many weeks.

One survivor, Lewis Keseberg, was found in a small cabin surrounded by cannibalized bodies. One account described his "lair" as "containing buckets of blood, about a gallon, and parts of human flesh strewn all around."

After the rescue, Keseberg was charged with six murders, the robbery of George Donner's gold, and cannibalizing dozens of bodies. He denied all wrongdoing but did admit to cannibalism. Keseberg described the conditions: "Five of my companions had died in my cabin, and their stark and ghastly bodies lay there day and night, seemingly gazing at me with their glazed and staring eyes. I was too weak to move them had I tried. The relief parties had not removed them. These parties had been too hurried, too horror-stricken at the sight, too fearful lest an hour's delay might cause them to share the same fate. I endured a thousand deaths...." Later he stated: "I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse. It makes my blood curdle to think of it. It has been told that I boasted my shame--said that I enjoyed this horrid food, and that I remarked that human flesh was more palatable than California beef. This is a falsehood. It is a horrible, revolting falsehood. This food was never otherwise than loathsome, insipid, and disgusting."

Keseberg was acquitted by the court but remained forever guilty in the eyes of the public. For the remainder of his unhappy life, children shouted, "Stone him! Stone him!" as he passed. Knowledgeable people had more sympathy for Keseberg than for the guide Hastings, whose inept leadership had led so many emigrants into danger.

Of the 90 original members of the Donner party, only 48 survived.

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