Lewis Keseberg’s life full of misfortune after Donner Party

Philippine Keseberg gravesite. Lewis’ marker was never found. | Mark McLaughlin collection

When Lewis Keseberg reached Sutter’s Fort (Sacramento), his relieved wife Philippine was there to greet him. They consoled themselves with tears over the deaths of their two beloved children in the snow-covered Sierra mountains and determined to build a new life and family in California. Unfortunately for Keseberg, those dark days at Donner Lake continued to haunt him.

On June 5, 1847, the California Star newspaper in San Francisco published extracts from Capt. Thomas Fallon’s journal, a recount of his experiences leading the final relief party sent to salvage the abandoned possession of the star-crossed Donner Party.

Capt. Fallon’s lurid hyperbole doomed Keseberg for life: “[He] was found in truly a lamentable situation; a long subsistence upon the bodies of his deceased comrades had rendered him haggard and ferocious-looking, and the unsatiable appetite of the cannibal displayed itself on frequent occasions, even after animal meat had been placed before him. This fondness for human flesh he had suffered himself to acquire in preference to beef or horse meat of which he had an abundance.” The newspaper also published more unsubstantiated blood-curdling accounts of Keseberg’s alleged crimes.

In April 1847, after weeks of isolation and the ordeal of spending that brutal winter at Donner Lake, Keseberg was psychotic and delirious. Fallon and his men searched Lewis’ cabin and found silks and jewelry taken from the Donner Camp at Alder Creek, some 5 miles away. They also discovered two pistols owned by George Donner and about $500 in gold coins. Keseberg told Fallon that after Donner died his widow Tamsen arrived at the lake campsite. She gave the gold to Keseberg with the promise that when he reached safety, he would give the money to her rescued children now in California. Tamsen died shortly after and Keseberg admitted to consuming her body.

“I have been born under an evil star! Fate, misfortune, bad luck, compelled me to remain at Donner Lake. If God would decree that I should again pass through such an ordeal, I could not do otherwise than I did. Yet that camp has been the one burden of my life.”     –Lewis Keseberg

Edward “Ned” Coffeemeyer, a French sailor on leave in California, was a member of the First and Fourth Relief parties who witnessed firsthand the horrors of mutilated corpses at the encampments. Coffeemeyer spread rumors that Keseberg had murdered Tamsen Donner, as well as Jacob Wolfinger whom he had left behind in the Utah desert. Other stories insinuated that the German immigrant had even suffocated children for food.

After his rescue and subsequent arrival at Sutter’s Fort on April 29, 1847, Keseberg was ostracized for cannibalism and other misdeeds. When he walked outside, children would torment him and throw rocks. Adults crossed the street to avoid him.

Sutter befriends Keseberg
Swiss émigré Capt. John Sutter, who had established his namesake fort after acquiring a generous land grant from the Mexican government in 1839, befriended Keseberg. No surprise given that both men were German-speaking Europeans. In early May, Sutter encouraged Keseberg to sue Ned Coffeemeyer for defamation of character in court. The litigation requested $1,000 in damages. After a week reviewing evidence and hearing reluctant testimony by survivors, the jury ruled that Keseberg had indeed been slandered.

But instead of the $1,000 penalty, Alcalde John Sinclair awarded Keseberg just $1. Even the highest court in California could not reward a man-eater. For the rest of his life, Keseberg would be vilified as a heinous criminal and called the “cannibal at Donner Lake.”

Read Part I & more stories about the Donner Party at TheTahoeWeekly.com

In 1847, Sutter hired Keseberg to captain his schooner that plied the Sacramento River and transported passengers and supplies from San Francisco through the delta to Sutter’s Fort. Keseberg was an intelligent and well-educated man, but he had a violent temper. His occasional outbursts and grisly reputation unsettled the crew and travelers that in 1848 Sutter removed him from the position.

Bad luck follows Keseberg
During the Gold Rush, Keseberg and Philippine opened a commercial boarding house. Business was good as tens of thousands of 49ers arrived needing a place to stay before they left for the mining districts. In 1851, they sold it and bought the Lady Adams Hotel in Sacramento, giving rise to the dark-humored story that a cannibal was running the restaurant.

On Nov. 1,1852, the couple auctioned off their hotel for a large sum of money. The deeds were signed, and funds were to be paid the following day. Unfortunately, the fire of 1852 sparked that night and destroyed most of Sacramento’s structures, including the hotel. The purchaser was also financially ruined, so the vexed pair were left with nothing to collect and were forced to start over again.

Keseberg’s next venture was the aptly named Phoenix Brewery built out of the charred ruins of the future capital city. (When the Keseberg family had first immigrated to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1844, some evidence suggests that Lewis worked as a brewer or distiller there.) The Keseberg’s lived in a small shack behind the Phoenix Brewery.

In late 1861 Keseberg was in the process of selling the business for $50,000, but the curse was still on him. The sale was finalized but no money was exchanged when the Great Flood of 1861-62 inundated Sacramento and destroyed the brewery along with nearly everything else. Once again, the Kesebergs lost their hard-earned assets.

McGlashan pens book
The real story of the Donner Party was revealed only reluctantly. When word spread in the 1870s that Truckee historian Charles McGlashan was writing a book on the tragic event, some families were relieved, but others were troubled about what may be revealed.

Tamsen Donner’s daughter Elitha sued and acquired a legal restraining order against publication. Through many notes and letters explaining his desire to write a truthful, balanced history, McGlashan assuaged the concerns of those involved. McGlashan found Lewis Keseberg in 1879.

Keseberg lamented to McGlashan: “I have been born under an evil star! Fate, misfortune, bad luck, compelled me to remain at Donner Lake. If God would decree that I should again pass through such an ordeal, I could not do otherwise than I did. Yet that camp has been the one burden of my life. Where I have gone, people have cried, ‘Stone him! Stone him! Even the little children in the streets have mocked me and thrown stones at me as I passed. Only a man conscious of his innocence and clear in the sight of God, would not have succumbed to the terrible things which have been said of me—would not have committed suicide. I often think that the Almighty has singled me out, among all the men on the face of the earth, in order to see how much hardship, suffering, and misery a human being can bear!”

Before her death in 1877, Philippine gave birth to eight more children in California, all girls. Several were mentally disabled, six died young. Only two outlived Keseberg, who died in 1895 at age 81, destitute and forgotten. Only his tragic memory lives on.