The Donner Party by Daniel Lewis
Forensics II


The Year of 1846
The Story: Part I
Part II: The Journey
Part III: Snowbound
Part IV: Eating of the Dead
Epilogue: Journey's End
General Roster
Names for Research
Route of the Donner Party
Forensics of the Donner Party
Forensics II
The Donner Party and Native Americans
Religion of the Donner Party
Links and Sources
Contact Me

After rescue, people tried to assign blame of members of the Donner Party for virtually all problems encountered. Several survivors were blamed for the deaths of others, sometimes suggesting murder. But what really happened? Here I've examined the deaths of some who have died rather ambiguously.

MR. WOLFINGER, a German emigrant travelling witht the Donner Party. At the Sink of the Humboldt River, near present Reno, Nevada, the Donner Party antagonized a local tribe of Paiute Indians, and the Indians retaliated, killed many of the party's oxen. Mr Wolfinger, a somewhat wealthy young man from Germany, was one of the most afflicted, and according to Patrick Breen's journal, the Indians killed, "the whole of Wolfinger's [oxen,] except one. Wolfinger wished to cache his goods at the sink, but the party refused to wait [for him]... [Reinhardt] and Spitzer, who were travelling with him, remained behind to assist him."

Reinhardt and Spitzer were fellow Germans. Lewis Keseberg, another german remained as well. Since Wolfinger had no oxen to pull his wagon, he was remaining behind to cache, or bury, his supplies and property. Later, Keseberg caught up to group, and said the others would be along shortly. When Reinhardt and Spitzer caught up to the group without Wolfinger, they claimed that the Paiute had killed Wolfinger, and stolen his goods.

There are two problems with this story. One is that the three germans had secretly taken some of Wolfinger's property. They said the Indians took Mr. Wolfinger's goods. The second problem is that Augustus Spitzer later confessed to the murder of Wolfinger on his deathbed in the winter. (Allegedly.) The Indians were very angry at the time, could have killed Wolfinger, but it might seem less likely. However, the confession Spitzer made was only heard be several, and could have been a lie, though Mrs. Wolfinger herself supposedly heard it.

PATRICK DOOLAN, aged 35. It has been said that when lots were cast to see who among the Forlorn Hope to see who should die to feed the others, Patrick Doolan lost, but no one had the heart to kill him. He died... "bout 10 o'clock, a.m., of the 26th [December, 1846] when... [he] becoming deranged, broke away from them, and getting out into the snow, it was with great difficulty that Mr. Eddy again him under. They held him there by force until about 4 o'clock, p.m., when he quietly and silently sunk into the arms of death." -- J. Quinn Thornton

While it not most likely he was murdered, and he possibly was deranged at the time of death, his killers would have faced trial, and probably death. No one among the Forlorn Hope would have likely wanted to risk being charged of murder (the penalty being hanging) by confessing his killing.

LUIS, aged 19; and SALVADORE, aged 29. Miwok Indians, working for Johann Sutter. Died, for certain in early January with the Forlorn Hope, probably on the 9th. However, while some accounts state that the two died from frostbite/starvation, some recalled a different story...

"The morning of Jan. 8th (9th) they (Wm. Eddy, Mr./Mrs. Foster., Mary Graves and Mrs McCutchen, Pike and Fosdick) resumed their journey from the "Camp of Strife" order being re-established. They had not proceeded above two miles, when they came upon the Indians, lying upon the ground, in a totally helpless condition. They had been without food for eight or nine days, and had been four days without fire. They could not,probably, have lived for more than two or three hours; nevertheless, Eddy remonstarted against their being killed. Foster affirmed that he was compelled to do it. Eddy refused to see the dead consummated, and went on about two hundred yards, and halted. Lewis was told he must die and was shot through the head. Salvadore was dispatched in the same manner immeadiatly after. Mr. Eddy did not see who fired the gun. The flesh was then cut from their bones and dried." -- J. Quinn Thornton

Now, the historian who recorded this was informed by Wm. Eddy, who, like all Donner Party survivors, embellished their personal influence in the story. We do know he was highly opposed to the idea of cannibalism, and for the most part did not eat the remains of others. However, while all of the records of the Indians' murder that name the murderer say Wm. Foster killed them, it has been established Mr. Foster (like many at the time) was deranged, which was likely true. What's more, Foster would not have faced charges for his actions, due to Indians had no rights and were not protected by law, and furthermore were dispized by many. This raises the question, if the Forlorn Hope was so quiet about the Indian murders, (and other issues) what else might they have been ambiguous about?

GEORGE and TAMZENE DONNER, a farmer and wife. Dying from an arm infection, the rescue parties left George behind at Alder Creek, alone and helpless. Later his wife returned to comfort him in his last hours.

Since no one who survived saw George Donner in his last hours, we don't know what truly happened to him. He died at Alder Creek, around March 30th, and if it was from any other cause than his arm infection, it would have mattered little, because he wouldn't have lived much longer anyway.

Tamzene became a little unstable at this point. She supposedly resolved to journey over the mountains of foot, to help her children. Realizing that her entire family, (including her brother-in-law's) would be orphaned and destitute without her was probably a very motivating factor to struggle to survive.

At this point in time, only Mr. and Mrs. Donner were left in the area, save Samuel Donner, (their nephew) Lavinah Murphy, and Lewis Keseberg. Mrs. Murphy and Samuel had died around the same time as George Donner.

Tamzene came upon Lewis Keseberg at some point. Keseberg described her, saying she was very mentally excited, but physically exhausted and was soaked, probably from falling in a stream. She certainly would have been in a terrible state at this point. Her clothes worn to rags, and starved to point of possible death, she had trekked about seven miles in the mountains, where the snow was at about 20 feet deep. She would have been exhausted. However, when she got wet was most likely her greatest downfall. Her clothes were frozen like sheets of ice, and she shivered and shook from the cold. She of course caught a fever, and supposedly slept at Keseberg's cabin, dying during the night. The last thing she supposedly spoke of was that she would rest but a night, and then journey to see her children, or die trying.

Keseberg was blamed for murdering her. Keseberg did cannibalize her, but no actual proof can back up the claims that Keseberg murdered her. Nevertheless, murder certainly is possible. Mrs. Donner did tell Keseberg of her large sum of money, and Keseberg needed food to eat. Keseberg also has been implicated in another fishy death- that of Mr. Wolfinger. Whether she was murdered is only debatable now; it is just as likely she wasn't, and current technology is not at a level where her virtualy non-existant remains can be analyzed for more information.

Tamzene Donner did die at Lewis Keseberg's cabin, whatever happened, and she was discovered mutilated, almost to a degree that she was unrecognizable. Whatever happened to the last to die at Donner Lake will perhaps always be a mystery, though the grisly thoughts of what may have happened do, at least, give the story a touch of imagination and the macabre, though I think the story is dramatic enough as it is.