April, 1847

The Fourth Relief left Johnson’s Ranch and reached the Lake, where they found the last survivor, Lewis Keseberg, and brought him in.

Map of Relief route from Donner Lake to Johnson’s Ranch

The Diary entries below are purportedly from a journal written by the leader of the Fourth Relief, William Fallon. Fallon, known as Le Gros or Big, had been trapping in the Rockies since 1826. Fur trading records list his name as Fallon, Fellun and O’Fallon, but he wrote his name as Fallon. His journal of the Fourth Relief was first published in the California Star on June 5, 1847, with the following introduction:

Extracts from a Journal written by a member of the party latest from the California mountains. The extracts which we give below are full of thrilling interest. Mr. Fellun, the writer, better known as Capt. Fellun, set out from the settlements in April last with six others, to extend relief to the remaining sufferers of the emigration, still within the mountains, and also to collect and secure the scattered property of both living and dead. ...

We commend the diary as being a plain though well written document, and we have published it in the writer’s own language, abating nothing from it in point of interest. Mr. Fellun certainly deserves credit for his management of the affair, as it will be seen that he effected the desirable end.

Contrary to the introduction, Fallon set out primarily to salvage the property of the Donners, of which his Party was to receive half in accordance with an agreement with John Sinclair, Alcalde of the Sacramento District.

The journal has never been found, and probably never existed. Prof. King suggests that the Journal could not have been written by Fallon, who was a rough mountain man. King suggests that the Star article was written by George McKinstry, the Sheriff at Sutter’s Fort. On March 5, McKinstry had written a letter to the Star which contained, according to McKinstry, extracts of Aquila Glover’s journal of the First Relief. In fact, it appears to be a poor transcription of Ritchie and Tucker’s journal, perhaps based on John Sinclair’s copy of the Ritchie/Tucker journal.

Thursday, April 1, 1847

On April 3, 1847, the California Star, San Francisco, published a letter from Lt. S.E. Woodworth:

To the Editor of the Star.
San Francisco, April 1st. 1847.
Sir.- I have but this moment arrived in Capt. Sutter’s launch from Fort Sacramento, ... I have hastened down here, with some of the sufferers that required immediate attendance. Among them are two of my men, Henry Dann and Charles Cady, with feet badly frozen. I have brought Mary Donner and her brother down that they may obtain medical aid; the spanish boy John Baptiste and Howard Oakley came down with them as nurses. ....

Saturday, April 10, 1847

Among the papers donated by the Reed estate to the Sutter’s Fort Museum:

Magistrates Office,
Sacramento, District
Territory of California

Know all men by these presents that it is mutually agreed by John Sinclair on the one part acting in behalf of the Heirs of Jacob Donner deceased and by the undersigned on the other part that they shall proceed to the Cabins in the California mountains where the property of said Jacob Donner deceased now is and if the property still remains there that they shall bring away all or as much of said property as they possibly can the property so brought away to be delivered into the hands of said John Sinclair when an equal division of said property shall be made the undersigned receiving one half of said property for their services. It is likewise understood and agreed that should George Donner and Wife be dead they shall likewise bring all of their property for the benefit of their Heirs on the same terms as is agreed upon relative to the property of the late Jacob Donner. And should their be any property which they cannot bring away belonging to the Estates of the above named persons that they shall Cash it as secretly and securely as circumstances will admit of. It is likewise understood that should there be any money either in Gold or Silver that the undersigned shall receive one half the same as any other description of Property which they may find belonging to the Estates of the Persons within mentioned.

On their arrival at the Cabins should they find George Donner or Wife alive they the undersigned can then and there make any arrangements with both or either of them that will be satisfactory to all concerned taking care that whatever arrangements is entered into that it be drawn up in writing and a copy of said agreement brought in and delivered to John Sinclair in case of any accident happening to either of the parties after the date of the agreement.

William Fallon
John X Rhoades
Joseph Sel

Signed in my presence this tenth day of April A.D. 1847
John Sinclair
Justice of the Peace

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, The Cailfornia Star published an account that has shaped much of the public perception of the Donner Party until this day.

A more shocking scene cannot be imagined, than that witnessed by the party of men who went to the relief of the unfortunate emigrants in the California Mountains. The bones of those who had died and been devoured by the miserable ones that still survived were lying around their tents and cabins. Bodies of men, women and children, with half the flesh torn from them, lay on every side. A woman sat by the body of her husband, who had just died, eating out his tongue; the heart she had already taken out, broiled, and eat! The daughter was seen eating the flesh of the father--the mother that of her children--children that of father and mother. The emaciated, wild, and ghastly appearance of the survivors, added to the horror of the scene. Language cannot describe the awful change that a few weeks of dire suffering had wrought in the minds of these wretched and pitiable beings. Those who but one month before would have shuddered and sickened at the thought of eating human flesh, or of killing their companions and relatives to preserve their own lives, now looked upon the opportunity by these acts afforded them of escaping the most dreadful of deaths, as a providential interference in their behalf.--Calculations were coldly made, as they sat gloomily around their gloomy camp fires, for the next and succeeding meals. Various expedients were devised to prevent the dreadful crime of murder, but they finally resolved to kill those who had the least claims to longer existence. Just at this moment, however, as if by Divine interpolation, some of them died, which afforded the rest temporary relief. Some sunk into the arms of death cursing God for their miserable fate, while the last whisperings of others were prayers and songs of praise to the Almighty.

After the first few deaths, but the one all absorbing thought of individual self-preservation prevailed. The fountains of natural affection were dried up. The cords that once vibrated with connubial, parental and filial affection were rent asunder, and each one seemed resolved without regard to the fate of others to escape from the impending calamity. Even the wild hostile mountain Indians, who once visited their camps, pitied them, and instead of pursuing the natural impulse of their hostile feelings to whites, and destroying them as they could easily have done, divided their own scanty supply of food with them.

So changed had the emigrants become that when the party sent out, arrived with food, some of them cast it aside and seemed to prefer the putrid human flesh that still remained. The day before the party arrived, one of the emigrants took a child of about four years of age in bed with him, and devoured the whole before morning; and the next day eat another about the same age before noon.

It is thought that several more of these unfortunate people might have been saved, but for their determination not to leave their property. Some of them who started in, loaded themselves with their money and other effects to such an extent, that they sunk under them and died on the road. According to the best accounts, forty-three died from starvation. They were principally from the neighborhood of Independence, Missouri.

Many of the lurid facts in the article have been repeated many times since 1847 but they were not true or were wildly exaggerated:

Tuesday, April 13, 1847

Fallon’s Journal of the Fourth Relief: Left Johnson’s on the evening of April 13th, ...

Thursday, April 15, 1847

Fallon’s Journal of the Fourth Relief: and arrived at the lower end of the Bear Valley on 15th. Hung our saddles upon the trees, and sent the horses back, to be returned again in ten days, to bring us in again. Started on foot, with provisions for ten days, and traveled to the head of the valley and camped for the night snow from 2 to 3 feet deep.

Friday, April 16, 1847

Fallon’s Journal of the Fourth Relief: 15th. Started early in the morning and traveled 23 miles, snow 10 feet deep. [This entry is probably for the 16th. 23 miles would have brought the Party from Bear Valley to the cabins at Donner Lake, so this mileage may be for the 16th and 17th. The camp of the 16th was probably along the Yuba River near present Kingvale.]

In 1879, Keseberg gave a statement to C.F. McGlashan:

Oh! the days and weeks of horror which I passed in that camp! I had no hope of being rescued, until I saw the green grass coming up by the spring on the hillside, and the wild geese coming to nibble it. The birds were coming back to their breeding grounds, and I felt that I could kill them for food. I also had plenty of tobacco and a good meerschaum pipe, and almost the only solace I enjoyed was smoking. In my weak condition it took me two or three hours every day to get sufficient wood to keep my fire going.

Some time after Mrs. Donner’s death, I thought I had gained sufficient strength to redeem the pledge I had made to her before her death. I started to go to the camps at Alder Creek to get the money. I had a very difficult journey. The wagons of the Donners were loaded with tobacco, powder, caps, shoes, school-books, and dry-goods. This stock was very valuable, and had it reached California would have been a fortune to the Donners. I searched carefully among the bales and bundles of goods, and found five hundred and thirty-one dollars. Part of this sum was silver, part gold. The silver I buried at the foot of a pine tree, a little way from the camp. One of the lower branches of another tree reached down close to the ground, and appeared to point to the spot. I put the gold in my pocket, and started to return to my cabin. I had spent one night at the Donner tents.

Saturday, April 17, 1847

Fallon’s Journal of the Fourth Relief:

April 17th. Reached the Cabins between 12 and 1 o’clock. Expected to find some of the sufferers alive, Mrs. Donner and Kiesburg in particular. Entered the cabins and a horrible scene presented itself,--human bodies terribly mutilated, legs, arms, and sculls scattered in every direction. One body, supposed to be that of Mrs. Eddy, lay near the entrance, the limbs severed off and a frightful gash in the scull. The flesh from the bones was nearly consumed and a painful stillness pervaded the place. The supposition was that all were dead, when a sudden shout revived our hopes, and we flew in the direction of the sound, three Indians were hitherto concealed, started from the ground and fled at our approach, leaving behind their bows and arrows. We delayed two hours in searching the cabins, during which we were obliged to witness sights from which we would have fain turned away, and which are too dreadful to put on record.--We next started for Donner’s camp 8 miles distant over the mountains. After traveling about half way, we came upon a track in the snow, which excited our suspicion, and we determined to pursue it. It brought us to the camp of Jacob Donner, where it had evidently left that morning. There we found property of every description, books, calicoes, tea, coffee, shoes, percussion caps, household and kitchen furniture scattered in every direction, and mostly in the water. At the mouth of the tent stood a large iron kettle filled with human flesh cut up, it was the body of Geo. Donner, the head had been split open, and the brains extracted thereform, and to the appearance, he had not been long dead, and over three or four days at the most. Near by the kettle stood a chair, and thereupon three legs of a bullock that had been shot down in the early part of the winter, and snowed under before it could be dressed. The meat was found sound and good, and with the exception of a small piece out of the shoulder, wholly untouched. We gathered up some property and camped for the night.

In 1879, Keseberg gave a statement to C.F. McGlashan:

On my return I became lost. When it was nearly dark, in crossing a little flat, the snow suddenly gave way under my feet, and I sank down almost to my armpits. By means of the crust on top of the snow, I kept myself suspended by throwing out my arms. A stream of water flowed underneath the place over which I had been walking, and the snow had melted on the underside until it was not strong enough to support my weight. I could not touch bottom with my feet, and so could form no idea of the depth of the stream. By long a careful exertion I managed to draw myself backward and up on the snow. I then went around on the hillside, and continued my journey. At last, just at dark, completely exhausted and almost dead, I came in sight of the Graves cabin. I shall never forget my joy at the sight of that log-cabin. I felt I was no longer lost, and would at least have shelter. Some time after dark I reached my own cabin. My clothes were wet by getting in the creek, and the night was so cold that my garments were frozen into sheets of ice. I was so weary, and chilled, and numbed, that I did not build up a fire, or attempt to get anything to eat, but lay there shivering with cold; and when I finally slept, I slept very soundly.

Sunday, April 18, 1847

Fallon’s Journal of the Fourth Relief: April 18. Commenced gathering the most valuable property, suitable for our packs, the greater portion requiring to be dried. We then made them up and camped for the night.

In 1879, Keseberg gave a statement to C.F. McGlashan:

I did not wake up until quite late in the next morning. To my utter astonishment my camp was in the most inexplicable confusion. My trunks were broken open, and their contents were scattered everywhere. Everything about the cabin was torn up and thrown about the floor. My wife’s jewelry, my cloak, my pistol and ammunition were missing. I supposed Indians had robbed my camp during my absence.

Monday, April 19, 1847

Fallon’s Journal of the Fourth Relief:

April 19. This morning Foster, Rhodes, and J. Foster started with small packs for the first cabins intending from thence to follow the trail of the person that had left the morning previous. The other three remained behind to cache and secure the goods necessarily left there. Knowing the Donners had a considerable sum of money, we searched diligently but were unsuccessful. The party for the cabins were unable to keep the trail of the mysterious personage owing to the rapid melting of the snow, they therefore went direct for the cabins, and upon entering discovered Kiesburg lying down amidst the human bones and beside him a large pan full of fresh liver and lights. They asked him what had become of his companions, whether they were alive, and what had become of Mrs. Donner. He answered them by stating they were all dead; Mrs. Donner, he said, had in attempting to cross form one cabin to another, missed the trail, and slept out one night; that she came to his camp the next night very much fatigued, he made her a cup of coffee, placed her in bed and rolled her well in the blankets, but the next morning found her dead; he eat her body and found her flesh the best he had ever tasted! He further stated that he obtained from her body at least four pounds of fat! No traces of her person could be found, nor the body of Mrs. Murphy either.--When the last company left the camp, three weeks previous, Mrs Donner was in perfect health though unwilling to come out and leaver her husband there, and offered $500 to any person or persons who could come out and bring them in, saying this in the presence of Kiesburg, and she had plenty of tea and coffee, we suspected that it was her who had taken the piece from the shoulder of beef in the chair before mentioned. In the cabin with Kiesburg was found two kettles of human blood, in all supposed to be over one gallon Rhodes asked him where he had got the blood, he answered, there is blood in dead bodies,--they asked him numerous questions, but he appeared embarassed and equivocated a great deal, and in reply to their asking him where Mrs. Donner’s money was, he evinced confusion and answered, that he knew nothing about it.--that she must have cached it before she died--I have’nt it said he, nor the money, nor the property of any person, living or dead! They then examined his bundle and found silks and jewelry, which had been taken from the camp of the Donners, and amounting in value to about $200; on his person they discovered a brace of pistols, recognized to be those of Geo. Donner, and while taking them from him discovered something concealed in his waistcoat, which on being opened was found to be $225 in gold.

Before leaving the settlements, the wife of Keysburg had told us that we would find but little money about him; the men therefore said to him that they knew he was lying to them, and hes was well aware of the place of concealment of the Donner’s money; he declared before heaven, he knew nothing concerning it, and that he had not the property of any one in his possession; they told him that to lie to them would effect nothing, that there were others back at the cabins, who unless informed of the spot where the treasure was hidden, would not hesitate to hang him upon the first tree. Their threats were of no avail, he still affirmed his ignorance and innocence, and Rhodes took him aside and talked to him kindly, telling him that if he would give the information desired, he should receive from their hands the best of treatment, and be in every way assisted, otherwise, the party back at Donners’ camp, would, upon his arrival and refusal to discover to them the place where he had deposited this money, immediately put him to death; it was all to no purpose, however, and they prepared to return to us, leaving him in charge of his packs, and assuring him of their determination to visit him in the morning, and he must make up his mind during the night. They then started back and joined us at Donner’s Camp

In 1879, Keseberg gave a statement to C.F. McGlashan:

Suddenly I was startled by the sound of human voices. I hurried up to the surface of the snow, and saw white men coming toward the cabin. I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude at the prospect of my deliverance. I had suffered so much, and for so long a time, that I could scarcely believe my senses. Imagine my astonishment upon their arrival to be greeted, not with a ’good morning’or a kind word, but with the gruff, insolent demand, Where is Donner’s money?

I told them they ought to give me something to eat, and that I would talk with them afterwards, but no, they insisted that I should tell them about Donner’s money. I asked them who they were, and where they came from, but they replied by threatening to kill me if I did not give up the money. They threatened to hang or shoot me, and at last I told them. I had promised Mrs. Donner that I would carry her money to her children, and I proposed to do so, unless shown some authority by which they had a better claim.. This so exasperated them, that they acted as though they were going to kill me. I offered to let them bind me as a prisoner, and take me before the alcalde at Sutter’s Fort, and I promised that I would then tell all I knew about the money.

Tuesday, April 20, 1847

Fallon’s Journal of the Fourth Relief:

April 20, We all started for Bear River Valley with packs of 100 cwt. each; our provisions being nearly consumed, we were obliged to make haste away. Came within a few hundred yards of the cabin which Kiesburg occupied and halted to prepare breakfast, after which we proceeded to the cabin. I now asked Kiesburg if he was willing to disclose to me where he had concealed that money; he turned somewhat pale and again protested his ignorance; I said to him, Keisburg, you know well where Donner’s money is, and d--n you, you shall tell me! I am not going to multiply words with you, nor say but little about it--bring me that rope! He then arose from his pot of soup and human flesh and begged me not to harm him--he had not the money nor the goods; the silk clothing and money which were found upon him the previous day, and which he then declared belonging to his wife, he now said was the property of others in California. I then told him I did not wish to hear any more from him, unless he at once informed us where he had concealed the money of those orphan children, then producing the rope I approached him; he became frightened, but I bent the rope about his neck, and threw him, after a struggle, upon the ground, and as I tightened the cord and choked him he cried out that would confess all upon release; I then permitted him to arise. He still seem inclined to be obstinate, and made much delay in talking, finally, but with evident reluctance, he led the way back to Donner’s camp about 10 miles distant, accompanied by Rhodes and Tucker. While they were absent, we moved all our packs over to the lower end of the lake, and made all ready for a start when they should return. Mr. Foster went down to the cabin of Mrs. Murphy, his mother-in-law, to see if any property remained there worth collecting and securing; he found the body of young Murphy, who had been dead about three months, with the breast and scull cut open, and the brains, liver and lights taken out, and this accounted for the contents of the pan which stood beside Kiesburg when he was found. It appears that he had left at the other camp the dead bullock and horse, and on visiting this camp and finding the body thawed out, took thereform the brains, liver and lights. ... We then move on, and camped on the lake for the night.

In 1879, Keseberg gave a statement to C.F. McGlashan:

They would listen to nothing, however, and finally I told them where they would find the silver buried, and gave them the gold. After I had done this, they showed me a document from Alcalde Sinclair, by which they were to receive a certain proportion of all moneys and property which they rescued.

These men treated me with the greatest unkindness. Mr. Tucker was the only one took my part or befriended me.

Wednesday, April 21, 1847

Fallon’s Journal of the Fourth Relief:

Tucker and Rhodes came back the next morning, bringing $273, that had been cached by Kiesburg, who after disclosing to them the spot, returned to the cabin. The money had been hidden directly underneath the projecting limb of a large tree, and the end of which seemed to point precisely to the treasure buried in the earth.--On their return and passing the cabin, they saw the unfortunate man within, devouring the remaining brains and liver, left from his morning repast! They hurried him away, but before leaving, he gathered together the bones and heaped them all in a box he used for the purpose, blessed them and the cabin and said, I hope God will forgive me what I have done, I could’nt help it! and I hope I may get to heaven yet! We asked Kiesburg why he did not use the meat of the bullock and horse instead of human flesh, he replied he had not seen them. We then told him we knew better, and asked him why the meat in the chair had not been consumed, he said oh! it’s too dry eating! the liver and lights were a great deal better, and the brains made good soup!

April 21st. Started for Bear River valley this morning, found the snow from six to eight feet deep, camped on Juba River for the night--

The camp on the Juba could have been at the head of the Yuba just below the Pass.

In 1879, Keseberg gave a statement to C.F. McGlashan:

When they started over the mountains, each man carried two bales of goods. They had silks, calicoes, and delaines from the Donners, and other articles of great value. Each man would carry one bundle a little way, lay it down, and come back and get the other bundle. In this way they passed over the snow three times. I could not keep up with them because I was so weak, but managed to come up to their camp every night.

Thursday, April 22, 1847

Fallon’s Journal of the Fourth Relief: On the 22d., traveled down Juba about 18 miles, and camped at the head of Bear River valley.--" [Bear Valley is about 18 miles west of the Pass.]

In 1879, Keseberg gave a statement to C.F. McGlashan:

One day I was dragging myself slowly along behind the party, when I came to a place which had evidently been used as a camping ground by some of the previous parties. Feeling very tired, I thought it would be a good place to make some coffee. Kindling a fire, I filled my coffee-pot with fresh snow and sat waiting for it to melt and get hot. Happening to case my eyes carelessly around, I discovered a little piece of calico protruding from the snow. Half thoughtlessly, half out of idle curiosity, I caught hold of the cloth, and finding it did not come readily, I gave it a strong pull. I had in my hands the body of my dead child Ada! She had been buried in the snow which, melting down, had disclosed a portion of her clothing. I thought I should go frantic! It was the first intimation I had of her death, and it came with such a shock!

[Three year old Ada Keseberg had died on February 25, at the First Relief’s camp at the upper end of the Yuba Bottoms, present Kingvale.]

Friday, April 23, 1847

In 1879, Keseberg gave a statement to C.F. McGlashan:

Just as were were getting out of the snow, I happened to be sitting in camp alone one afternoon. The men were hunting, or attending to their goods. I was congratulating myself upon my escape from the mountains, when I was startled by a snuffling, growling noise, and looking up, I saw a large grizzly bear only a few feet away. I knew I was too weak to attempt to escape, and so remained where I sat, expecting every moment he would devour me. Suddenly there was the report of a gun, and the bear fell dead. Mr. Foster had discovered the animal, and slipping up close to camp, had killed it.

Sunday, April 25, 1847

Fallon’s Journal of the Fourth Relief: On the 25th, moved down to the lower end of the valley, met our horses, and came in.