In early spring of 1846, Louis Keseberg, with his pregnant wife Phillipine and their young daughter Ada, left Cincinnati, heading for a new life in the west. The first stage of their journey was to Independence, Missouri, five hundred miles. Here, they were absorbed into one of the great wagon trains that crossed the heartlands of America heading for Oregon and California; in total, a journey of more than two thousand miles. Although the journey was conducted at no more than walking pace, it was vital that the emigrants reached – and crossed – the Sierra Nevada (‘Snowy Mountain’) before the winter snows started to fall. This was normally around Thanksgiving, ie towards the end of November.
Landford Hastings, an adventurer with business interests in California, published a pamphlet encouraging the use of a shorter route, said to cut several weeks off the journey. The Keseberg family joined a small group of emigrants who abandoned the camaraderie of the great wagon train with its hundreds of wagons, and set out to take this ‘shortcut’. Whether Hastings’ proposed route was no more than wishful thinking, or whether it was accurate and the leaders of the Donner Party misunderstood his instructions will never be entirely clear; but in any event, led by George Donner and James Reed, the Donner-Reed party – to give it its full name – encountered a
series of obstacles and delays that made them weeks late on their journey.By the time they reached the Sierra Nevada their supplies were more or less finished, many of their animals and several members of the party had perished, and the animals and people that had survived were exhausted. Even so they should still have managed to get through the pass that led into California safely enough; but for the unexpectedly early snowfall, which blocked their route and forced them into waiting out the winter in camp.It was months before rescue came, by which time many of the party had died from hypothermia and starvation. How others managed to survive has never been fully resolved. The realistic explanation is that they resorted to cannibalism; indeed, some of the party freely admitted that this was the case.
How is it, though, that many of the Donner Party survivors went on to achieve notable success in public life, with Henry Eddy – who assisted in the murder of at least two people entirely for the purposes of cannibalising them – hailed as a hero; whereas Louis Keseberg’s life was ruined, leaving him a broken man; someone who has passed into history as the notorious ‘cannibal of the Donner Party’; accused - on the flimsiest of evidence - of murdering small children for the delight of feasting on their flesh, and of robbing, murdering and cannibalising the heroic Tamsin Donner?
This is the question that lies at the heart of WHEN WINTER COMES; a fictionalised but very closely researched account of the tragic events that befell the members of the Donner Party. A close examination of the evidence, and an understanding of how public perception can be swayed by sensationalist journalism, leads to a different interpretation of Louis Keseberg’s character and actions. He was a man, no better or worse than the rest, driven by difficult circumstances to desperate acts. But this does not make him a monster.