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Investigating Donner Memorial State Park

Everybody Has Talked About It, But We Did It!!

The First Annual Ghost Hunters Camp-Out: Investigating Donner Memorial State Park, It's History Involving The Donner Party, The Cannabalism And Eventual Survival For Some, Death For Others

The First Annual Ghost Hunters Camp-out was held at Donner Memorial State Park. We had invited ghost hunters from our coalition of groups across Northern California and Central California. Janice Oberding had decided that this should be the place to begin our first camp-out. She had been doing some serious research into the Donner Party for a conference she would be facilitating and decided to put action behind the words. We began emailing other groups and asking who would be interested in attending. We received numerous RSVP's from across Northern California. Everyone wanted to join us. We figured it would be a good time for everyone to again get together, discuss techniques, stories and to share food and drink.

The days in the park turned out to be extremely warm during the day and very cool in the evening. Donner Memorial State Park is a gorgeous park, well maintained with many trails to walk or hike, an area for water sports and a great area for camping.

Our first task was to get permission from the Senior Park Ranger, Mark McGovern, to be able to perform our investigations during the evening. He also gave us permission to have a special after hours investigation of the museum that is on the park grounds near the Donner Memorial. Jessica, a park employee, has stated that she has heard from other park employees that when closing up the museum at night it feels cold and "creepy" in the back of the museum. She has also had these same feelings when closing up in the evenings. We did discover that to be true. When you are in the rear of the building, it is evident that there are some spots that are chillier than others. Some of our members did feel impressions when nearest some of the Donner Party artifacts that are housed in the museum. Thank you Jessica, for giving us insight into this very special place.

Donner Memorial State Park is nothing less than beautiful. It is serene, lush and well plotted out. The rangers are helpful and had many stories to tell about this park. During the summer, this park has many visitors. It was amazing to me just how many visitors they had during this weekend we were there as they were not advertising that they were open. Because of a renovation project set to begin in late August, there were no advanced reservations to the park. You could, however, drive in and get in as long as there was room. The rangers were kind enough to send all of our group's members as they came to the park to the one specified area and allowed them access to our campsite. They did not have any problem with our member's coming and going. They were absolutely wonderful in their handling of our unique situation.

Here is the story of the Donner Party in condensed version:

In Springfield, Illinois, three large families decided to try and make their fortunes out West. Only several hundred white people had successfully done so. This was before the big expansion to move out to Oregon in 1848 or before the Gold Rushes of California in '49. They would be settling in land that was in dispute under the Americans, the Spaniards, English and Indians.

These three families were the families of George Donner, Jacob Donner, and James F. Reed. George and Jacob Donner were brothers, and knew James Reed by reputation. The Donners were farmers, and Reed was a businessman, who owned a furniture manufacturing company.

George Donner had been married three times, and his oldest children had grown up and married, while his others wives had died. He himself was in his sixties, but was still strong and able to have children. His current wife Tamzene was an intellectual schoolmistress, and their daughters were simple but educated country-folk.

Jacob and Betsy Donner were slightly younger than George and Tamzene. They had several children, and a few from previous marriages still living with them.

James Reed was an Irish widower with no children, and had married a widow named Margaret Keyes-Backenstoe with a daughter named Virginia. He was a relatively cheerful though polite man.

However, Margaret Reed was a troubled woman. Her previous husband had died of cholera, and two of her three brothers had died recently. Margaret's mother, Sarah Keyes, was still alive, and about 70, though she only had one son and her daughter left in the world, and was slowly dying from tuberculosis. Margaret suffered terrible headaches, which were probably migraines, and in general had poor health. In modern times she would probably be classified as a person suffering from extreme depression, and it is very possible she greatly feared what the journey could do to her family.

And so the George Donners, the Jacob Donners and the Reeds set out from Springfield in April, 1846. All three families hired teamsters to help drive additional wagons with food and luggage, while they also brought along trusted family servants who wanted to stay with their employers. Margaret's old mother, Sarah Keyes, went with the Reeds as well, refusing to leave her only daughter, and hoping to see her last living son along the trail. James Reed built a large wagon so he could house his mother-in-law inside, Grandma Keyes being of poor eyesight, and not able to move well.

As they reached Independence, Sarah Keyes' health worsened, and she became nearly blind and very sick. The Donner-Reed party reached Independence on May 11th, and they and the teamsters joined the Bryant Party, which was led by Wm. Russell. At the end of May, Sarah Keyes died, near Alcove Spring. Her last day had been spent blind and unable to speak. Though she had been a burden to James Reed, she was mourned, especially by Margaret and Virginia Reed.

Along the trail, various people joined the group of the Donner Party. The Breens and Patrick Doolan were not especially friendly with the Donners or Reeds, but were helpful and unselfish and also shared the same unwelcome background as the Reed family, Irish heritage.

The Reeds had long ago decided to travel to California, and the Donners decided to stay with them. The Murphys, Graves, Breens, Eddys, McCutchens, Kesebergs, Wolfingers and various teamsters and single men went along with the party.

At Ft. Bridger, James Bridger, a fur-trader, advised the group to take the Hastings Cut-Off, a short-cut around the south of the Great Salt Lake, instead of the long route around the north shore.

This was a poor choice, but it was not the only factor in the group's slow journey into tragedy. As the group had to journey through the Wasatch Mountains, and the Salt Lake Desert, many oxen died, the group suffered constant delays, and several deaths occurred. Luke Halloran died from tuberculosis like Sarah Keyes had. James Reed became more disliked by the Donner Party. He had threatened a German emigrant, Lewis Keseberg, after Reed had discovered Keseberg harshly beat his wife. Worse, on the 5th of October, James Snyder, the Graves' teamster, was stabbed to death by James Reed. Reed was banished from the party, and he, his servant Walter Herron and William McCutchen traveled ahead by horse to the Sacramento Valley.

William Pike, a son-in-law of Lavinah Murphy, was accidentally shot to death, and Lewis Keseberg turned the sick old Belgian emigrant, Mr. Hardkoop, out of his wagon. In the rush to reach California before winter, Hardkoop was cruelly left behind to die in the desert.

Perhaps more sinister is what follows. Several wagons had to be abandoned by the party, since nearly all of the draft animals were dead. Several families left all possessions and food behind, walking ahead with only the clothes they wore. Another emigrant, Mr. Wolfinger, decided to bury his goods, known as "caching," so that he could recover them in the following year, after he had established himself in California. His wife Doris traveled ahead with the Donners, while Wolfinger and his two associates, Joseph Reinhardt and Augustus Spitzer, as well as Lewis Keseberg, remained behind to "help" Wolfinger.

Wolfinger was never seen again. It was claimed Indians came out of the mountains and killed the German, but Joseph Reinhardt later admitted to murdering him. Around Christmas time, Lewis Keseberg was seen carrying Wolfinger's gun, which had assumedly been stolen by the Indians.

Around the same time George Donner was repairing a broken wagon axle when he cut his had with a chisel, leaving a long, deep gash across him arm. Out in the wilderness, it easily became infected. The Donners could no longer travel at a pace to keep up with the rest of the party. Jacob Donner and his family remained with George and his family during the rest of 1846.

They were only several miles away from the civilization at Johnson's Ranch, the first settlement along the trail since Ft. Bridger.

However, as the Donner Party was traveling through the Truckee Route, the last part of the California Trail, the temperatures began to suddenly drop, and frost was beginning to show, as they reached a small body of water known as Truckee Lake.

In the mountains, without shelter and with almost no food, the party suddenly stopped all progress. The group scrambled to build themselves cabins to spend the winter in.

Their shelters were basic and crude. Using nothing but logs for walls, wagon parts for doors and leather hides for roofing, their cabins certainly were not much, but they provided shelter. At Alder Creek, starvation and the lack of shelter brought five deaths. When Joseph Reinhart was at the brink of death, he confessed to Mrs. Wolfinger and the Donners that he had killed Mr. Wolfinger at Truckee Meadows. Baylis Williams, Samuel Shoemaker, James Smith, and most affecting of all, Jacob Donner, who had seven children were dead as well.

Food was now depleted. The snow would not let up. They could go no where, and terribly, the bodies of the dead were always at their side. The thought and suggestion of cannibalism had already been made, but no one was sure and looking forward to the fact that they would have to resort to it.

The four dead bodies at the camp, now called the "Camp of Death" were cut up, and the meat was dried. This wasn't murder, after all. They were only resorting to the most desperate to survive. Furthermore, they had family still at the lake, and they could very well be the only chance the Donner Party would have to be saved. They were careful about who they ate. The people who had died had been slowly starved, so they didn't provide much meat, but it was food, and that was all that mattered.

Eventually, the cabins, shelters and bodies left behind at Alder Creek and Truckee Lake were erased by time. The chilling reminders of the Donner Party encouraged settlers to speed along the trail for years to come, until railroads put an official end to the Oregon and California Trail. Eventually, the land and people destroyed all of what was visibly left. The little archeological evidence of the Donner Party is now buried beneath several layers of earth.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Virginia Reed, then an old woman, saw the state of California erect a monument dedicated to the Donner Party over the site that had been the Breen Cabin. The Murphy cabin was long gone, but the rock that served as a wall remained, and a plague was placed on it to remember those who died during the winter. The Reed/Graves cabin had been destroyed, and the site is now covered by the current highway.

Now there is a State Memorial Park where the Donner Party suffered. A museum commemorates the history of the Donner Party, and monuments and trails show various areas the Donner Party lived in during the winter.

Taken from "The Donner Party" by Daniel Lewis

Read The Complete Story About "The Donner Party" by Daniel Lewis

So what exactly did our Ghost Hunters Camp-out produce? We visited three of the four campgrounds where the Donner Party stayed. We visited the actual Donner Camp, Schallenberger Camp and Murphy Camp. Unfortunately, Breen Camp could not be visited as the Agricultural stop from the Department of Transportation building was built right on top of the campsite. We had many members with impressions when we visited the various campgrounds. We did experience impressions and cold spots when visiting the museum, however, nothing produced on film. We did get the following pictures from our late night investigations:

We could not figure out what these two balls of light represented. We only discovered them on film after it was developed. There was only our group on the trail as it was very late and there were no other people walking around with flashlights that we discovered and we weren't near any campsites. The lights grew dimmer and further away and although we have a couple of extra pictures that show the lights dimmer yet, it would not have shown up on this page so they were not included. Were we in the company of members of the Donner Party as we performed our investigation? Is this evidence of the Donner Party attempting to make contact?

These two pictures were taken near the Murphy Camp site. Could these be visitors from the Donner Party? Could they just be pollen or dust? Although we may never know if there were others with us who were not part of our group, the sadness remains that the Donner Party was a part of this park. Some of the bodies were never recovered and have since become a part of the soil surrounding the very park itself. It is unfortunate that our history has things like this for us to look back on but it is this history that gives us a glimpse of what life must have been like back in the late 1800's.

Many thanks to Mark McGovern, Senior Park Ranger at Donner Memorial State Park for allowing us the use of his facilities and permission to obtain the research information we received while investigating his park. Thank you Mark!!! Without your kind efforts, we would have not been able to make these determinations!

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