Donner Party Bulletin
Bertha Keseberg Mystery Solved
Sometime around 1999 I began
corresponding with Marilyn Acuff, a great great granddaughter of Louis
Keseberg. Marilyn has been researching her family history for some time
and has shared a lot of fascinating information. One of our most
perplexing problems has centered on Louis and Philippine Keseberg’s
render it impossible to keep any nurse in charge of them longer than a few days. While [Keseberg’s] wife lived, she took care of these children; but now he has personally to watch over them and provide for their necessities. While at work, he is compelled to keep them locked in a room in the same building. They scream so loudly while going into the spasms that he cannot dwell near other people. He therefore lives isolated, in a plain little house back of his brewery.
Marilyn was positive part of
this statement couldn’t be true, because she had actually known Bertha
|Donner Party Bulletin No. 14|
But how on earth did McGlashan get the idea that Bertha was an "idiot"?
Marilyn and I discussed this several times over the years in the course of
our intermittent correspondence. McGlashan had visited Keseberg in a
confrontational spirit; did Keseberg mislead McGlashan in order to
elicit his sympathy? Did he perhaps exaggerate Bertha’s condition? Or
was the error or exaggeration on McGlashan’s part?
We know that there really were two afflicted Keseberg daughters from letter by William C. Graves, who knew the family between about 1866 and 1873, when Louis was managing Sam Brannan’s Calistoga distillery. On April 1, 1879, Graves wrote McGlashan, "They had 5 or 6 daughters when they moved from here [Calistoga] one of them is only about half witted and another is an Idiot." This confirms what McGlashan wrote, that one was more severely affected than the other. However, McGlashan informs us that Bertha was the more "challenged" of the two, so it’s not simply a matter of exaggerating her condition.
Another problem is that McGlashan gives Bertha and Augusta’s ages as 26 and 15, respectively, in 1879; Augusta’s age is correct, but Bertha was actually only 19.
Marilyn and I wrestled with the problem sporadically until August 7, 2004, when I had one of those headsmacking "duh!" moments: I finally realized that Bertha had been married to Frederick Kummerfeldt for five years by the time McGlashan visited Keseberg in the spring of 1879. She wasn’t shrieking and having convulsions behind a locked door in her father's brewery; she was quietly keeping house for her husband and son. McGlashan must have gotten the names wrong.
With this insight, the pieces fell neatly into place. McGlashan had recorded the names of the four surviving Keseberg girls correctly, but he confused which was which. Bertha was the daughter living with her husband in Sacramento and Lily the widow living in San Rafael -- facts which Marilyn knew from other sources -- leaving Paulina and Augusta as the two daughters with epilepsy and mental retardation. This would explain why we had been unable to find anything about Paulina and her alleged marriage while Bertha is easy to find in genealogical sources. McGlashan said the elder of the
| two "idiot" daughters was 26 in
1879; Paulina was 25, much closer than Bertha's age of 19.
And this solution also explains the fact that only Paulina and Augusta are buried next to their mother in Sacramento's
Old City Cemetery; their sisters, who all married and had children, lie
elsewhere with their own family members.
What a relief to finally get this straightened out! Bertha Keseberg’s memory can now be rescued from 125 years of misunderstanding and misinformation.
C. F. McGlashan wrote that Louis
and Philippine Keseberg had had eleven children. Two, Ada and Louis Jr.,
died in the Donner Party disaster, and there were eight more daughters
born in California: Amelia, Lily, Paulina, Julia, Matilda, Bertha, Ida,
and Augusta. So who was the eleventh child? Was Ada not the first? Had
there been another tragedy, a stillbirth or an infant death, at some
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Revised: 31 Jan 2006
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