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The Keseberg Family
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German emigrants Louis and Philippine Keseberg both survived the Donner Party, but their two little children did not. For most of the rest of their lives, the Kesebergs lived in the Sacramento area. They had eight more children, all girls and all but one of whom died young. The shadow of the Donner Party hung heavily over Louis Keseberg and his wife.

Johann Ludwig Christian Keseberg

A German immigrant traveling with his family
Age: 32

Parents: Friedrich Ernst Keseberg (b. 1788) and Juliane Ludovike von Asmuth (b. 1792)
b. 22 May 1814 in Berleburg, Westphalia, Germany
m. 22 Jul 1842 in Berleburg, Westphalia, Germany to Elisabeth Philippine Zimmermann
     Ch: Ada, Louis, Jr., Amelia, Lillie, Paulina, Julia, Mathilda, Bertha, Ida, Augusta
d. 03 Sep 1895 Sacramento, Sacramento Co., CA

     Generally called Louis or Lewis, the English version of Ludwig. In 1844 the Kesebergs emigrated to the United States, arriving on Louis's thirtieth birthday. They settled near Cincinnati, where Keseberg may have worked as a brewer or distiller.
     On the trail, little is heard of Keseberg. He may have taken a buffalo robe from a Sioux burial scaffold, and James F. Reed reportedly took him to task for abusing his wife Philippine. J. Quinn Thornton reports that Reed had Keseberg banished from the wagon train temporarily, and that after Reed killed Snyder, Keseberg retaliated by calling for Reed’s hanging. Keseberg has also been criticized for his role in the abandoning of Mr. Hardcoop, a Belgian traveling with the family.
     After arriving at Donner Lake, Keseberg built a lean-to against the Breen cabin as a shelter for his family, but later, on January 14, 1847, they moved into the Murphy cabin. His infant son died on January 24; on February 22, his wife and daughter left with the First Relief. When the Second Relief set out with their refugees on March 2, only a handful of emigrants remained behind, including Louis Keseberg. About March 13, 1847, when the Third Relief, only Levinah Murphy and Keseberg remained at the lake camp. At some point, probably after Mrs. Murphy's death, Keseberg seems to have moved into the uninhabited Breen cabin.
     In April 1847 the Fourth Relief found Keseberg the only person alive at the Donner Party camps (see Fallon's journal for details) and brought him to Sutter's Fort on the 29th of that month, the last member of the Donner Party to be rescued. Not long thereafter Keseberg sued Ned Coffeemeyer for telling slanderous stories about his alleged deeds at the camps. He won his case, but was awarded only $1.00 damage -- evidently all his contemporaries thought his reputation was worth.
     John Sutter hired Keseberg as the supercargo of his launch in 1847-1848. Heinrich Lienhard reported, "Finally Sutter decided to replace Mr. Keseberg, captain of his schooner, because so many passengers complained that the boat traveled so slowly down the river that when they ran out of food the captain, who was accustomed to human flesh, might kill passengers who were asleep and eat them. My own feeling is that Sutter invented this story himself." Passenger Victor J. Fourgeaud reported being awakened by Keseberg's cries during his nightmares.
      In 1851 Keseberg bought the Lady Adams Hotel (giving rise to the story that he ran a restaurant) but it was destroyed by fire the following year. Between 1853 and 1861 he operated the Phoenix Brewery near Sutter's Fort, but once again disaster struck and his business was destroyed, this time by flood. Keseberg worked in San Francisco for a few years in the 1860s, moving about 1866 to Calistoga, where he was a partner in Sam Brannan's distillery. He returned to Sacramento about 1872 and lived out his unhappy life in the area, dying as a charity case in a local hospital in 1895. His grave is unknown and unmarked.
     Louis Keseberg is one of the most controversial members of the Donner Party. He was educated, intelligent, and spoke three languages, but had a dark side, and after the disaster acquired the reputation of an ogre. C. F. McGlashan interviewed him in 1879 and reported that "this strange man"

is six feet in height, is well proportioned, and weighs from one hundred and seventy-five to one hundred and eighty pounds. He is active, vigorous, and of an erect, manly carriage, despite his years and his many afflictions. He has clear blue eyes, regular features, light hair and beard, a distinct, rapid mode of enunciation, a loud voice, and a somewhat excited manner of speech. In conversing he looks one squarely and steadily in the eye, and appears like an honest, intelligent German. He speaks and writes German, French, Spanish, and English, and his selection of words proves him a scholar. His face generally wears a determined, almost fierce expression, but one is impressed with the thought that this appearance is caused by his habitually standing on the defensive as against his fellow-men.

     The many misdeeds attributed to Keseberg include theft, malingering, and murder, but however suspicious his behavior may have been, there is no proof of any of these charges. Nevertheless, even the sympathetic Jacob Wright Harlan thought him "unsociable," "eccentric," and "predisposed to derangement of mind" before the Donner tragedy. Keseberg seems to have had a violent streak; he himself admitted that his greatest downfall was his "unbridled temper"; many survivors remembered him as a wife-beater; in Sacramento he was tried twice for assault; and he struck a little girl on the head with a stick when she climbed over a fence to play with his daughters -- years later she showed Virginia Reed Murphy the scar.
     Keseberg’s defenders, however, have been moved by his pitiful fate: he was unsuccessful in both his business and his personal life; his wife and all but one of his children predeceased him; in 1879, when McGlashan interviewed him, Keseberg was a poverty-stricken widower and the sole dependence of two "idiot" daughters who screamed, fell into fits, and had to be watched constantly. Certainly Keseberg suffered greatly during his lifetime and was probably innocent of most of the charges against him; nevertheless, he was strange, had a terrible temper, and was prone to violence. It is hard to fault his contemporaries for disliking him.

See Donner Party Bulletin No. 6 for some articles about Louis Keseberg.
For information about some of Keseberg's daughters, see Donner Party Bulletin No. 14.
David Fenimore performs a monologue about Louis Keseberg. Despite several historical inaccuracies and distortions, it gives an idea of what Keseberg might have said in his own defense.

Elisabeth Philippine Zimmermann

Wife of Johann Ludwig Christian Keseberg
Age: 23

Parents: Christian Zimmermann (b. abt 1797) and Elisabeth Kieseler (b. abt 1801)
b. 16 May 1823 in Berleburg, Westphalia, Germany
m. 22 Jul 1842 in Berleburg, Westphalia, Germany to Johann Ludwig Christian Keseberg
     Ch: Ada, Louis, Jr., Amelia, Lillie, Paulina, Julia, Mathilda, Bertha, Ida, Augusta
d. 30 Jan 1877 in Sacramento Co., CA

     Mrs. Keseberg went by her middle name, Philippine. According to Joseph Pigney, Philippine Zimmermann was Roman Catholic, but Louis Keseberg was the son of the Lutheran minister of Berleburg. The two married despite local opposition to the match.
     Virginia Reed Murphy recalled, "She was a pretty little woman, humble and unassuming proud of her husband and afeered of him... she made excuses for him." Philippine was pitied as a battered wife.
     Heinrich Lienhard reported that Mrs. Keseberg was a buxom and attractive woman who had many admirers at Sutter’s Fort. A photograph at the Bancroft Library, taken when she was in her careworn fifties, shows traces of the handsome young woman she must have been in 1846.

Juliane Karoline "Ada" Keseberg

Daughter of Johann Ludwig Christian Keseberg and Elisabeth Philippine Zimmermann
Age: 3

b. 17 April 1843 Berleburg, Westphalia, Germany
d. 23 or 24 February 1847 Nevada Co., CA

     Ada had a twin sister who died after the Kesebergs arrived in the United States from Germany -- see "The Missing Keseberg Child" in Donner Party Bulletin 14.
      When the First Relief left the lake camp on February 22, 1847, they took Ada and her mother with them, but the little girl died on the way out. W. C. Graves recalled, "The second day, Mrs. Keisburg offered twenty-five dollars and a gold watch to anyone who would carry her child through; but it died that night and was buried the next morning in the snow."
     There was a grisly sequel to her death: On their way out of the mountains in April 1847, the Fourth Relief stopped at a site used by previous relief parties. While sitting by the fire, Louis Keseberg noticed a piece of cloth sticking out of the snow. He tugged at it, and into his arms tumbled the corpse of his little daughter, who had died two months earlier. He had no idea until that moment that she was dead.

Louis Keseberg, Jr.

Infant son of Johann Ludwig Christian Keseberg and Elisabeth Philippine Zimmermann
Age: [1]

b. aft 3 Jun 1846 on the plains
d. 24 Jan 1847 in the Murphy cabin at Donner Lake

     This baby was presumably given his father’s full name, but he is always referred to as "Louis (or Lewis), Jr." He was apparently born on the overland journey. On June 3, 1846, diarist Edwin Bryant reported:

A wagon belonging to a German emigrant named Keyesburgh, whose wife carried in her arms a small child, and was in a delicate condition [i.e., pregnant], was upset, and the woman and child precipitated in to a pool of water... the woman and child escaped without material injury.

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Revised: 31 Jan 2006

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