(At age 32, when the Donner Party was trapped, he was a tall, good-looking blond man with erect military bearing. We will picture him several decades later, older and care-worn; perhaps in 1879, when Truckee's C.F. McGlashan interviewed him, or shortly thereafter.)
My accusers base their case on second-hand accounts or worse--the fabricated "journal" of an illiterate mountain man, sensational distortions in the press, calculated to sell newspapers, or the self-serving excuses of a few villains wishing to clear their own names by casting blame on an immigrant, a German. This is fashionable in my time, you know, to blame your troubles on foreigners: the Germans, or the Irish, or on the Chinese. A great political party, the Know-Nothings, base their platform on opposition to those not born in this country. These Americans forget where they all came from . . . A proud man I admit myself, even in the face of this. I was a Prussian soldier, a Junker, and I have a temper. I always regret my outbursts.
But as Godt is my judge, I killed no one. The mountains were murderer enough. And I took no money not entrusted to me for safekeeping. I cared to the utmost of my abilities and resources for the unfortunates in my cabin--the Eddy child, the Donner children, and their mother Tamsen Donner. I, nearly as sick and starved as they, and crippled as well, barely able to walk, spent two or three hours each day gathering firewood, yet was left behind by the first three rescue parties because of my lameness, which they feared would lose them precious time crossing the pass.
Many times I placed the muzzle of my pistol in my mouth, and fingered the trigger, yet I could not, for the sake of my wife and daughter who for all I knew had survived and would need my protection in a strange land.
I am accused on the word of these greedy peasants of the fourth relief more interested in the Donners' silk and silver than in saving any lives--and then, by the book of this man Thornton, who freely invents dialogue and actions for scenes neither he nor any of his informants witnessed, and dramatically casts me as the villain who strangles little Georgie Foster in his sleep and eats him before morning--for this I am spat upon and made the butt of many crude jokes, even when one who was there, nine-year-old Georgia Donner, said I did not.
I have found peace over the years since--I know that Godt will judge me, not these ignorant Californians. But I appeal to you, perhaps more judicious and distant from the passions of my day--I ask you to set against this dubious testimony the confidence of such notable men as Capt. John Sutter, who gave me command of his launch for many trading trips down the Sacramento, carrying passengers and goods of great value. Or the trust of Sam Brannan, my partner in a distillery, my ability to build a business, my impeccable character as sworn to by these and other successful men--would they show such faith in one they thought to be a murderer and a thief?
Some of those who speak harshly of me, it is true, did travel with our party from Fort Hall across the mountains and deserts to this place. Let me say that the storms swirling over yonder craggy ridges were no colder nor more brutal than we often were to each other. We argued about whether to take the accursed Hastings' cut-off, we fought over water in the desert and over scraps of rotted animal skins at this lake camp.
When Wolfinger fell behind on the long march across the desert, and I stayed with him to help him drive his team, exhausted as we all were, I was accused by Joseph Reinhart of killing my fellow countryman for some money he was supposed to have been carrying. Reinhart later confessed to George Donner that it was he who hastened Wolfinger's end, yet I am still accused of his death.
And when Jacob Hardcoop faltered and fell behind, and I would not let him ride one of my feeble beasts because already my wife, daughter and infant son were walking, and neither Breen or Graves would go back even though they had the strongest animals--I am blamed for the old man's death in the desert. Why, because I was a fellow European? Because I would not sacrifice my family for a sick old man with no family? I will tell you, we all made those decisions, to save our own at the cost of saving others.
We might have managed to cross the mountains in early November before the first storms, had we not disagreed about what to load on our last oxen--one wanted a cask of tobacco, another his ammunition, a third more flour, and so forth. The time we wasted in these futile arguments caused us to camp short of the cloud-shrouded summit, among those trees against which the oxen were already rubbing off their packs.
That night rolled in my blankets, I dreamt a great weight was pressing on me--I could not breathe--I awoke to find myself covered by a drift of snow. Looking about I saw all traces of my companions and our camp obliterated. I cried out, and the sight of first this one then that one bursting forth from the smooth white ground brought me to mind of the resurrection of the dead on judgement day.
We retreated to our camp here by the lake, where owing to my lameness I could not erect a cabin like the others did, merely a sort of brush lean-to against the side of the Breens' cabin, to shelter my wife and children, and fellow German Augustus Spitzer. You know the rest, or enough, at any rate, of the terrible events that transpired as the snows imprisoned us.
But perhaps you have not heard enough of the damnable lies of this one called Fallon, O'Fallon, or Fallon le Gros, Fallon the Fat, of the fourth relief. This man of the mountains, who had traded slaves with the Ute Indians and killed men, no doubt, for sport. I had sworn a sacred oath to the dying Tamsen Donner, to take her gold to her daughters who had gone out with the first reliefs. The next day, after she died quietly in my cabin, I made my way with great difficulty through the deep snow to her camp, six miles up the valley, buried the silver and brought the gold--two hundred and twenty-five dollars--back here. I had fallen into some water on the way back, and lacking the strength to build a fire, I wrapped blankets around my wet clothes and fell shivering to sleep.
I awoke to human voices. I, the last living member of the Donner party left here to die, I thought, and here were men come to rescue me. But rather than greet me with kindness and offer me food, they accosted me gruffly--"Where is the Donners' money?" This from an uncivilized, heavily-armed ruffian. Was I to hand over my sacred trust to I knew not who, to some brute of the wilderness? I pleaded instead for food, which they denied me, although they had flour and beef, and were digging the frozen carcass of a cow from the snow.
Instead they searched me and took the gold which belonged to the Donner children, and threatened to hang me on the spot if I did not give them the rest of the money--as if money is what matters to a sick and starving man!--and in fact this man Fallon threw a rope around my neck and choked me until I agreed to lead him to the Donners' camp and show him where I had buried the silver.
There they stuffed their packs with anything of value they could carry--two packs each, some of them three, so they had to walk back and forth along the trail ferrying their loads. Such was the benevolence of this "relief" party. And they allowed me to crawl along behind them, for I could no longer walk, catching up when they paused to eat or camp, to eat the scraps from their meal. I, who can dress a savory roast goose in the French manner, as I ate at the finest tables in Europe, and as I would prepare for you, if you were ever to be my guest.
It was on one of these pauses: I stopped to kindle a fire for coffee, and while waiting for the pot to boil I idly plucked at a scrap of calico cloth protruding from the snow--to my horror, I found it attached to the frozen body of my daughter Ada, who had died despite the efforts of my wife and the first relief party.
So these greedy men who grudgingly brought me to Johnson's Ranch, they tell stories of cauldrons of blood, and dismembered corpses of children hanging as in a meat locker, and they paint me as a bloodstained ghoul who prefers human flesh to beef or pork.
Damned lies! They will burn in Hell for it!
Yes! I resorted to sustaining my feeble life on the bodies of my deceased companions, but so did most of us, after the first relief left us with only a few teacups of flour and a handful of jerked beef. But we did it with the utmost revulsion, as a horrible last resort, and many wept the entire time we devoured our tasteless and paltry meal. We were starving animals, you know, with as much right to live as any animal.
I survived, as did my dear wife Phillipine, and we had eight more children, all daughters. Though only four daughters are still living and Bertha and Augusta, feeble-minded and given to fits, are in my constant care. All my ventures have come to naught, through no fault of my own: my hotel burned to the ground, my brewery destroyed in the great Flood. I sued that Ned Coffeemire for a thousand dollars, for spreading the rumor that I killed Wolfinger. My friend and benefactor Capt. Sutter advised me to do this. I won the case, but was awarded only one dollar in damages, even with Mrs. Wolfinger testifying to my innocence. And still they hound me!
And of Fallon, my "rescuer"--tell me this: what do you think of a man who, as the still-emaciated and orphaned Donner children stood by at Sutter's Fort, would demand on the spot his half-share of their inheritance, deaf to their cries and impervious to any concern for their well-being?
And tell me why, as you can read for yourself in the records at the Fort, did he return at least once and doubtless many more times to this place late that spring, after the thaw? He has created quite a sensation with his tales about corpses, pans of flesh, and about me, the "demonic foreigner." Yet what is he not telling? What is he hiding behind his lies? Did he even write this journal attributed to him, written in the style of an educated man, and mispelling his own name?
I have told my story to Eliza Donner, and to Mr. McGlashan of Truckee--both of them are convinced, after much research, of my innocence. I submit the facts, likewise, to you. Bad luck, poor judgement, the desert, the mountain storms, back-breaking labor and bad food or no food--these are what killed Wolfinger, and Hardcoop, and the children at the camp, and Tamsen Donner. Do not blame me for the workings of fate, or for the deeds of other men. Godt will be the judge of us all. Thank you.