“It is true that no general organization for law and order was effected on the western side of the river. But the American instinct for fair play and a hearing for everybody prevailed so that while there was no mob law, the law of self-preservation asserted itself, and the counsels of the level-headed older men prevailed. When an occasion called for action, a “high court” was convened, and woe betide the man that would undertake to defy its mandates after its deliberations were made public.” – Ezra Meeker, recalling 1852
Given the extremes which tested overland trail emigrants to their limits, the evidence of crime among the travelers was low, but it did happen.
The pioneer families that headed west on the Oregon–California Trail were essentially small, mobile, self-contained communities and as such, were plagued with the same sort of issues that could be found in the settlements from which they left back east. These controversies might include politics, religion, morals, family disputes, money, property, theft, and women.
But, in addition to those issues was the grueling experience of life on the trail. The pioneers faced the unforgiving elements of the weather, exhaustion, malnutrition, disease, sore muscles, and congested campsites with hundreds of strangers.
Disputes such as speed of travel, treatment of animals, and route and leadership choices, caused tensions to rise and were known to split more than a few parties of emigrants.
The full spectrum of human emotions often led to impatience and short tempers which led to arguments, fights and even murder.
“If there is any meanness in a man, it makes no difference how well he has it covered, the plains is the place that will bring it out.” – E. W. Conyers, 1852
At this time there were no civil laws, lawmen, or courts of law to protect those who crossed the plains. The military offered some protection near the forts but did not have jurisdiction over civilian criminal matters.
For these reasons, the better-organized wagon trains drew up a written constitution, code, resolutions, or by-laws to which the emigrants could refer when disagreements threatened to get out of hand. These regulations for conduct would be established even before they left Missouri. Part of this process was to elect a council or governing body who would be empowered to carry out their own justice.
These regulations typically included rules for decision making, voting, camping and marching, restrictions on gambling and drinking, defense, private property rights, failing to perform duties, security for the sick or bereaved, rules for infractions, and penalties for crimes.
These were all necessary to keep the peace between the diverse groups of people who were living and working together for up to six months.
For minor crimes, the council would generally order only mediation. More violent crimes might include a public whipping. Serious crimes such as murder, rape, and theft of horses, were addressed more formally with the emigrants choosing and judge, forming a jury, and holding a trial to the standards they were familiar with. Punishments for these serious offenses included banishment from the wagon train, hanging, and firing squad.
The practices of the hastily convened murder trials were fairly consistent throughout the various wagon train companies. Imitating the legal venues “back east”, after a murderer was disarmed, either the wagon master, a lawyer or a minister traveling with the train was appointed judge. The jurors were then selected from the membership of the company who stood in a semi-circle around the accused as the rest of pioneers looked on. A defendant’s chances of acquittal was not very good. After being found guilty, the murderer was strung up from the nearest tree. If no trees were around, a crude gallows was constructed from wagon poles. Because the wagon train was anxious to move on, the murderer was usually buried in a shallow grave near his victim.
There could be no appeal from these group decisions.
“When we set foot upon the right bank of the Missouri River, we were outside the pale of civil law. We were within Indian country where no organized civil government existed. Some people and some writers have assumed that each man was a ‘law unto himself’ and free to do his own will…… Nothing could be further from the facts than this assumption, as evil-doers soon found to their discomfort.” – Ezra Meeker, 1922
Along the trail, shootings were common, but what is rarely heard about is that at least 172 people were murdered by their fellow emigrants on the Oregon-California Trail in the mid-1800s.
Dr. Richard L. Rieck, of the Western Illinois University, who studied the pioneer diaries for the years 1841 through 1865, found that of these 172 murders, 89 are known by name, and another 83 are unknown.
More than half the murders occurred after passionate arguments, many of them over women and money, while nearly a fourth of the killings resulted from violent robberies. Guns and knives were the killer’s weapons of choice.
The diaries disclosed details of dozens of slayings and bodies of obvious murder victims were occasionally found on the trail.
While most of the perpetrators were unidentified and escaped punishment, there were 21 reported murder trials that resulted in executions on the trail.
“We tend to think of the people in the wagon trains as brave close-knit families and the possibility of murder among this wholesome group, never crosses our minds.” – Richard Rieck
A doctor traveling from Indiana to Oregon in 1852, the peak year of western wagon travel, reported that on the overland trail there were “not less than 50” murders as well as a large number of executions.