Danger and Hardship on the Oregon Trail

 

Oregon Trail pioneers pass through the sand hills, painting by William Henry Jackson

Oregon Trail pioneers pass through the sandhills, painting by William Henry Jackson

“To enjoy such a trip … a man must be able to endure heat like a Salamander, mud and water like a muskrat, dust like a toad, and labor like a jackass. He must learn to eat with his unwashed fingers, drink out of the same vessel as his mules, sleep on the ground when it rains, share his blanket with vermin, and have patience with mosquitos. He must cease to think, except of where he may find grass and water and a good camping place. It is hardship without glory.” — Anonymous Settler writing in the St. Joseph, Missouri Gazette

 

Though 19th-century settlers, as well as much of written history, looks at the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail as romantic, almost one in ten who embarked on the trail didn’t survive. In fact, the Oregon Trail is this nation’s longest graveyard. Of the estimated 350,000 who started the journey, the trail claimed as many as 30,000 victims or an average of 10-15 deaths per mile.

The main causes of deaths along the Oregon/California Trail from 1841 to 1869 were disease, accidents, and weather.

Disease and Illness

“We did not meet any sickness nor see any fresh graves until we came in on the road from St Joseph. From that out, there was scarcely a day but we met six and not less than two fresh graves.” — Elizabeth Keegan, 18

Death on the Trail

Death on the Trail

The number one killer on the Oregon Trail, by a wide margin, was disease and serious illnesses, which caused the deaths of nine out of ten pioneers who contracted them. The hardships of weather, limited diet, and exhaustion made travelers very vulnerable to infectious diseases such as cholera, flu, dysentery, measles, mumps, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever which could spread quickly through an entire wagon camp.

Opportunities for sanitation — bathing and laundering — were severely limited, and safe drinking water frequently was not available in sufficient quantities. Human and animal waste, garbage, and animal carcasses were often in close proximity to available water supplies.

As a result, cholera, spread by contaminated water, was responsible for the most deaths overall on the Oregon Trail. Cholera could attack a perfectly healthy person after breakfast and he would be in his grave by noon. With no cure or treatment for the disease, the infected emigrant usually died within 24 hours or less. However, many would linger in misery for weeks in the bouncy wagons. In a bad year, some wagon trains lost two-thirds of their people to the deadly disease.

Food poisoning was was often a problem with contaminated food, more likely among single men. Scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C was also a problem. Poisoning from drinking water that was too alkaline was also common.

There was a high incidence of childbirth on the trail and tragedy often came with the arrival of a baby. Death during childbirth was common and infant mortality was high. Poor nutrition, lack of medical care and poor sanitation caused many of these deaths.

“One woman and two men lay dead on the grass and some more ready to die. Women and children crying, some hunting medicine and none to be found. With heartfelt sorrow, we looked around for some time until I felt unwell myself. Got up and moved forward one mile, so as to be out of hearing of crying and suffering.” — Emigrant John Clark

Trail Accident

Trail Accident

Accidents

Throughout the trail’s existence, numerous accidents were caused by negligence, exhaustion, guns, and animals.

Wagon accidents were the most common, with both children and adults sometimes falling off or under wagons and being crushed under the wheels.

“A little boy fell over the front end of the wagon during our journey. In his case, the great wheels rolled over the child’s head—-crushing it to pieces.” — Edward Lenox

Wagon crossing a river

Wagon crossing a river

Crossing rivers was one of the most dangerous things that pioneers were required to do.  Swollen rivers could tip over a wagon and drown both people and oxen and valuable supplies, goods, and equipment could be lost. Sometimes this was caused by animals panicking when wading through deep, swift water. Hundreds drowned trying to cross the Kansas, North Platte and Columbia Rivers — among others.  In 1850 alone, 37 people drowned trying to cross one particularly difficult Green River.

Those who didn’t drown were usually fleeced by a ferryman. The charge ranged up to 16 dollars; almost the price of an ox. One ferry earned $65,000 in just one summer. The emigrants complained bitterly.

A Covered Wagon is ferried across a river

A Covered Wagon is ferried across a river

“The ferryman allowed too many passengers to get in the boat, and the water came within two inches of the gunwale. He ordered every man to stand steady as the boat was liable to swamp. When we were nearly across the edge of the boat dipped; I thought the boat would be swamped instantly and drowned the last one of us.” — Emigrant John B. Hill

Over time, this risk would be reduced as bridges and ferries became available. Even then, there were stories of rafts pitching over and improvised bridges collapsing throwing people to their deaths.

Sometimes, alcohol played a part. On one occasion, on June 2, 1853, an inebriated emigrant, misjudged the rain-swollen Buffalo Creek, drove his wagon in, and was never seen again.

Hunting buffalo to feed a wagon train of pioneers

Firearms were the second leading cause of emigrant injury and death. Because of the need to hunt and fear of Indian attacks, wagon trains were filled with more firepower then they would ever need. One Oregon Trail expedition had a 72-wagon train that carried 260 pistols and rifles, nearly a ton of lead, and over a thousand pounds of gunpowder. Most of the travelers had no training or experience with firearms. Consequently, countless people accidentally shot themselves or others.

The first emigrant to die due to an accidental gunshot was ironically named John Shotwell on May 13, 1841. Making matters worse, was that it was self-inflicted. When he reached for the rifle, muzzle first, the firearm went off.

Handling domestic animals also caused accidents when travelers were thrown, kicked or dragged by oxen, horses, and mules. Other injuries were caused by stampeding livestock. Occasionally wild animal deaths occurred when someone unwisely wandered off alone. On a few occasions, buffalo overran wagon trains causing havoc and injury.

Other emigrants suffered cuts, broken bones, burns; animal, insect and snake bites. Others died from drowning (especially in the 1850s before there were many ferries) and quicksand.

Weather

“Such sharp and incessant flashes of lightning, such stunning and continuous thunder, I had never known before. The woods were completely obscured by the diagonal sheets of rain that fell with a heavy roar, and rose in spray from the ground. The storm ceased as suddenly as it began. The thunder here is not like the tame thunder of the Atlantic coast. Bursting with a terrific crash directly above our heads, it roared over the boundless waste of the prairie, seeming to roll around the whole circle of the firmament with a peculiar and awful reverberation. The lightning flashed all night.” – Francis Parkman, 1846

Wagon train in winter by Nick Eggenhofer

Wagon train in winter by Nick Eggenhofer

Weather-related dangers included thunderstorms, lethally large hailstones, lightning, tornadoes, grass fires, and high winds. A half-dozen emigrants were killed by lightning strikes; many others were injured by hail the size of apples. In the Rocky Mountains, there would be large snowstorms and severe cold, causing frostbite and death by freezing.

On the prairies, the intense heat caused the wood to shrink, and wagon wheels had to be soaked in rivers at night to keep their iron rims from rolling off during the day. The dust on the trail itself could be two or three inches deep and as fine as flour. Emigrant’s lips blistered and split in the dry air, and their only remedy was to rub axle grease on them. Numerous pioneers died from exposure.

American Indians

A wagon train and Indians

A wagon train and Indians

American Indians were usually among the least of the emigrants’ problems, though the overlanders certainly thought otherwise at the time. Most Indians were peaceful and often helped the emigrants in their journey in a variety of ways. Mostly, the Indians traded with the emigrants. Fresher or different foods to vary their diet and moccasins to replace worn out shoes and boots were exchanged for articles of clothing and trade goods brought for just that purpose. Other help was more direct. Before white men set up ferries and bridges to cross treacherous rivers, Indians were making ferries out of canoes to take wagons and people across.

Tales of hostile encounters far overshadowed actual incidents and a few massacres were highly publicized, further reinforcing the pioneers’ fears. This was further complicated by trigger-happy emigrants who shot at Indians for target practice and out of unfounded fear.

2 thoughts on “Danger and Hardship on the Oregon Trail”

  1. I remember reading a short story named Trouble on the Oregon Trail contained in a book with stories for teaching English and issued by the USIS -US Information Service. That was around 1972. I was a teacher at the Binational English Teaching Center here in Santiago, Chile. And somehow that title remained with me even I never used it as a regular lesson since it had little connection to everyday life and the vocabulary was too advanced for my students. Today I typed in the title and learned about the bravery and determination of thousands of men, women, and children along with the tough work and terrible fate of the animals that accompanied them. Also, please allow me to express my gratitude to my Chilean colleagues back then, and to my American colleagues Todd Hottstatter, Steve Lescohier, Eileen Leiby, and many others.Thank you.

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