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  • Notes From The Frontier

Death on the Trail

The Oregon Trail has been called a 2,000-mile-long graveyard. From 1840 to 1869, the total number of people who traveled West on the trail was as high as 420,000. About 10% of pioneers died along the way, an average of more than 20 graves per mile.

Post mortem photography was very common in the 1800s and was often the only photograph of a loved one families had. Some photographers traveled with wagon trains expressly to provide funerary photography, knowing they would have plenty of business.

The four most common causes of death were disease, wagon accidents, accidental gunshots, and drownings during river crossing. But pioneers also died of snake bite, goring by oxen, trampling, murder, or suicide. Contrary to Hollywood westerns, deaths by Indian attack were very rare. In the period 1840 - 1860, fewer than 350 pioneers were killed by Native Americans.

Three diseases, cholera, typhoid fever and dysentery, killed the most pioneers and were caused by contaminated water. None of these diseases was an easy way to go. Fever, vomiting, extreme diarrhea, dehydration, terrible thirst, then death. Cholera was most common along the Platte River in Nebraska and Wyoming, a common camp stop for wagon trains. Thousands of westering pioneers used the river to bathe, wash laundry, including dirty diapers, empty chamber pots, even defecate. The unknowing pioneers also used the water to refurbish their water barrels and its contamination spread agonizing death.

Gun accidents were the second major cause of death. Although the threat of Indian attacks was statistically rare, pioneers were terrified of the possibility and carried irrational amounts of arms. In 1846, the diary of one pioneer recorded that 72 wagons carried 260 rifles and pistols, a ton of lead, and a half ton of powder. But most immigrants and Easterners had little experience with guns. Gun accidents killed probably a hundred times more pioneers than Indian attacks! One of the first gun fatalities on the Oregon Trail was—ironically—John Shotwell, who reached for his rifle by the muzzle and shot himself dead.

Wagon accidents were also common. A covered wagon weighed more than a ton (about 1,300 pounds for a prairie schooner—Conestogas were even heavier—and more than 700 pounds of cargo). They were hard to manage over rocky terrain and downhill, sometimes impossible to stop. One diary wrote of the death of eight-year-old Richard Harvey:

“Mr. Harvey’s little boy went to git in the wagon and fel from the tung. The wheals run over him and mashed his head and Kil him Ston dead he never moved.”

The Trail was deadly for animals, too. Carcasses of oxen, horses and mules littered the route. The 1849 diary of J. G. Bruff recorded: “Counted 150 dead oxen. It is difficult to find a camping ground destitute of carcasses.”

The 1846 Donner Party tragedy served as a cautionary—and horrifying—tale for westering pioneers. The deaths of nearly 40 souls caught in the freezing mountains resulted in survivors having to eat dead children and adults to live. Consequently wagon masters drove their trains hard to beat winter in the mountains and did not tarry.

When families lost a loved one, they didn’t have the luxury of building coffins, digging deep graves, or taking time to mourn. Victims were buried in shallow graves and, unless there were stones or tree trunks nearby, left little or no markers. Wolves, coyotes and other predators had learned that wagon trains were moveable feasts and would dig up the graves with indelicate efficiency once the wagons were gone.

A favorite but macabre pastime of children on the trail was to hunt for graves and skulls. Sometimes, at camp in the evening, pioneers carved messages on the skulls—Bible verses, lines of poetry, or other sentiments—and left them on the trail, from those who had passed through to those still to come.

Posted originally on Facebook June 4, 2019

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