“Go West, young man, and grow up with the country,” goes the famous 1851 quote, and many young American men (and women) took the advice. Once they finished their farewells to the friends and family they might never see again, it was time for the tough part — surviving a 2,000 mile journey.
The Oregon Trail started in Independence, Missouri and ended in Oregon City. This trail system wasn’t just a 19th century superhighway where people covered about 15 miles a day — it remains the nation’s longest graveyard. From the first wagon train in 1836 to the time when steam trains became the preferred method of travel, emigrants buried 65,000 of their friends and relatives along the road. That’s one grave for every 50 yards. With one out of 10 emigrants not making it to their Earthly destination, dying on the real Oregon Trail journey was just as easy as in the MS-DOS version. Here’s why.
10. Bad Weather
This was the least exciting way to die, but the weather was often more frightful than delightful. Thunderstorms meant lightning, and lightning meant death. Hard rain soaked emigrants, and with no shelter on the plains and leaky wagons, travelers of all ages became vulnerable to hypothermia and disease. Even terrifying lethal hailstorms were documented.
Many people turned back to Missouri because of the weather alone. If at any point early in the trip it seemed impossible to arrive in the west before winter, turning around ensured survival. Once winter hit, death by exposure, starvation or even cannibalism became very likely.
9. Conflict with Native Americans
Hollywood loved to depict dangerous confrontations involving Native warriors encircling wagon trains and wrecking havoc on peaceful pioneers. However, that representation was largely invented. Interaction between emigrants and the tribes was usually peaceful, as both took advantage of the opportunity to trade supplies. However, skirmishes did occur — John Uruh estimated in his book The Plains Across that 362 emigrants and 426 Native Americans died during migration between 1840 and 1860.
The cause of battles were much more complex than presented in the sensational press at the time. After 1850, it was apparent that Native populations were threatened by diseases brought by white settlers. And emigrants weren’t sensitive to land rights, even in areas considered sacred. The threat of social and cultural change inevitably led to conflict.
8. Mental Illness
Journeys west often resulted in mental instability, a phenomenon that was documented as early as 1812. Robert Stuart, who mapped the South Pass of the Oregon Trail, witnessed one of his men go insane during the expedition. That incident ended peacefully, but others didn’t.
When Elizabeth Markham and her family traveled the Oregon Trail, she announced at the Oregon-Idaho border that she would go no further. Her husband proceeded with their possessions and children, and once they reached a base camp he sent their son back to retrieve her. Mrs. Markham returned to the party without the boy and informed her husband that she bludgeoned the poor kid to death with a rock. Understandably taking this news poorly, he frantically retraced the journey to find their son. While he was gone, she set their wagon on fire.
Stories of sudden insanity remind us that this journey was hostile and stressful. When people were pushed past their breaking point the result could be devastating.
7. Mishandling Firearms
Assault and murder figure prominently in Westerns about the Oregon Trail, but in reality there were few dramatic shoot-outs but many firearm accidents. Westward emigrants primarily came from middle and upper-class families who successfully farmed, raised animals or ran small businesses. Their migration had more to do with investment opportunities than life or death situations. However, given that many weren’t particularly outdoorsy types, they were inexperienced with handling guns. Firearms were required equipment for food and protection, and learning how to handle them occurred as situations arose.
That is not the best approach to take with firearms training.
Inexperienced hunters missed their targets. Loaded weapons shot off when jostled in wagons. Men on night watch overreacted to sudden movements and shot friends they thought were foes. The unintended discharge problem became enough of an issue that trail leadership encouraged emigrants to keep firearms unloaded until they had a specific purpose.
6. Wagon Accidents
The first stretch of the trail was relatively flat and easy to navigate, but when emigrants entered the mountainous West terrain became a challenge. With no springs, brakes or even a good turning radius, wagons tipped hitting rocks or climbing hills. People risked injury or death being crushed by tipping wagons or being thrown around inside them.
Wagons were deadly even when they were stable — children were frequently crushed to death by the wheels during falls while entering, exiting or losing balance after a bad bump. Adults also suffered this fate, which is likely why people preferred to walk and stay away from the wagons.
Most emigrants finished their trip well-fed. It was an organized venture, and supply lists were very specific. Food shortages could be replenished by hunting game or trading with Natives. But animals faced dangers during the journey too, and their greatest threat was starvation.
Journeys to Oregon thinned herds of horses, mules and oxen because grazing wasn’t always available and carrying hay was impossible. One account described a campground with 150 carcasses, and most commentary addressed the difficulty of finding a base camp without dead animals. Accounts described animals dying without warning as they collapsed from hunger or exhaustion. Opportunistic emigrants commonly took advantage of the available meat and ate these animals shortly after their demise.
4. River Crossings
With no ferries available, emigrants navigated river crossings on their own. Guiding oxen and wagons through swift current wasn’t an easy matter, as animals panicked, wheels got stuck or wagons turned over and took on water. People drowned frequently when crossing the Green, Kansas, North Platte, Snake and Columbia Rivers.
Even if you found and could afford a ferry, you weren’t guaranteed safe passage. Ferry operators seeking profit often overloaded their boats, which could capsize and kill most on board. Even properly loaded boats could tip over. To add insult to injury, emigrants paid the price of an ox ($16) to cross on a ferry. That explains why some would rather risk crossing a river on their own.
Traveling the Oregon Trail put emigrants in contact with rotting animal remains, poor sanitation and questionable water. Add to this the sheer number of people on the trail and their stops at designated camps. Many were exhausted and perhaps a little underfed, and immune systems likely fell asleep on the job. It’s no surprise that the Oregon Trail was a Petri dish of horrible ailments.
It was a choose your disease carousel: cholera, small pox, flu, measles, dysentery, mumps, tuberculosis, food poisoning, “mountain fever” and other bacteria could quickly attack a camp, leaving many miserable and some dead. Cholera was the biggest killer — people who felt well at breakfast were dead by lunch. Even if you survived a disease, you wallowed in misery for weeks riding a bumpy wagon. It’s likely that at least a little bit of time was spent wishing you would pass on just to end your suffering.
2. Premature Burial
Once it was clear you would succumb to your disease, friends and family started planning your funeral, often within eye or earshot. But, being in a hurry, those same people might not wait until you were dead to bury you. If the disease or injury didn’t kill you, being smothered by dirt would soon finish the job.
Some groups took a more humane approach and assigned “watchers” to stay behind with dying companions until the end. A burial could then be finished without bringing up everyone’s worst nightmare. However, a watcher’s patience could be tested. If dying took too long, premature burial could still occur if the lone humanitarian really wanted to return to the pack.
1. Wrong Turns
The Donner Party debacle is one of the most sensational stories of the Oregon Trail. It attracts interest with the horror of cannibalism, but its most essential lesson is often overlooked among its grotesque features. What is this lesson? Do not take a wrong turn. With no GPS in 1846, hire the right guide and listen to those who turned back.
The Donner Party did not follow this advice. While the deaths occurred after they parted the Oregon Trail, they may have survived if they had stayed that course longer. The journey of the Donner Party was uneventful until they stopped in Fort Bridger, Wyoming. That’s when the topic of shortcuts came up.
The usual route followed the Oregon Trail to the Snake River, where it connected to the California Trail. In Fort Bridger, Donner leadership learned of the Hastings Cutoff, designed by Lansford Hastings. He already started one wagon train along that route and informed the Donner Party he marked the trail for them to follow him. It allegedly shaved 350 miles off the journey.
The problem was that the Hastings Cutoff wasn’t suitable for wagon trains. It was never tested on horseback, and previous attempts by wagon failed. An earlier group left instructions to avoid the route and turn north, but the Donners never received that information. Charmed by the idea of a shorter journey, the group made the fateful choice to try the new route.
The Donner Party was already 11 days behind the first group led by Hastings. It started with the Wasatch Mountains, an inhospitable range that was nearly unsuitable for horseback travel, let alone wagon trains. The guide advised them to follow the group through Weber Canyon, which was promised to be easy. The other option was a rough trail that returned them to the established Oregon Trail.
The Donners opted for Weber Canyon and discovered that the new route was slow with uncut trails. Vegetarian was cleared and wagons were pushed and pulled through dense forests. They lost 18 days and entered the Sierra Nevada late, with snowfall and disaster imminent.
By November 4, the party was trapped by blizzards. The added time decimated their food supplies. Attempts to hunt using improvised snowshoes proved futile in the face of low visibility. Party members died from starvation, exposure and injuries caused by the weather. Those bodies were cannibalized by some starving survivors.
Three weeks after the day people first started eating their friends and family the party was found, although it took six weeks to track down every scattered member. Out of the 87 who followed the Hastings Cutoff journey, only 48 survived. One survivor, Virginia Reed, offered advice to future emigrants: “Remember, never take no cut-offs and hurry along as fast as you can.” That’s advice that remains useful today.
Jocelyn Mackie is amateur historian and professional web content provider with an unnatural fascination with how people died in the 19th century. You can see more of her work at www.jocthewriter.com.