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Death and Danger on the Emigrant Trails

A granite boulder marks a grave with Christian crosses on each side.
Graves of 5 unknown persons are marked along the Oregon/California Trail near Robidoux Pass.

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Dangers Along the Emigrant Trails

The route of the Oregon/California/Mormon Pioneer Trails has been called "the nation's longest graveyard." Nearly one in ten emigrants who set off on the trail did not survive. The following is a list of the main causes of death along the trail from 1841 until 1869:
  • Disease
  • Gunshot wounds
  • Accidents
  • River crossings and drowning
  • Weather
A concrete cross marks the grave site of Fleming Dunn.
A concrete cross marks the final resting place of Fleming Dunn.

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Disease

Emigrants feared death from a variety of causes along the trail: lack of food or water; Indian attacks; accidents, or rattlesnake bites were a few. However, the number one killer, by a wide margin, was disease. The most dangerous diseases were those spread by poor sanitary conditions and personal contact. Death from diseases usually came quickly and painfully. It is estimated that 6-10% of all emigrants of the trails succumbed to some form of illness.

Of the estimated 350,000 who started the journey, disease may have claimed as many as 30,000 victims. Since the trail was 2,000 miles long, this would indicate that there was an average of 10-15 deaths per mile. Of this large number, only a few grave site locations are marked. Usually, there wasn't time or opportunity to observe customary burial rites like back home. Victims of epidemics and massacres were usually buried anonymously in mass graves. Single graves were often dug in the trail itself where the loose dirt could be compacted by the wagons that rolled over it. Most graves were deliberately left unmarked to protect the deceased from grave robbers and vandals.

Illnesses and Their Treatments

  • Cholera: This disease resulted in more illness and death than all of the other maladies experienced by the emigrants. Cholera results from a waterborne bacteria that thrives in polluted, stagnant water. It progresses rapidly and attacks the intestinal lining, producing severe diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and cramps. The effects were so severe and rapid that victims often died within 12 hours of the first symptoms. Some of the medicines that emigrants had to combat cholera were camphor and laudanum. These were painkillers and cough suppressants that did little to cure the disease.
  • Dysentery: A common ailment that can strike any group exposed to changes in their living habits, especially if accompanied by unsanitary conditions. Although seldom fatal if treated, it can be very dangerous for the very young and elderly. Castor oil was used to treat dysentary and other bowel disorders.
  • Mountain fever: Usually not fatal, with symptoms that include intestinal discomfort, respiratory distress, and fever. The diseases that fit these symptoms are: Rocky Mountain spotted fever, typhoid fever, and scarlet fever. Quinine water was used to treat Rocky Mountain spotted fever, chills and pneumonia.
  • Measles: A viral disease that is more common among children, but can have a serious effect upon adults.
  • Food poisoning: A problem with contaminated food, more likely among single men.
  • Scurvy: Weakens and deteriorates body conditions resulting from diets lacking in vitamin C. Citric acid was used to prevent and treat scurvy.
  • Smallpox: A viral disease that was very contagious causing high fever and dehydration.
  • Pneumonia: A respiratory ailment that is common among groups experiencing unsanitary conditions or exposure to drastic weather changes.
  • Headaches, coughs, muscle aches: Turpentine, vinegar and whiskey were some of the treatments to treat these ailments.

Gunshot Wounds

Most emigrants started on the journey with an intense, but unfounded fear of the native people living in the lands through which they travelled. As a result of this fear, almost every wagon was a rolling arsenal. Accidental shootings were common, but murders were rare. Hunting was a popular pastime on wagon trains, not just for food, but sport as well. As a result, hunting accidents were frequent. Many emigrants shot themselves with their own guns through careless and inept handling of firearms. Some were victims of cheaply made weapons that misfired or blew up
Storm clouds gather over a pass between two sandstone bluffs.
Storm clouds gather above Mitchell Pass.

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Weather

Weather related dangers included thunderstorms, lethally large hailstones, lightning, tornadoes, and high winds. The intense heat of the prairie cause 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 could be two or three inches deep and as fine as flour. Emigrant's lips blistered and split in the dry air, and the only remedy was to rub axle grease on them.

Accidents

Accidents were caused by negligence, exhaustion, guns, animals, and the weather. Shootings, drownings, being crushed by wagon wheels, and injuries from handling domestic animals were the common killers on the trail. Wagon accidents were the most prevalent. Both children and adults sometimes fell off or under wagons and were crushed under the wheels. Others died by being kicked, thrown, or dragged by the wagon's draft animals (oxen, mules, or horses).
A watercoloring painting depicts stampedeing bison being chased by Native people on horseback and surrounding three covered wagons.
"Stampedeing Buffalo" by William Henry Jackson

From the Scotts Bluff National Monument William Henry Jackson Collection. SCBL_153

Wild Animals

Deaths due to wild animals did occur occasionally when someone unwisely wandered off alone. Probably the greatest animal danger, however, came from the enormous herds of bison that covered the Plains. Bison sometimes overran wagon trains causing havoc and injury.

The animal that many emigrants feared was the rattlesnake. While some bites did occur, the danger was not as high as they anticipated.

Native Americans

American Indians were usually among the least of the emigrants' problems. They were mostly peaceful and helped the emigrants in a variety of ways. Indians often traded with emigrants. Native peoples offered fresher, or different foods to vary the emigrant diet, and moccasins to replace worn out boots. The emigrants provided articles of clothing or other trade goods to facilitate the trade. Native people often provided help in other ways. 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 relations between emigrants and Indians were further complicated by trigger-happy emigrants who shot at Indians for target practice and out of unfounded fear.

Article • The Emigrant Experience

Death and Danger on the Emigrant Trails

California National Historic Trail, Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, Oregon National Historic Trail, Scotts Bluff National Monument

Part of a series of articles titled The Emigrant Experience .

Last updated: December 29, 2020