Life and Death on the Oregon Trail

Provisions for births and lethal circumstances

The overlanders encountered their first hardship before they even left home.

In December of 1847, Loren Hastings was walking the stump-filled, muddy streets of Portland, Oregon, when he chanced upon a friend he had known back in Illinois. Hastings had made the trip on the Oregon Trail unscathed, while his friend had lost his wife. Hastings’ summary of their feelings was eloquent: “I look back upon the long, dangerous and precarious emigrant road with a degree of romance and pleasure; but to others it is the graveyard of their friends.”

The overlanders encountered their first hardship before they even left home, as leaving friends and family behind was difficult. Henry Garrison described his uncle’s parting from Iowa: “When Grandmother learned the next morning that they were then on their way, she kneeled down and prayed that God would guard and protect them on their perilous journey.” She would never see them again.

Covered wagons dominated traffic on the Oregon Trail. The Independence-style wagon was typically about 11 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 2 feet deep, with bows of hardwood supporting a bonnet that rose about 5 feet above the wagon bed. With only one set of springs under the driver’s seat and none on the axles, nearly everyone walked along with their herds of cattle and sheep.

Emigrants banded together into parties or companies for mutual assistance and protection. Parties usually consisted of relatives or persons from the same hometown traveling together. In some cases they formed joint stock companies, such as the Boston and Newton Joint Stock Association, Iron City Telegraph Company, Wild Rovers, and the Peoria Pioneers.

Organization was required to ensure a successful journey. The most successful groups had a written constitution, code, resolutions, or by-laws to which the emigrants could refer when disagreements threatened to get out of hand. Almost all wagon trains had regulations of some sort, and rare was the group that didn’t elect or otherwise appoint officers. The regulations typically included rules for camping and marching and restrictions on gambling and drinking. There were penalties for infractions, social security for the sick or bereaved, and provisions established for the disposition of shares of deceased members of a party.

A typical day started before dawn with breakfast of coffee, bacon, and dry bread. The bedding was secured and wagon repacked in time to get underway by seven o’clock. At noon, they stopped for a cold meal of coffee, beans, and bacon or buffalo prepared that morning. Then back on the road again. Around five in the afternoon, after traveling an average of fifteen miles, they circled the wagons for the evening. The men secured the animals and made repairs while women cooked a hot meal of tea and boiled rice with dried beef or codfish.

Evening activities included schooling the children, singing and dancing, and telling stories around the campfire. Some trains insisted on stopping every Sunday, while others reserved only Sunday morning for religious activities and pushed on during the afternoon. Resting on Sundays, in addition to giving the oxen and other animals a needed break, also gave the women of the wagon train a chance to tend to their domestic chores — particularly doing the laundry, as the dust on the Trail pervaded every article of clothing exposed to it. Occasionally, a wagon train’s arrival at a source of clean water was enough to prompt a special stopover for laundry day.

Marriages and births were always special occasions, and there were a surprising number of both on the Oregon Trail. Weddings were common either at the jumping off spots or, for those romances that bloomed along the Trail, on the Platte River or at Fort Laramie. A tongue-in-cheek conspiracy against the privacy of newlyweds by older-weds was called a “shivaree.” Virtually every train had expectant mothers, and their newborns were often named for natural features, events, or important days. There is one story of an orphaned baby who was passed from breast to breast to be fed.

Leaving behind keepsakes, heirlooms, or wedding gifts was a painful reality many emigrants had to eventually face. Articles too precious to leave behind in the East were later abandoned along the trail to spare weary oxen. Hard stretches of the trail were littered with piles of “leeverites” — items the emigrants had to “leave ‘er right here” to lighten their wagons. In later years, the Mormons made a cottage industry of salvaging the leeverites and selling them back to emigrants passing through the Salt Lake Valley. This practice, while arguably displaying an enviable entrepreneurial spirit, engendered further ill will between Mormons and Gentiles.

The tiring pace of the journey — fifteen miles a day, almost always on foot — got to many an emigrant. Elizabeth Markham went insane along the Snake River, announcing to her family that she was not proceeding any farther. Her husband was forced to take the wagons and children and leave her behind, though he later sent their son back to retrieve her. When she returned on her own, her husband was informed that she had clubbed their son to death with a rock. He raced back to retrieve the boy, who was still clinging to life, and on his return found that his wife had taken advantage of his absence to set fire to one of the family’s wagons.

Perils along the way caused many would-be emigrants to turn back. Weather related dangers included thunderstorms, lethally large hailstones, lightning, tornadoes, and high winds. The intense heat of the deserts caused wood to shrink, and wagon wheels had to be soaked in rivers at night to keep their iron rims from rolling right off during the day. The dust on the Trail itself could be two or three inches deep and as fine as flour. Ox shoes fell off and hooves split, to be cured with hot tar. The emigrants’ lips blistered and split in the dry air, and their only remedy was to rub axle grease on their lips. River crossings were often dangerous: even if the current was slow and the water shallow, wagon wheels could be damaged by unseen rocks or become mired in the muddy bottom. If dust or mud didn’t slow the wagons, stampedes of domestic herd animals or wild buffalo often would.

Nearly one in ten who set off on the Oregon Trail did not survive. The two biggest causes of death were disease and accidents. The disease with the worst reputation was Asiatic cholera, known as the “unseen destroyer.” Cholera crept silently, caused by unsanitary conditions: people camped amid garbage left by previous parties, picked up the disease, and then went about spreading it, themselves. People in good spirits in the morning could be in agony by noon and dead by evening. Symptoms started with a stomach ache that grew to intense pain within minutes. Then came diarrhea and vomiting that quickly dehydrated the victim. Within hours the skin was wrinkling and turning blue. If death did not occur within the first 12 to 24 hours, the victim usually recovered. One of this author’s relatives, Martha Freel, came to Oregon in 1852. A letter sent home to an aunt in Iowa from Ash Hollow is now in my possession:

“First of all I would mention the sickness we have had and I am sorry to say the deaths. First of all Francis Freel died June 4, 1852, and Maria Freel followed the 6th, next came Polly Casner who died the 9th and LaFayette Freel soon followed, he died the 10th, Elizabeth Freel, wife of Amos [and Martha’s mother] died the 11th, and her baby died the 17th. You see we have lost 7 persons in a few short days, all died of Cholera.”
– Martha Freel, June 23, 1852

The cholera outbreak along the Oregon Trail was part of a worldwide pandemic which began in Bengal. Cities throughout the United States were struck, and the disease reached the overland emigrants by traveling up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. The epidemic thrived in the unsanitary conditions along the Trail, peaking in 1850 as it was stoked by the immense numbers of prospectors and would-be gold miners on the overland trails in 1849 and ’50. Adults originating from Missouri seemed to be most vulnerable to the disease. Fortunately, it was prevalent on the Great Plains, and once past Fort Laramie, overlanders were largely safe from cholera at the higher elevations.

Accidents were caused by negligence, exhaustion, guns, animals, and the weather. Shootings were common, but murders were rare — one usually shot oneself, a friend, or perhaps one of the draft animals when a gun discharged accidentally. Shootings, drownings, being crushed by wagon wheels, and injuries from handling domestic animals were the biggest accidental killers on the Trail. Any one of these four causes of death claimed more lives than were lost to sharp instruments, falling objects, rattlesnakes, buffalo hunts, hail, lightning, and other calamities.

Deaths along the trail, especially among young children and mothers in childbirth, were the most heart-rending of hardships:

“Mr. Harvey’s young little boy Richard 8 years old went to git in the waggon and fel from the tung. The wheals run over him and mashed his head and Kil him Ston dead he never moved.”
– Absolom Harden, 1847

Starvation often threatened emigrants, but it usually only killed their draft animals and thinned the herds they drove west:

“Counted 150 dead oxen. It is difficult to find a camping ground destitute of carcasses.”
– J.G. Bruff, 1849

“Looked starvation in the face. I have seen men on passing an animal that has starved to death on the plains, stop and cut out a steak, roast and eat it and call it delicious.”
– Clark Thompson, 1850

Patty Reed, eight year old member of the Donner-Reed Party of 1846 recalled how her mother “took the ox hide we had used for a roof and boiled it for us to eat” when the party was stranded by an early snowfall in the high Sierras. Thirty five members of the party died, and many of the 47 survivors ate their own dead.

Looking back from the Twentieth Century, it is clear that Indians were usually among the least of the emigrants’ problems, though the overlanders certainly thought otherwise at the time. 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. A few massacres were highly publicized, further reinforcing the myth. The Ward Train, for instance, was attacked by Shoshones who tortured and murdered nineteen emigrants. One boy escaped with an arrow in his side.

The Oregon Trail is this nation’s longest graveyard. Over a 25 year span, up to 65,000 deaths occurred along the western overland emigrant trails. If evenly spaced along the length of the Oregon Trail, there would be a grave every 50 yards from Missouri to Oregon City. Medicine kits the pioneers carried to treat diseases and wounds included patent medicine “physicing” pills, castor oil, rum or whiskey, peppermint oil, quinine for malaria, hartshorn for snakebite, citric acid for scurvy, opium, laudanum, morphine, calomel, and tincture of camphor. It’s a wonder that only one in every ten emigrants died along the way.