Accidents & Illness

Difficulties & Dangers on the Road West

Of all the difficulties and dangers that were part of traveling the road west, two were almost universally experienced by emigrant families – accidents and illness. Given the fact of travel by wagon train, it is, perhaps, not surprising that women and children particularly (and an occasional man) were involved in wagon accidents – usually being run over.

What is surprising, however, is the number of such accidents that did not result in serious injury. In 1853, Mrs. Maria Belshaw reported that “a child in company ahead of (us) fell out of a wagon was run over badly bruised no bones broken” and later, “Mrs. Coonts was getting into her wagon, slipped and fell under the wagon, two wheels passed over her, no bones broken.”

Three years later, Twiss Bermingham recorded the even more startling incident of “. . . an old woman (who) was run over by one of the wagons. The front wheel went over her thighs and the back wheel over her shins, and singular to say, altho the wagon was laden with 32 cwt. of flour, not one of her bones was broken.”

Not all were so fortunate. According to Virgil Pringle (1846), “Mr. Collins’ son George, about six years old, fell from the wagon, and the wheels ran over his head killing him instantly, the remainder of the day occupied in burying him.” In like manner, William Newby (1843) noted the death of Joel Hembree:

July 18. A very bad road. Joel J. Hembree son Joel fel off the waggeon tung & both wheels run over him. July 19-lay buy. Joel Hembree departed this life about 2 oclock.

All reasonably well-organized and equipped wagon trains carried various medicines and remedies, but the level of medical sophistication on the trail was not high. An entry in the 1847 diary of Mrs. Elizabeth Geer provides a case in point:

Passed through St. Joseph on the bank of the Missouri. Laid in our flour, cheese and crackers and medicine, for no one should travel this road without medicine, for they are almost sure to have the summer complaint. Each family should have a box of physicking (sic.) pills, a quart of castor oil, a quart of the best rum, and a large vial of peppermint essence.

Self-treatment of sickness, though an absolute necessity, carried its own brand of danger. In 1846, Lucy Henderson and her girlfriend sampled the medicine her mother had hung in a bag on the sideboard of their wagon. It tasted terrible, so the girls put it back – after refusing to let Lucy’s younger sister, Salita Jane, also sample it.

Of course, as soon as the older girls left her unattended, Salita Jane retrieved the medicine from the bag, and drank it all.

Presently she came to the campfire where mother was cooking supper and said she felt awful sleepy. Mother told her to run away and not bother her, so she went to where the beds were spread and lay down. When Mother called her for supper she didn’t come. Mother saw she was asleep, so she didn’t disturb her. When Mother tried to awaken her later, she couldn’t arouse her. Lettie had drunk the whole bottle of laudanum. It was too late to save her life.

There is an anguish that reaches across time in the simple conclusion of the diary entry, “Father took. . . walnut boards and made a coffin for Salita and we buried her there by the roadside in the desert.”