In 1803, the United States acquired a vast amount of land from France – the Louisiana Purchase. President Thomas Jefferson wasted no time, commissioning a group known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore that land and beyond. Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark set out from St. Charles, Missouri, following the Missouri River all the way to its headwaters. They then descended the mountains and made their way to what is now Oregon. The expedition’s objectives were largely fulfilled – to map out and explore the newly acquired territory, to observe the plant and animal life and establish a relationship with the Indians.
After Lewis and Clark’s expedition, the fur trade opened up. John Jacob Astor was a wealthy businessman who commissioned his own expedition in 1810. From 1810 until 1840 the fur trade was a lucrative business. But by 1840 the demand for fur decreased and emigration west would soon begin in earnest. In the 1830s, missionaries began to make their way to Oregon Territory. Most notably, Narcissus Whitman, who accompanied her husband Marcus on the trek west, was the first American woman to cross the Rocky Mountains.
The Great Migration
The first major influx of settlers to head west on the Oregon Trail occurred in the 1840s. The year 1843 is referred to as “The Great Migration”. In the years between 1843 and 1869, before the completion of the transcontinental railroad system, more than half a million people traveled the 2,000+ mile trek to Oregon and California. Some were looking for land to farm and make a new home in Oregon, while some were headed to California in search of gold and instant riches.
In early spring, emigrants would gather near the western border of Missouri at Independence and St. Joseph to begin their trek. Timing was crucial because the trip could take four to six months to complete, depending on conditions beyond their control (weather, illness, Indians). For the Donner Party, the timing of their departure proved ultimately to be deadly. Instead of leaving Missouri by the first of May, the group started from Independence in mid-May.
One of the myths about the experiences of those traveling the Oregon Trail was that they encountered problems with the Indian population. I’ve reviewed a few emigrant diaries and found very few incidences of problems with Indians, except perhaps having horses stolen. I read many instances of emigrants passing Indian camps with little or no acknowledgment, while some would stop and interact with the Indians. Some Indians were looking to trade what goods they had for food. Some incidences were more serious and referred to as massacres (see below).
World’s Longest Graveyard
The Oregon Trail has been called “the world’s longest graveyard”, but most of those deaths occurred as a result of disease and accident and not encounters with unfriendlies. It is estimated that on average there was a grave every ten miles along the trail. A marker for the grave might have been a piece of native sandstone etched with the person’s name, but those would be impossible to find today. These departed ones could have been depicted (years after The Great Migration) by W.B. Yeats’ haunting poem “A Dream of Death” (see yesterday’s Book Review on “The Indifferent Stars Above”):
“And they nailed the boards over her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above….”
Emigrants, not knowing what lay ahead, did not have time to mourn their dead – they had to press on and not look back. The challenges were many … here are a few:
One of the most common health issues to plague emigrants was gastrointestinal illness – from diarrhea to dysentery (a.k.a. shigellosis) to cholera. Cholera, the most serious and feared disease, was a world-wide problem of sometimes epidemic proportions in the 1800s. In 1848, over 14,000 people died from cholera in London. Cholera characteristically was of sudden onset and those with the most serious symptoms would be dead within a short period of time. For the emigrants on the Oregon Trail, the incidences of cholera and related illnesses were largely due to contaminated food and water and living conditions related to long distance travel.
The bacteria that is linked to cholera, Vibrio cholerae, causes excess water to flood the intestinal system, causing severe diarrhea, dehydration and then death in many cases. There was no cure for it (and there still is no vaccine cure for it today), although one drug was known to help – laudanum (opium). Even that cure could cause problems … one historian commented that some deaths were caused by overdoses of laudanum.
From the diary of emigrant Elizabeth Dixon Smith:
June 3 Passed through St. Joseph on the Missouri River. Laid in our flour, cheese, 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 physicing pills, a quart of castor oil, a quart of the best rum and a large vial of peppermint essence.
From the diary of John Clark, one of the pilots who led emigrants:
We pitched our tents but soon found we were in a distressed crowd. Many Oregon families. One woman & two men lay dead on the grass & some more ready to die of cholra, measels & small pocks. A few men were digging graves, others tending the sick. Women & children crying, some hunting medicine & none to be found scarcely; those that had were loathe to spare. With heartfelt sorrow we looked around for some time until I felt unwell myself. Ordered the teams got up & move forward one mile so as to be out of hearing of crying & suffering.
Another related illness to ravage the ranks of Oregon Trail emigrants was typhoid fever. Although contracted by ingesting a different bacterium, the disease shared similar symptoms with cholera and could be spread to others.
Accidents were actually the greatest cause of death along the Oregon Trail. Murder was rare but accidental shootings occurred (shooting oneself or another member of the party). Just stepping off the wagon could be dangerous for both adults and children – one misstep and someone could be crushed by the wagon wheel running over them. The emigrants not only had to cross land but rivers and streams as well. The risk of drowning was high especially if a river had been swollen by rain – and of course, hail, lightning storms and tornadoes were also real threats out on the plains.
From the diary of Absolom Harden (1847):
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.
It was always a challenge to find enough to eat along the trail. At times, draft animals were killed to stave of starvation. According to emigrant Clark Thompson:
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.
Then there was the unthinkable act of cannibalism by members of the Donner party who were so desperate for food that they began to eat their dead. Patty Reed (James Reed’s daughter) remembered her mother trying to feed her family – she “took the ox hide we had used for a roof and boiled it for us to eat”.
Indian attacks did occur, but some were perhaps publicized in such a way to make it seem more the norm for those traveling west. One of the most notable attacks was called the Ward Massacre which occurred in western Idaho on August 20, 1854. Of the twenty members of Alexander Ward’s party, only two boys survived, William and Newton Ward.
Years later, William and Newton gave their own accounts of the attack. Newton stated a party consisting of two white men and three Indians approached the Ward camp to initiate a trade for one of their horses. Upon being refused a trade, the Indians drove off the Ward’s horses. William said that his older brother Robert was guarding the horses and ran into the camp saying the Indians had taken one of their horses.
The brothers agreed that the women and children were put into the wagons as the men prepared to fight. Both estimated that there were at least 200 attackers. Newton said: “We held them off for nearly two hours, but they were too much for us.” There was no United States military presence in the area at that time, only the two Hudson Bay Trading Company posts of Fort Hall and Fort Boise. Retaliation ensued and thereafter military escort of emigrants heading west became more common and necessary.
Remembering the Emigrants Along the Oregon Trail
Today there are markers and monuments erected to the memory of those who risked so much on that long trail. Some of these can be found in:
Kansas – Alcove Springs (see Ghost Town Wednesday – Alcove Springs, Kansas article)
Nebraska – Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff National Monument
Idaho – Ward Massacre Park
California – Donner Memorial State Park and Emigrant Museum
Wyoming – Guernsey (preservation of wagon ruts)
If you’d like to know more about the Oregon Trail and the emigrants that traveled it, there are multiple resources on the internet – history, accounts from emigrant diaries, family stories and more. You’ll even find Oregon Trail games you can play on your computer, mobile devices or tablets (Annie Has Dysentery!).
- Were you surprised to read that Indian attacks were not the main cause of death along the Trail?
- Do you have any ancestors or distant relatives who traveled the Oregon or California Trails?
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2013.