People travelled by wagons, carriages, or boats in the 1800s. It was long before railroads were built. Cattle owners used drive trails to travel and sell their herds to nearby towns and ranches. One of the most historic drive trails was the Oregon Trail. It was famous, however, because of tragedy and deaths. We will find out how many people died on the Oregon Trail in this article.
What Is the Oregon Trail?
The Oregon Trail was a popular wagon road spanning almost 2,200 miles. This road was from Missouri to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. It was critical transportation for emigrants from the east to the west during the mid-1800s. From the 1840s to the 1880s, thousands of people traveled westward, bringing only a few of their belongings and supplies. These settlers on the western frontier forever changed the American west.
The first emigrants to travel to the far west were Europeans and Euro-Americans. Most of them were overland explorers, mountain men, trappers, and maritime explorers of the fur trade era. Travelers were optimistic about gold and the rich farmlands in the west. In addition, they were also fleeing the east because of the difficult economic conditions. Diseases, like malaria and yellow fever, were decimating the Midwest in 1837.
The Oregon Trail was laid down by traders and trappers between 1811 and 1840. It was used by settlers between 1839 and 1869. People traveled either by horseback or by foot. In 1836, they made the first migrant train of wagons. They started in Independence, Missouri, and traveled to Fort Hall, Idaho, on a cleared trail. They continued to work on the trail, stretching it farther West, eventually reaching Willamette Valley, Oregon.
Every year, they made improvements on the trail, building better roads and bridges for faster and safer trips. They had several starting points in Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri. These trails met along the lower Plate River Valley near Fort Kearny.
Did you know that an estimated 350,000 settlers trekked through the trail from the 1830s to 1869? The use of the trail declined upon the completion of the first railroad, which resulted in faster and more convenient rides.
What Happened on the Oregon Trail?
As we said at the start, the Oregon Trail was known for the tragic events that happened from 1841 through 1869. People called this infamous trail the longest graveyard in history. Thousands set out to travel the Oregon Trail in the 19th century.
How many people died on the Oregon Trail? Of the almost 350,000 people who trekked the trail, about 30,000 people died. That was an average of 10 to 15 deaths per mile. The leading cause of death then was diseases, terrible accidents, and harsh weather.
Diseases and illnesses on the Oregon Trail
Nine out of ten travelers died of serious illnesses on the Oregon Trail. These diseases included flu, cholera, measles, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery, and mumps. They quickly spread through the camps. People were rendered vulnerable because of extreme exhaustion, limited diet, and extreme weather conditions.
There were limited supplies of clean and safe drinking water. They had poor sanitation, plus, bathing and laundering were difficult. Garbage, human and animal waste, and worst, animal carcasses were dumped near water supplies. As a result of this, cholera was the number cause of death on the Oregon Trail. A perfectly healthy person can immediately succumb to cholera. Without a cure or any treatment, the infected individual may die within 24 hours of falling ill.
However, some lingered in misery that lasted for weeks to months. They just stayed in their wagons and waited for their deaths. In a bad year, some wagon trains lost about two-thirds of their people to cholera.
Food poisoning was another concern because of food contamination. Scurvy, which is caused by a lack of vitamin C, was another problem. Travelers also suffered poisoning from drinking water with too much alkaline.
Childbirth was also common in the trial. And often, tragedy came while mothers were delivering their babies. Infant mortality was too high during that time. Newborn babies died due to lack of medical care, poor nutrition, and poor sanitation.
Accidents on the Oregon Trail
We can only imagine how many people died on the Oregon Trail. Aside from illnesses, many travelers died because of accidents on the trail. Extreme exhaustion, guns, fighting, negligence, and animal attacks often caused these accidents. Wagon accidents, like children and adults falling off their wagons and getting crushed under the wheels, were common.
These travelers also had to cross rivers, which was quite dangerous. Swollen rivers could easily tip over a wagon, causing riders to drown. They also lost valuable supplies, food, and equipment while crossing treacherous rivers. They also lost horses, oxen, etc. Some animals experienced panic while crossing deep rivers, resulting in drowning and wagons tipping over. In fact, 37 people drowned while crossing the unforgiving Green River in 1850.
If travelers were lucky enough not to drown, ferrymen fleeced them. Unscrupulous ferrymen charged them up to $16, which was almost the same price as an ox.
As years passed, the risks of traveling along the trail became smaller because ferries became available. They also built bridges, which made traveling easier and more convenient. However, there were stories about makeshift bridges collapsing or boats pitching over, thereby throwing a lot of travelers to their deaths.
Alcohol was another factor. On one occasion, a drunk traveler miscalculated the rain-swollen Buffalo Creek on June 2, 1953. He drove his wagon in, unfortunately, he was never seen again.
Travelers also brought firearms, for fear that Indians might attack them. However, wagons containing too much firepower caused accidents. Some of them didn’t have formal training or experience with firearms, resulting in accidental shootings of themselves and others.
Weather on the Oregon Trail
The changes in the weather were also difficult for the travelers. They experienced tornadoes, thunderstorms, high winds, lightning, and grass fires. In fact, lightning strikes killed about half a dozen travelers. Snowstorms and extreme cold in the Rocky Mountains caused severe frostbite and even death by freezing. The intense heat caused exhaustion in many travelers.
It was tragic, what happened along the Oregon Trail in the 1800s. Over time, conditions improved, and they eventually built bridges and ferries for safer and more comfortable travels.