Dangers on the Oregon Trail

Wagons, Ho!

Wagons, Ho!

“Wagons, Ho!” This early morning cry of the wagon master rang out all along the Oregon Trail, but life was not easy for those journeying west. The six month trip was the most dangerous and difficult of all the crossings. The journey took pioneers over wild and varied landscapes from hot deserts to freezing snow. They had to cross rivers and struggle over rugged mountains. Settlers faced bad weather, disease, food shortages, and the threat of Native American attack. One in ten people died along the trail. Amazingly, many people survived to make a new life in Oregon.

Dangers on the Land

The land offered many hardships for immigrants. They traveled by wagons loaded heavily with all their belongings including a thousand pounds of food, farm equipment and furniture. There was no room left for the travelers so they walked. Many walked fifteen miles a day the entire 2000 miles. The trail was very dusty. Wagons frequently spread out when possible and took turns being in the lead. Many lost their lives trying to cross rivers such as the Kansas, North Platte, and Columbia. Rivers were often filled with rapids and treacherous currents. Emigrants were also charged exorbitant prices to cross rivers by ferry.

When pioneers reached Colorado, they often rested at places like Fort Laramie before beginning the climb over the continental Divide. Here many had to decide whether to take along cherished family heirlooms or only the tools and food they needed. The trek across the mountains was rocky, steep, and treacherous. Many pioneers left their belongings beside the trail to spare their exhausted oxen.

Scarcity of Food and Water

Food and water became scarce or spoiled as the pioneers journeyed across the land. A family of four needed more than 1000 pounds of food during the trip. Each person needed at least 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt. When possible, they hunted for meat along the way. Families rose early for a breakfast of coffee, dried bread, and bacon. At lunch, they often ate a cold meal left from breakfast. In the evening, they cooked meat when it was available over fires of wood or buffalo chips. Animals needed grass and water along the way as well. Many of them died on the trail as well.

Dangers from Native Americans and Accidents

Native American attacks posed some problems for travelers, but was not the largest obstacle. Accidents caused many deaths. They were caused by negligence, exhaustion, guns, animals, accidental shootings and the weather. Shootings, drownings, being crushed by wagon wheels, and injuries from handling domestic animals were the biggest accidental killers on the Trail. These claimed more lives than sharp instruments, falling objects, rattlesnakes, buffalo hunts, hail, lightning, tornadoes, heat, and other calamities.

Danger from Disease

Another big problem for pioneers was disease. The worse disease the pioneers encountered was Cholera which was caused by unsanitary conditions: people camped amid garbage left by previous parties, picked up the disease, and then went about spreading it themselves. Victims died within hours of becoming sick and there was no treatment. Cholera killed more emigrants than anything else. In a bad year, some wagon trains lost two-thirds of their people.

Nation's Graveyard

The Oregon Trail is this nation’s longest graveyard. Over a 25 year span, up to 65,000 deaths occurred. If evenly spaced along the length of the Oregon Trail, there would be a grave every 50 yards from Missouri to Oregon City. Loren Hastings, who made the trip on the Oregon Trail, said to his friend, “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.” Pioneers endured many hardships to achieve their dream of a new life in the West.