Imagine an deep economic depression. Add in heightened political animosities and incessant war-mongering. Top it off with a spicy dash of blatant religious persecution. Now extend an irresistible offer for free land, 320 acres to be exact, in wide open and fertile spaces. Perhaps there’s even a little gold to be found on that land.
A chance for a Do Over in tough times.
But like all free offers, there’s a catch.
Almost 2,000 miles of heat, dust, cholera microbes, impassable mountains, frostbite, hunger and fast moving rivers lie between you and those 320 acres of Fresh Start. And even before you can take that first step to freedom, everything you own must fit into a box measuring only four feet across and twenty-one feet in length. And that’s without calculating in the necessary food, water and ammunition supplies. And did those real estate agents happen to mention most of your traveling would be via foot?
Yet almost 200,000 people did just that.
Between 1841 and 1869, the Oregon Trail was traveled by settlers looking to escape the economic downturn, missionaries seeking to proselytize, Mormons escaping persecution, gold-seekers, the Overland Stage line and eventually, the Pony Express.(1) The four to six month journey spanned over half the continent as the wagon trail proceeded west through territories and land later to become six U.S. states: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Extensions of the Oregon Trail became the main arteries feeding settlers into six more states: Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, Washington, and Montana.(2)
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Most pioneers traveled by Conestoga wagon train. These were wagons cleverly built with an upward curved floor to prevent contents from tipping and shifting. A tough, white canvas cover acting as protection against bad weather was stretched across the wagon top. The frame and suspension were made of wood, while the wheels were often iron plated for greater durability. These wagons could also hold up to approximately 12,000 pounds of cargo. (3) Couple this weight with iron-plated wheels, plus a top speed of 1-2 miles per hour plus the approximate 200,000 travelers to points west, it’s no wonder the wagon tracks are still visible today.
What’s not so visible are the names and grave locations of all those who died along what The American Patriot’s Almanac has called, “The Nation’s Longest Graveyard.” It’s been estimated that perhaps 10% (between 20,000 and 30,000) of all travelers died en route from cholera as the primary cause of death.(4) Cholera is a gastro-intestinal disorder causing severe dehydration through diarrhea and is spread by ingesting contaminated water. Incubation period is between eighteen – seventy-two hours from time of infection and the patient can collapse within one – four hours of onset.(5) Cholera can be treated through rehydration and electrolytic fluids and successful prevention of further contamination can be done through hot water/chlorine sterilization. But the typical pioneer response to this fast killer was to bury all possible infection and to quickly flee the contaminated water holes.
Firearm accidents, drowning, exposure, runaway livestock, fatigue, starvation or typhoid were the other main causes of death. One of the more well-known, albeit ghoulish, trail stories involves the ill-fated Donner Party. Burials soon became a frequent occurrence along the trail and while some family members were buried in wagon boxes or other improvised caskets, a shortage of wood meant most had a shroud of a blanket or quilt, if anything at all. Graves were frequently left unmarked to thwart grave-robbers and sometimes made right in the path of the trail where the passing of wagon wheels could pack down the soil and obliterate any evidence of the burial.(6) Most likely this type of preventive burial is the reason there are approximately only 200 known graves throughout all of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.
However, a few noteworthy stories stand out.
John Shotwell made the fatal mistake of getting his gun out of the wagon, muzzle first. Apparently, he was the very first person to die on the Oregon Trail from a firearm accident.
The Kansas State Historical Society provides the story of S.M. Marshall. Marshall was a cholera victim who specifically requested burial “on a high place, facing Kentucky.”
“S.M. Marshall. What the first and middle initial stand for is unknown. All that is known with any certainty, is that S.M. Marshall died on May 27, 1849 from cholera near Baldwin Creek in what is now Pottawatomie County, Kansas. Very few stricken individuals were lucky enough to have a etched limestone marker like Marshall’s, which remained untouched in its original location for almost 80 years before being given to the historical society in 1928.”
And then there is the rarely noted trail experience involving something similar to a Tibetan sky burial. A few emigrants in route had quite the surprise when they climbed trees to view what they thought were eagle nests but instead, found them to be Native American burial sites. Little did they know that it was the custom of some Indian tribes (Sioux and Blackfoot) to bury their dead in tree scaffolds so that they would be closer to the spirit world. (7)
For almost 30 years, wagon trains, missionaries and gold miners traveled the Oregon Trail and added to the existing markers along the way. Finally in 1869, the flow diminished sharply. The transcontinental railroad linking East and West Coasts had been completed and emigrants could now bypass the months of walking alongside uncomfortable wagons in favor of greater comfort and speed.
By 1883 the Northern Pacific Railroad had reached Portland, Oregon and most of the reason for the trail had disappeared altogether, leaving the still visible wagon tracks and the occasional marker on the windswept prairie. It has been estimated that 20% of these original wagon tracks can still be seen today, even 150 years later. (8)
Yet the grave markers were not completely forgotten once the railroads arrived. Existing emigrant graves were protected by later pioneer settlers who took up claims along the area around trail. Formal cemeteries sometimes even grew up around these old trail graves and evidence of this practice can be seen in the ruts preserved at the cemeteries in Grand Pass and Little Santa Fe in Missouri, and at Overbrook, Kansas. (9)
Unfortunately, not all the pioneer markers could endure the passage of time. In 1997, former Nebraska native Marilyn C. Toole wrote poignantly about some of the disappearing grave sites at Chimney Rock:
“In the Oregon Trail lore, one will find stories of a party of eight that died from cholera and had to be buried near Chimney Rock. When I returned [to Nebraska] in 1992 to visit my home town, I met the man who runs the Oregon Trail Rides in Gering, near Bayard. I told him about the graves and he said he had been looking for them ever since he started the business. He and I looked nearly all day, but couldn’t find a trace of them.
When I returned home to the East Coast, I hunted down my old friend from childhood days and paid her a visit. I asked her if she remembered the little graveyard from our childhood. She told me her parents had ended up buying that land and that yes, she did think it included the little plot but she had left home by then and never really explored it. Since the markers were from the very soft sandstone that is native to the area, we now think that they were just plowed under when the land was leased to farmers. Her mother had no knowledge of the graves.
I just wanted to record this story somewhere.”
(c) 2009 by G.E. Anderson
5. What Is Cholera?
6. Oregon Trail Burials
7. Scaffold burial traditions of the Blackfoot tribe
8. Author Talk – Oregon: Visible wagon tracks
– Help Preserve the Oregon Trail for Future Generations
– Kansas Cemeteries (approximately 50 sites known)
– Other interesting sites along the Oregon Trail
– Earliest known travelers on the Oregon Trail
– The Lone Grave of Adams County, Nebraska
– Native American Indian scaffold burial depictions