Everyone remembers the original Oregon Trail game that many of us played on our old DOS computers, complete with the stress of getting our entire families to hold on until the end of the game so we could start our brand new lives. The thought of a permanent settlement and arriving without anyone catching dysentery was one that spawned many a joke when it didn't happen, and one that frustrated many people when they had to restart their journey several times. However, unlike in a video game, traveling the Oregon Trail was a real-life occurrence and, tragically, was not so far-off from the game that spurred so much hatred for covered wagons and lack of medicine.
The journey along the Oregon Trail spanned a length of 2,170 miles between the west coast and the midwest and out of an estimated 500,000 people who started the journey, one in ten of them would not make it until the end. This sometimes devastating trip began in the 1840s and continued to be a popular route into the 1860s, with many families leaving ill-equipped to handle the journey and its dangers. The preparation it took in the game was not too far-fetched - although many times, there wasn't enough money to even fill a wagon with the supplies that were needed for such a long trip.
The Dangers That Many Faced On The Oregon Trail
According to the National Parks Service, the Oregon Trail has gained a reputation for being the country's 'longest graveyard.' Of the emigrants who set off to complete it, many weren't making it until the end due to all the dangers that came as unsuspecting surprises while 'on the road.' The most notable cause of death along the trail was disease and while many were worried about stole goods or accidents, diseases were the first to steal a family their promise of a new frontier.
Cholera was the most well-known of the diseases that struck emigrants on the Oregon Trail and it came from waterborne bacteria. Since there was no way to carry nearly enough clean water in a wagon, many emigrants resorted to stopping by rivers and streams to collect water for the remainder of the trip. A major source of cholera is stagnant water and early pioneers didn't know any better, therefore, many would fall ill quickly and it took as little as 12 hours for the disease to claim a life. Common treatments for suspected cholera were camphor and laudanum, but these didn't do much in the way of curing people.
Dysentery is the disease that most are familiar with thanks to the game, however, it was no joking matter in real life. Caused by unsanitary conditions, it wasn't always fatal and was treated with castor oil. The problem arose when elderly or young children were infected, as it became harder to fight off for those with weaker immune systems. Other common, but lesser-known, diseases and ailments along the trail were mountain fever, measles, food poisoning, scurvy, smallpox, pneumonia, headaches, and coughs.
Another cause of death on the trail were gunshot wounds. Native American Indians were viewed as a threat by those taking the Oregon Trail and to defend themselves, each wagon was fully-equipped with the weapons they thought were needed to fend them off. However, in a bizarre twist, many gunshot victims ended up that way due to carelessness when handling weapons or poory and cheaply-made weapons that misfired or simply just exploded. Hunting was a common pastime for wagons and oftentimes, emigrants would hunt simply for sport, and this is where a majority of gunshot wounds actually came from.
Weather-related injuries were also on the list, as the weather throughout the midwest was highly unpredictable for those unfamiliar with the terrain. Thunderstorms would pop up randomly and tornaoes would also make their way across the plains, leaving emigrants with few places to turn around or take shelter. Additionally, the strong heat that fell over the plains would shrink the wooden wheels on the wagons, and emigrants were required to soak them in rivers overnight which led to dangers of its own. If heat wasn't the issue, then dust had the potential to cover the ground with inches of debris, making it challenging and at times, impossible, to navigate.
Other hazards included environmental factors. Wagon accidents did happen and back then, there were no safety measures in place to keep passengers safe. If a wheel fell off while traveling or a wagon tipped over, there was no means for immediate medical attention nor were there any seatbelts in place to keep people safe. Falling off wagons while driving over rough terrain was also not uncommon, and animals - both wild and domestic - could all become threats to human life. The least of the emigrant's worries would prove to be the American Indians, who would often help emigrants, trade with them, and set up ferries to help travelers cross dangerous waterways. Sadly, the bigger threat was from the emigrants, who tended to be trigger-happy and couldn't find a way to traverse the land in a peaceful manner.