Dangers on the Trail
Picture courtesy Patricia Kohnen, Clackamas County History Website

Rafting Pioneers on the Columbian River by Alfred B Burr
Picture courtesy Patricia Kohnen, Clackamas County History Website

Dangers on the Trail

A Dangerous Journey

“Drownings were second only to accidental shootings as a cause of fatalities on the overland trails” ( Frank McLynn, Wagons West, page 117) More than 300 drownings were recorded. However much more exciting were these causes, the most deadly danger in terms of lives lost was cholera.

In an age when the causes of disease were put down to poisonous miasma or “bad air” and germs had not been identified cholera spread like wildfire in the cities because the bacteria was carried in infected drinking water. On the trail sanitation was basic and water was generally in short supply, so even if they had understood the reason for hygiene, it would have been difficult to practice it successfully. The disease struck so rapidly that one could be dead in twelve to twenty four hours. The first symptoms were unbearable stomach cramps. If one survived the dehydration of constant retching and diarrhoea, after this the unfortunate emigrant would probably recover.

A common cause of injury or death was being run over by the wagon. For example, William Newby recorded the death of young Joel Hembree (sic) on 19 July 1843, the day after he had fallen out of the wagon “tung and both wheels run over him.”

River crossings were hazardous, as noted by Phoebe Judson in 1853:

“We had to double teams – making eight yoke of oxen to each wagon. The beds of the wagons were raised a number of inches by putting blocks under them. We plunged into the river, taking a diagonal course. It took three quarters of an hour to reach the opposite bank. We found the river so deep in places that, although our wagon box was propped nearly to the top of the stakes, the water rushed through it like a mill race, soaking the bottom of my skirts and deluging our goods.”

At first relations with native Americans was good, providing simple precautions were followed to stop the theft of possessions or stock. Animals were usually corralled at night by forming a circle of wagons. There was generally safety in numbers, for native Americans were unlikely to attack large groups. However, the Ward Massacre of 1854 led to the abandonment of Forts Hall and Boise by the Hudson's Bay Company. Of twenty members of the group led by Alexander Ward only two managed to escape.Friction with the Indians in the Snake River country made the trail somewhat dangerous following the Ward massacre of 1854. From the account of the incident by Winfield Scott Ebey, who came across the bodies four days later, it seems that a trigger happy emigrant supposed a native American with a rifle was going to fire it at him and started the shooting by killing him. Military escorts were supposed to accompany wagon trains through the hostile country, but disaster befell the Utter party in 1860 when thirty of the forty four strong group were killed by Bannock warriors. Another attack took place at Massacre Rocks in 1862, although exact details of this are vague and there seems some suspicion that “white men” were involved. This marked the last major incident between emigrants and the native peoples.

 the first emigrants
 the route
fitting out
 daily life

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© Chris Smallbone September2006