Long ago, there was a video game that let people pretend to travel through the Wild West in covered wagons, surrounded by oxen, disease, death, and rifles. But did you know that the real Oregon Trail was far from fun and games? It wasn’t the leisurely leg-dangling in pools of fresh water you might imagine. In fact, it was tough, with disease, danger, and death lurking around every bend. Let’s take a closer look at the real Oregon Trail, where the estimated number of deaths is probably more than you think.
Back in the 1830s through the 1860s, about 350,000 brave souls embarked on the journey from Illinois to Oregon. They had dreams of a better life, but the reality was a harsh test of survival. Settlers on the Oregon Trail had to endure hardships that most of us can’t even fathom. They had to learn to eat with unwashed fingers, drink from the same vessel as their mules, sleep on the wet ground during rain, share their blankets with vermin, and put up with pesky mosquitos. These pioneers might not have known the exact numbers, but an astonishing 10 to 15 people per mile would lose their lives on this treacherous path. In total, around 20,000 people would meet their end along the Oregon Trail.
Imagine this: if you knew you had a 5% chance of dying during a flight from Chicago to Portland, would you even bother packing a carry-on? Well, on the Oregon Trail, it wasn’t the airplane air or bad food that posed the threat. It was an array of deadly diseases. Cholera, which causes death through dehydration from severe diarrhea, was one of the culprits. Respiratory diphtheria, a condition where the airways in the nose and throat get coated in “thick, gray tissue,” was another threat. Dysentery, which led to death by bloody diarrhea, was also a grim reality. Typhoid fever, which attacks the intestines, and measles, which is manageable today but was a death sentence back then, were part of the deadly mix.
The common factor in most of these diseases was unclean water. In the middle of the arduous journey, clean and fresh water was in short supply, and people had to share everything with their fellow travelers and unwashed animals. It was a recipe for disaster.
Encounters with Native Americans
In addition to diseases, pioneers on the Oregon Trail had to contend with another threat: run-ins with Native Americans. While these encounters didn’t lead to a high percentage of deaths (362 out of 20,000), they were still dangerous. Native tribes like the Sioux, Crow, Kiowa, and Shoshone generally didn’t mind people passing through their land. Most interactions ended peacefully with trade. But theft could be a problem. Native tribes occasionally stole food, and lone travelers were more vulnerable. Most violent conflicts happened in the western parts of the trail, like the Humboldt River in Nevada and the Applegate Trail leading to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Shockingly, an estimated 90% of those killed by Native Americans lost their lives along the “South Pass,” mainly from the 1840s to the 1860s.
You might think that if someone died on the trail, they would receive a proper burial. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Many times, the deceased would just be rolled over by wagon wheels, intentionally. This was done to deter scavengers and wolves from feasting on the bodies, as revealed by the Oregon Trail Center.
The Real Oregon Trail
The real Oregon Trail was nothing like the video game. It was a perilous journey filled with diseases, dangers, and death. Settlers faced unimaginable challenges, from a lack of clean water to run-ins with Native Americans. So, the next time you hear about the Oregon Trail, remember that it was a far cry from the romanticized version we often see in movies and games. It was a grueling test of survival for those who dared to embark on this unforgettable journey.