|In the mid-19th Century, illness and sudden death were much more a part of every day life than they are today. Our knowledge of the causes of illness and methods of treatment have progressed enormously in the past 150 years. In fact, while we consider the death toll on the trails to have been exceptionally high, we often forget that the death toll in the towns and cities, and certainly|
along the frontier,
in the mid 1800s was also much higher than that with which we are familiar
In fact, much of the initial impetus for the overland migration was an outbreak of various diseases, including cholera in the congested cities, back east. The climate of the West was widely touted as being extremely healthy. As a result, many people who were frail or chronically ill to begin with, set out on the journey and, not surprisingly, their health failed along the way. Therefore, it is safe to assume that many of those who died on the trails would have soon died had they stayed put. It is virtually impossible actually to judge whether the death rate on the trails was significantly higher than it would have been among the same size population living in the cities, towns, and settlements of the East in any comparable year.
No one knows how many people died on the emigrant trails because no one even knows how many emigrants attempted the crossing. It is generally assumed that between 300,000 and 500,000 people crossed the trails and that, of those, nearly 10% perished. Considering these figures, if you were to space the graves evenly out across the trails, you could expect to find about twenty graves per mile or some 10,000 to 12,000 in Wyoming alone.
The hazards confronting the emigrants were numerous and it was a rare wagon train that didnít lose at least one member while making the crossing. Nearly all emigrants had one or more maladies during the crossing, if nothing more than a severe case of sun and wind burn. But small ailments, such as sore feet, paled in comparison to the larger dangers emigrants faced. Although it is not always easy to determine the exact cause of death, it is well known that emigrants died not only from a variety of illnesses but also from wagon accidents, animal stampedes, drownings, childbirth, accidental shootings, falls, starvation, dehydration, fire, poisonings, weather-related injuries, Indian attacks, and even murder.
Some 50% of the deaths probably resulted from illness, with the leading cause being cholera. Cholera was especially prevalent along the Platte and, for reasons that are not fully understood, relatively rare after South Pass. In fact, if you survived as far as South Pass, you had a pretty good chance of surviving the journey. In part, this is probably due to the fact that the rigors of the journey tended to kill off the weakest at the beginning of the trek. Other particularly deadly diseases included the vaguely named "mountain fever" and "camp fever." Emigrants also ascribed deaths to such causes as "gravel" and "the bloody flux." Women seem to have fared slightly better than men but death spared no one, claiming men, women, infants, children, and the elderly.
For survivors, death entailed a special sadness since there was rarely the time or the resources available to properly mourn and bury the dead. The body was usually wrapped in a shroud and confined to the earth. Many were placed directly in the middle of the road. This did not reflect a lack of sensitivity; instead, the emigrants hoped that the constant passing of the wagons would erase any scent which might attract either animal or Indian scavengers. These graves went unmarked and all trace of them has vanished.
Others were buried off to the side of the road. Rarely was there time to build a coffin but sometimes existing supplies were used to protect the body. The young might be placed in a drawer for burial; trunk lids might be used to cover the body. Sometimes, when the victims succumbed to illness, their traveling companions would lay by to await the inevitable. This often gave them time to scout for an exceptionally lovely gravesite, to dig a standard grave, and even to fashion a rough headstone. Markers might be constructed from wood, when available, or scratched into a native stone. The Nebraska grave of Rebecca Winters is marked by half of an iron wagon wheel hoop. Wooden headboards quickly disintegrated in the harsh elements but stone markers more often survived. Even today, graves are sometimes discovered when a stone flips over, revealing historic lettering. More than forty marked graves are known to exist in Wyoming today and with the diligence of a few dedicated researchers, the life stories of many of these individuals has been preserved and the circumstances of their death remain known today.