What Were the Main Causes of Death on the Oregon Trail?

Deaths occurred frequently on the Oregon Trail.

Between 1840 and 1860, approximately 300,000 pioneers traveled the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail hoping to start new lives in Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana. It is estimated that up to 30,000 of these westward emigrants died while making the journey. Although popular legend would have us believe that many pioneers were killed in conflicts with Native Americans, relatively few people actually died this way. Illnesses claimed far more lives than violence, and the majority of violent deaths on the trail were entirely accidental.

1 Disease

Illnesses such as food poisoning, typhoid and, particularly, cholera were the primary causes of death for travelers on the Oregon Trail. Some wagon trains lost up to two-thirds of their travelers to cholera; a person would often become ill quickly and drastically, going from perfectly healthy before breakfast to near death by the afternoon. Once the disease finally took them, the dead were often hastily buried by the side of the trail or even beneath the trail itself so that later wagon trains would pack down the soil, making it less likely that the graves would be dug up by wolves.

2 Wagon Accidents

The heavy Conestoga wagons used by travelers on the Oregon Trail had no safety features to speak of, and wagon accidents were a fact of life for the emigrants. These accidents often proved particularly deadly to children; it was not at all uncommon for a child to fall under one of the large wagon wheels and be instantly crushed to death. Even for adults, if a foot or leg was caught beneath a wheel there was little to nothing that could be done to help it and they would eventually succumb to infection.

3 Drowning

Dangerous river crossings were inevitable when traveling on the Oregon Trail. Ferrymen would often overload their boats with people, oxen and wagons in an attempt to maximize profits; the overweight boats would occasionally capsize, drowning travelers and livestock. Some shallower rivers were navigated without the help of boats, which put everyone in even greater danger of being swept away by the currents.

4 Gunshots

Fearing attacks from Native Americans, many Oregon Trail emigrants were heavily armed. The jostling of the wagons mixed with loaded firearms without safety locks resulted in many accidental discharges that sometimes hit unfortunate targets. Inexperienced hunters and guards also proved problematic, as they would fire indiscriminately toward animals and any suspicious sounds outside of the wagon circles at night, which sometimes resulted in accidental shootings of friends.

Jenny Parker is a New England-based entrepreneur who has been writing since 1995. Parker writes extensively on creative self-employment and genealogy; her work has appeared on Etsy.com and Ancestry.com. She also has self-published several short story collections and is currently working on her first non-fiction book chronicling the history of her ancestors in America.