Disease was rife and spread easily
If the hunger, the cold or out-of-control oxen didn’t get you on the Oregon Trail, then disease surely would have. Only a few hardly souls made it the entire 2,170 miles without falling ill at all. The vast majority of pioneers got sick at some point along the way. If you were heading west for a new life, then communicable diseases were an occupational hazard. As such, the Trail was as messy as it was deadly. This was no journey for the faint-hearted. Or for anyone with a weak constitution for that matter.
There were many diseases you could catch on the Trail. But three were more serious than all the rest. Typhoid fever killed an estimated one in five of those people who contracted it along the way. In most cases, people caught dysentery by drinking unclean water. Since most people making the journey had – at best – rudimentary knowledge of bacteria, they would often fill their canteens with dirty water. As well as causing them severe gastrointestinal pains, some victims would also become delusional. They would wander around, confused, until finally succumbing to typhoid.
And then there was the dysentery. Simply put, there were no bathrooms on the Oregon Trail. Poor toiletry habits (for example, doing your business too close to the wagons or campsites) caused germs to spread. So, when one person got dysentery, pretty soon their whole wagon trail would be afflicted by it too. But even a bout of dysentery was preferable to the one disease that was feared more than any on the Trail: Asiatic cholera. Caused by unsanitary conditions and so spreading easily through unclean camps, it was an unseen killer. It started with a stomach ache. Before long, the cramps got worse and worse and soon the vomiting and diarrhoea would come. If this didn’t do the job, killing you though dehydration and exhaustion, then your skin would turn blue. The good news? Anyone who made it through the first 12 or 24 hours usually made a full recovery and could resume their journey.
In the late 1840s, a cholera epidemic hit the Oregon Trail. The Great Plains region in particular was a deadly hotspot, with hundreds dying as they attempted to cross this stretch of the country. For some reason, pioneers from Missouri seemed to be more likely than anyone else to not only catch cholera but to succumb to their diseases. Again, there was some good news: If you made it past the Great Plains, chances are you would make it to Oregon cholera-free.