Death was always stalking the pioneers
Loren Hastings was one of the many thousands of Americans who completed the Oregon Trail. In 1847, after settling in the city of Portland, he looked back on his days on the move. He wrote: “I look back upon the long, dangerous and precarious emigrant road with a degree of romance and pleasure’ but to others, it is the graveyard of their friends.” And, one might add, of their loved ones too. Not for nothing is the Oregon Trail route known as the ‘biggest graveyard in the United States’. Quite simply, anyone who set off on the trail had no guarantee of completing the journey.
In fact, an estimated one in ten people who set off on the Oregon Trail did not survive. What’s more, among children, the odds dropped to one in five. Notably, far from ambushes or other violent attacks, by far the biggest causes of death were disease and accidents. In many cases, such accidents involved firearms – for, while actual premeditated shootings or murders were extremely rare, mishaps with loaded guns really weren’t. Animals actually killed more people on the Oregon Trail than humans did. There are countless tales of unfortunate souls being booted or trampled by horses or oxen, while wild animals, and above all rattlesnakes, also cut many a traveler’s journey short.
According to some estimates, some 65,000 people died on the Oregon Trail during its peak years. That means that, if they were buried at even spacing along the way, there would be one grave every 50 yards. And, in some ways, there actually is. In many cases, these pioneers died close enough to towns or settlements to be buried in a proper churchyard or cemetery. Often, though, they would simply be buried by the side of the road or, in a macabre twist, under the trail itself. Indeed, it wasn’t uncommon to see tell-tale, human-shaped bumps along the trail. But these were far from macabre. Instead, they were practical: When someone died, their bodies were left in the way of wagons. This was, the heavy wheels could run over the bodies and help erase any scents, keeping hungry wolves at bay.