Crime Along the Overland Trail

Lawlessness along the Overland Trail to Oregon and California, according to Merrill Mattes, author of The Great Platte River Road, was relatively low. There were no civil laws, no marshals and sheriffs to protect those in the unorganized territory as they made their way westward, and the protection offered by the military was limited. Nevertheless, the hardships to which emigrants were subjected gave them a common goal that tended to promote peaceful cooperation.

There are only a few documented thefts. “Buckskin Mose” reported the discovery of horse thieves, who were expelled from his wagon train. Another emigrant reported “a tribe of white Indians upon these plains at this time that are more dangerous than Pawnees. They carry on horse and mule stealing pretty extensively and even oxen do not escape their attention.”

Robbery was sometimes accompanied by murder. Francis Sawyer’s party of 1852 found a man’s still-warm body in a ravine. He had been murdered for his money, and the killer had disappeared. However, Mattes reported that the most common motive for murders along the trail was not robbery but personal grievances. Emigrant John Steele reported a classic case:

Two men who prepared their outfit in company at Independence, had frequent quarrels in regard to their traveling and camping arrangements. Going into camp near Chimney Rock, the quarrel was renewed. . . . in the heat of passion, they drew out their hunting knives and closed in mortal combat. In a few minutes one fell and almost instantly died; the other, fainting from loss of blood, was carried in the shade of a tent where, within an hour, he too expired; and with the grim irony of fate, at sunset they were laid side by side in the same grave.

Punishments for murderers or survivors of such lethal fights varied greatly. Sometimes the perpetrators were expelled from the wagon train. A few instances of drumhead trials and executions appear in emigrant journals. If “justice” was not done by fellow travelers, the only alternative was to turn the culprit over to the military, although the U.S. Army on the frontier had no defined civil jurisdiction.

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

Willie Nelson FarmAid Concert

Willie Nelson FarmAid Concert

Marker Monday: Nehawka Flint Quarries

Marker Monday: Nehawka Flint Quarries

Before Memorial Stadium

Before Memorial Stadium

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.
Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.