Accidents along the Trail

The greatest dangers along the Overland Trail were disease and accident. Except for sanitary precautions, then little known, disease was perhaps unavoidable. Accidents, however, were “a built-in, do-it-yourself hazard,” according to historian Merrill Mattes’s Great Platte River Road, published by the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1969.

Mattes classified trail accidents as “shootings, drownings, crushing by wagon wheels, and injuries resulting from handling domestic animals. These were the four big causes of maimings and killings. All other discoverable causes combined, such as sharp instruments, falling objects, rattlesnakes, buffalo hunts, hail, and lightning, did not equal one of these four major causes.

“The emigrants were walking arsenals, armed to the teeth with rifles, shotguns, and revolvers, supposedly used to hunt buffalo and defend themselves from Indians. More often what they managed to do was blast, wound, or annihilate themselves instead, and in alarming numbers. Firearms did not have the safety features that exist today. . . . Many emigrants were strangers to their deadly weapons, and all underwent the fatigue which impairs judgment. . . . ‘Shot himself accidentally’ was the monotonous refrain on emigrant grave markers and the primary cause of accidental death.

“A close second were the drownings at the river crossings, the result of wagons or ferries tipping over, of some tired teamster getting snarled in harness, or of a fatigued hiker perishing in the cold water. Drownings were routine on the Kansas, the Blue, the South Platte, and the Laramie.

“The big emigrant wagons were efficient when rolling forward with a load, but clumsy and inefficient when it was necessary to stop. From a variety of causes an impressive number of men, women, and children got caught in or fell under their monstrous wheels and (with some amazing exceptions) were mutilated or killed.”

Domestic animals proved more dangerous to emigrants than their wild relatives. “The dangerous animals were the friendly beasts of burden. Not only did they rotate the wheels that crushed people, but when temperamental they committed mayhem on careless teamsters.” Kicking mules, plunging horses, runaway teams, and stampeding herds caused emigrant injury and deaths.

“Generally speaking,” Mattes concluded, “one who could swim and had a healthy respect for firearms and wagon wheels had an excellent chance for survival-if he didn’t get the cholera!”

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