National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier Idaho



Major threats to pioneer life and limb came from accidents, exhaustion, and disease. Crossing rivers were probably the most dangerous thing pioneers did. Swollen rivers could tip over and drown both people and oxen. Such accidents could cause the loss of life and most or all of valuable supplies. Animals could panic when wading through deep, swift water, causing wagons to overturn. Animals could cause very serious injury to their owners. People could be crushed by wagons or animals, thrown by horses.  

According to Peter D. Olch, being run over by wagon wheels was the most frequent cause of injury or death.  Both children and adults could slip while getting out of a wagon and fall beneath the wheels. Children were especially susceptible to being run over by heavy wagons. Firearms were the second leading cause of emigrant injury and death and a surprisingly large number of pioneers were injured by accidental firearm discharges.  It was usually safer to keep rifles unloaded.and the third cause was stampeding livestock.Indians proved not to be any real danger to most pioneers.   Other causes of injury or death included attacks by emigrants on other emigrants, lightning, hailstorms, grassfires, gunpowder explosions, snakebite and suicide.

Diseases and serious illnesses caused the deaths of nine out of ten pioneers. Such diseases as cholera, small pox, flu, measles, mumps, tuberculosis could spread quickly through an entire wagon camp.  Cholera was the main scourge of the trail. It could attack a perfectly healthy person after breakfast and he would be in his grave by noon. However, many would linger in misery for weeks in the bouncy wagons. When it was obvious a person wouldn’t last the day, the train would often hold up moving in order to wait for the end. Burials often were done right in the middle of the trail, where wagons could roll over and animals trample it down in order to erase the scent so wolves could not pick up the scent.

A man that died along the pioneer trail
(click for larger version)

Deaths along the trail was a constant reminder that life

could be taken at anytime

The number of deaths which occurred in wagon train companies traveling to California is conservatively figured as 20,000 for the entire 2,000 miles of the Oregon/California Trail, or an average of ten graves per mile.


Trail Basics
The Trek West
The Starting Point
The Wagon
Mules, Horses or Oxen
A Day on the Trail