Travelers' graves line Oregon Trail Cholera deadly to wagon trains

May 03, 1993|By The Kansas City Star

Westmoreland, Kan. -- The message is brief, revealing perhaps more about the living than the dead.

"Here lies an early traveler who lost his life in quest of riches in the west."

No name. No date on this grave marker near Vermillion Creek just south of Westmoreland.

A good guess, however, would be that the traveler died in 1849. And that would lead to a reasonably accurate surmise that cholera was the killer.

The reference to "riches" sounds a little disapproving, maybe even smug. The quest might have been for California gold or it could mean the bounty of Oregon. We will never know.

In northeast Kansas alone, Morris Werner has cataloged about 200 pioneer graves, only about 50 that have names or even RTC dates on markers. Many more, however, are lost.

It's hardly surprising, says Mr. Werner, a retired architect in Nashville, Tenn., who has been hooked on the trail since he worked in Manhattan, Kan. Graves were usually shallow to save labor, resulting in bodies that were washed away or dragged away by animals. Suitable headstones that would withstand weather and time were a rarity.

"Sometimes the grave was dug in the trail itself to conceal it from Indians," Mr. Werner says.

Among the unmarked and lost graves along the Oregon Trail, only God can sort out the dead.

"Passed 7 new-made graves, One had 4 bodies in it -- cholera," wrote Cecelia Adams in her 1852 diary. "A man died with the cholera ahead of us."

With dreadful monotony, her list grows longer as the trail grows shorter.

"Another man died. Passed 6 new graves. We have passed 21 new-made graves. Made 18 miles. Passed 13 graves today. Passed 10 graves."

Cholera got a lot of them, but it had help -- measles, dysentery, mumps, scarlet fever, typhoid and smallpox, which had already swept through the Indian villages of the Missouri Valley.

Then there were drownings, lightning strikes, tramplings by livestock, snake bites, and accidental shootings, which were all too common with well-armed and nervous greenhorns. (The first to die was a fellow named William Shotwell on the 1841 expedition.)

"I confess to more fear from careless handling of firearms than from an external foe," one traveler admitted.

Even executions occurred. A little-known fact discovered by trail historian Merrill J. Mattes was drumhead courts and summary executions of murderers on the trail. In one spot, where no handy tree grew, the resourceful pioneers stuck wagon tongues in the air and hanged the guilty from them.

Overall, the numbers of dead on the trail were large -- 30,000 in two decades -- one man, woman or child for every 193 yards of the road west. Surprising for those who watched too many episodes of "Wagon Train," only about 362 emigrants died in fights with Indians.

But it was cholera that was probably the most frightening.

Many of the emigrants may have died of the disease even if they had stayed home, especially in the cities along the big rivers that also were hit hard. One reason for the shift of the Oregon trade to the towns farther north was the reputation for cholera at the Missouri River towns.

Lillian Schlissel wrote in "Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey": "Some overlanders believed they were fleeing cholera when they started on their journeys."

Survivors remarked how a person could be hearty at breakfast and dead by noon.

In her 1850 diary, Margaret Frink mentioned seeing six men digging graves. One pointed to a waiting coffin and remarked that its occupant had dug graves the day before.

Not too far from the shallow pioneer grave near Westmoreland and the many others scattered in this part of northeast Kansas, Ken Martin and his wife, Arleta, are in the midst of planning their own wagon-train trip this summer. As with other excursions, it will be in commemoration of the Oregon Trail sesquicentennial.

It'll be folks such as the Martins of Marysville, Kan., Harold Lamberson of Wymore, Neb., and Allen Prell of Oketo, Kan., bringing their own wagons, their draft and saddle horses, and starting out at Westmoreland in Pottawatomie County on Aug. 26.

From there they'll head north along the trail to Marshall County, then west into Washington County by Aug. 29. The end of the trail is the old Hollenberg Pony Express station, an unrestored stopover.

Mr. Martin says the August train will do something nobody's done for 120-plus years -- ford the Big Blue River with covered wagons.

"We know the farmers so we'll follow the trail closer because we can get on more private land," Mr. Martin says. "What we're after is realism."

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