• Weird History

Remember Playing 'Oregon Trail'? Here's How Those Causes Of Death Would Have Played Out IRL

Johnny has dysentery! Sarah has a snakebite! In a way that somehow mixed gruesome history with the fun of pixelated color, the Oregon Trail computer game taught kids not only how to skillfully buy enough hardtack for a cross-country voyage, but also numerated the many ways to die on the Oregon Trail

Stretching about 2,000 miles from the Missouri River to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, the Oregon Trail claimed the lives of one out of every 10 of its travelers. Pioneers set out in parties numbering from one family to thousands of wagons teamed up together. However, no matter the number, one fact remained: life on the trail was brutal.

Unlike the beloved computer game, dangers on the Oregon Trail couldn't be fixed by a reset button. Disease ran rampant, weather was unpredictable and often deadly, and people often dropped dead just from the exhaustion of the trek itself. Here's how people really died on the Oregon Trail: just how the game told you it would happen, and then some. How do you think you would have fared? Vote up the causes of death you're thankful to have left along the pixelated trail.

  • Dysentery

    What It Involved:

    Easily one of the most common ailments on the Oregon Trail, (as the game loved to remind us), dysentery is a bacterial disease that is often contracted when an unfortunate soul comes into contact with well, feces. Since there was no such thing as proper toilets on the trail — nor real hand soap — pioneers, unfortunately, had more contact with such things than most. What ensued was a painful, messy death. Dysentery is a diarrheal disease, most often recognized by the presence of blood and mucus in the stool.

    Its Mortality Rate On The Trail:

    At the time, there was hardly any treatment for dysentery, nor measures for prevention. Of the thousands who contracted the disease while on the trail, there was little that could be done; especially if clean water was scarce. Dysentery causes rapid dehydration, and was most often a quick, painful death for those who contracted the wrathful disease.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0


    What It Involved:

    Referred to as the "unseen destroyer," cholera was an alarmingly painful, rapidly-striking disease. Cholera was infamous for the speed with which it killed: victims who were fine at breakfast could be dead by lunch.

    First came an unnaturally painful stomach ache, followed by vomiting, diarrhea, and the severe dehydration induced by those symptoms. Cholera was often contracted through contaminated water, and the infected remained highly contagious, even after death. 

    Its Mortality Rate On The Trail:

    If you didn't die of dysentery, there's a good chance that cholera would be your untimely end. It's estimated that of all of the people who died on the Oregon Trail, a third of them died of cholera.

    There were historic cholera outbreaks along the Oregon Trail. The disease spread like wildfire, not only from the lack of clean water, but from the lack of hygiene: pioneers would unknowingly camp in the waste of parties that came before them, and even improperly buried bodies could help contribute to the pervasiveness of the disease.  

  • Typhoid

    What It Involved:

    Mary has typhoid! Another frequent killer on the trail was typhoid, a disease caused by  Salmonella Typhi, a bacterium that is usually lurks in contaminated food or drink. Typhoid is fairly contagious, especially in the trail environment of poor hygiene and extremely close quarters, meaning epidemics could rage through whole camps. Pioneers most often contracted it through dirty water. 

    The first symptoms involved nose bleeds, headaches and a cough. Next came a high fever, followed by intestinal hemorrhaging. Mild insanity from the high fever was common as well.

    Its Mortality Rate On The Trail:

    Typhoid was a rampant killer, especially of children. One of the challenges of the disease was that it usually lasted around four weeks; that is, if the patient managed to live that long. With no room to stop for even more than a few days, typhoid victims had to try to heal while continuing along the arduous trail. There was no real treatment for the disease, which has now been eradicated in many countries, although some pioneers ate wild lettuce, believing it to be helpful. The disease caused severe dehydration towards the end of its run, and most typhoid victims died before the raging fever had a chance to break.

  • Photo: 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Snake Bite

    What It Involved:

    This was one of those unfortunate deaths on the computer game; something that seemed to happen when everything else was finally going well: a full team of oxen, plenty of bacon, and fair weather. It was probably fairly similar in real life. Rattlesnakes were common enough on the trail to be a real threat, and once bitten, pioneers only had so many home remedies to offer; many of which sound as painful as the bite.

    One technique involved putting gunpowder on the bite, and setting it on fire (ouch). Another  required taking a knife and cutting out as much as the bitten area as possible. Cutting an "X" at the bite was also popular, and an unlucky pal would try to suck out as much venom and blood as possible.

    Its Mortality Rate On The Trail:

    Unsurprisingly, many of the above home remedies were unsuccessful. Sometimes the snakebite victim would get away with an amputation, if they were lucky enough to get bit on an extremity. However, if a bite was received in the mid-section, death was nearly certain.