The Grisliest Deaths On The Oregon Trail

Deaths on the Oregon Trail could come from disease, accident, starvation, misadventure, slaying, or madness. But whatever the method, the Oregon Trail, leading emigrants west from Missouri or Illinois through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and eventually into Oregon, was a place of perishing. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that as many as 10% of the approximately 300,000 pioneers who rode the trail did not make it.

Grisly passings came at the hands mostly of cholera, which took an unknown thousands of pioneers. But they were also shot on accident, mostly by pioneers who were heavily armed but unfamiliar with weapon handling. People were crushed by wagon wheels, drowned, stabbed, or simply vanished. Native American massacres were rare, but when they happened were horribly violent and led to dozens of passings.

Here are some of the grisliest deaths in the history of the Oregon Trail. And keep in mind that many others went unrecorded and unknown.

  • The Destruction Of The Tonquin

    The Destruction Of The Tonquin
    Photo: Edmund Fanning / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Before the Oregon Trail was trod, various attempts were made to open up the Pacific Northwest to trade and settlement. One of these involved the Pacific Fur Company's ship Tonquin - and it ended in horror.

    After capturing and trading furs with various native tribes on the coast of Oregon, the Tonquin made anchor off Vancouver Island. The ship's captain and the chief of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe argued over fur prices, and the chief was insulted when the captain kicked furs across the deck. In retaliation, tribe members boarded the ship and slayed the crew. A handful of men remained alive, and some took a skiff off the ship, while the ship blew up after a fire on board ignited gunpowder on the vessel. Hundreds of natives and many of the ship's crew did not survive the disaster.

  • The Whitman Massacre

    The Whitman Massacre
    Photo: Nathaniel Orr & Co. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Despite centuries of popular culture fear-mongering, actual violence propagated by Native Americans against westward-bound settlers was rare. Historians record about 360 emigrant passings at the hands of Native Americans from 1840 to 1860. However, when conflict did break out, it was often waged brutally by both sides. Missionaries Narcissa and Marcus Whitman were the central figures in fatal combat that changed the history of the American Northwest and was one of the worst incidents on the Oregon Trail.

    The Whitmans had led the first party to cross the Oregon Trail. They established a mission there and immediately fell into disfavor with the local Cayuse natives. A decade of tension finally culminated when a measles outbreak hit the local community. Believing he was the cause of the plague, the Cayuse confronted Marcus Whitman and accused him of trying to slay them with substances. Marcus was battered by tomahawk, and Narcissa was shot. The event spurred Congress into formally creating the Oregon Territory.

  • Richard Harvey: Crushed By A Wagon Wheel

    Richard Harvey: Crushed By A Wagon Wheel
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Fatalities on the Oregon Trail could come to anyone, no matter their age - and in ways both numerous and brutal. Eight-year-old Richard Harvey fell victim to one of the worst ways to perish on the trail: He was crushed by a wagon wheel. While the large wagons travelers used could only go two or three miles per hour, they could go much faster downhill, and were almost impossible to stop once they got going.

    Young Richard was one of countless victims of a runaway wagon. Another pioneer recorded his passing in a matter-of-fact manner, saying he "went to git in the waggon and fel [...] the wheals run over him ..."

  • The Triskett Gang Gunfight

    The Triskett Gang Gunfight
    Photo: Catterlin & Lussier / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Using the Oregon Trail to flee eastward, a gold-robbing gang led by brothers Henry and Jack Triskett arrived in the mining town of Sailors' Diggins, OR, in August 1852. Later called Waldo, and now a ghost town, Sailors' Diggins was one of the biggest cities in the territory. It was also a drunk, violent, and lawless town. The Triskett Gang headed right for a saloon, and after a long day of drinking, one of the men randomly pulled a gun and shot a passerby.

    Utter carnage ensued as the Triskett Gang shot 17 more people. They also took $75,000 worth of gold from a repository before getting out of town. An armed posse of miners went after them, and a gunfight broke out. All five Trisketts were slain, but the gold they took was lost - never to be found.

  • Platte River Cholera

    Platte River Cholera
    Photo: Randall Parrish / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One of the biggest dangers facing travelers on the Oregon Trail was cholera, a water-borne disease that could cause someone to perish within a day, even in the hardiest of souls. Trail stories are replete with cholera anecdotes, with the most taking place on the Platte River in Nebraska and Wyoming. Because most of the river was brackish, wagon trains would camp at the fresh streams draining in and out of the river.

    These streams were prone to cholera, as they were used by hordes of travelers for bathing and camping and had no natural filtration. Thousands suffered due to Platte River cholera, and most were dumped in unmarked, forgotten graves.

  • The Donner Party

    The Donner Party
    Photo: Miguel Stanley / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    While the Donner Party didn't actually traverse the Oregon Trail, going instead on the less widely taken California Trial, it's impossible to talk about westward travel without including their bizarre, ill-fated expedition.

    April 16, 1846 saw wagons carrying 89 men, women, and children of the Donner and other families leave Springfield, IL, to head to California. Their journey was smooth to start with, but they ran into trouble in Wyoming when the group was led astray by a fraudulent guide to follow a new and hazardous route through Utah's Wasatch Mountains. The group lost so much time that when they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, winter had set in.

    Late October saw a massive storm block every exit in and out of the mountains, and the survivors spent the next few months trapped in the frigid weather with no supplies. The families had little experience in outdoor survival, and they were forced to eat their oxen - the bodies of which were acting as the roofs of their cabins. A group set out to cross the mountains on foot, but most perished on the way, and the survivors ate their corpses. Eventually, a small group stumbled upon a small farming community, having walked for a month. In the end, 45 of the 89 Donner Party members who entered the mountain survived.