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.
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.
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.
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 ..."
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.