history The Grisliest Deaths on the Oregon Trail  

Mike Rothschild
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Deaths on the Oregon Trail could come from disease, accident, starvation, misadventure, murder, 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 death. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that as many as 10% of the approximately 300,000 pioneers who rode the trail died on the way.

Grisly death came at the hands mostly of cholera, which killed unknown thousands of pioneers. But they were also shot dead 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 deaths.

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

The Destruction of the Tonquin


The Destruction of the Tonquin is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Grisliest Deaths on the Oregon Trail
Photo: 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 Trade 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 massacred the crew. Five men remained alive, and four took a skiff off the ship, while the last man stayed behind and blew the ship up. Between 100 and 200 natives were killed, while only one man of the crew of 23 survived.

The Whitman Massacre


The Whitman Massacre is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Grisliest Deaths on the Oregon Trail
Photo: Jasperdo/flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Despite centuries of popular culture fear-mongering, actual violence propagated by Native Americans against westward-bound settlers was rare. Historians record about 360 emigrant deaths 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 a massacre 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, winding up in what's now Walla Walla, WA. 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 poisoning them. Marcus was hacked to death, Narcissa was shot dead, and 13 others were either killed or died in captivity. The massacre spurred Congress into formally creating the Oregon Territory.

Richard Harvey: Crushed by a Wagon Wheel


Richard Harvey: Crushed by a W... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Grisliest Deaths on the Oregon Trail
Photo: Public Domain

Death 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 die 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 death in a matter-of-fact manner, saying he "went to git in the waggon and fel [...] the wheals run over him and mashed hishead and Kil him Ston dead he never moved [sic]."

The Triskett Gang Gunfight


The Triskett Gang Gunfight is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Grisliest Deaths on the Oregon Trail
Photo: 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 dead.

Utter carnage ensued, as the Triskett Gang shot 17 more people dead - including several women and a child. They also robbed a repository of somewhere between $25,000 and $75,000 worth of gold before loading into two wagons and getting the hell out of town. An armed posse of miners went after them, and a gunfight broke out. All five Trisketts were killed, but the gold they stole was lost - never to be found.