It turns out that traveling 1600 miles from the Missouri River to California involved more than sacrifice and hard work; pioneers faced many opportunities for injury. People emigrating via the California Trail got sick and hurt, often in ways they had not expected.

Travel pamphlets and other travelers might regale your party with warnings about snakebites and attacks by native peoples. The source of most accidental injuries was usually your own wagon train and the unpredictability of nature.

  • Getting Run Over
  • Firearms Accidents
  • Stampeding Livestock
  • Weather-Related Injuries
  • Wild Animal Injuries
  • Crossing Rivers

Getting Run Over – The Number 1 Injury

Pioneer wagons made transporting children, the elderly, valuables, and food across the plains possible. No one would expect early emigrants to carry six months of food on their backs and in their pockets after all.

Unfortunately, many travelers, especially children, got accidentally crushed under wagon wheels or trampled by the animals that pulled them. Getting run over was the most common cause of accidental injury and death on the trail.

Firearm Accidents

After getting run over, the second most common injury on the California Tail was being shot. Travelers across the plains in the 1840s needed guns to hunt for food and protect themselves. Unfortunately, many pioneers were injured or killed in accidental discharges.

Stampeding Livestock

Many wagon trains included domestic animals. Emigrants brought herds along for food and to establish farms or ranches. There were no portable refrigerators to keep a steak or rack of ribs in. You either brought dried, salted meats or your own animals.

Weather and wild animals could spook herds and cause injury and chaos among travelers.

Weather-Related Injuries

No one familiar with the Donner-Reed story will find it hard to believe that weather could change everything for a westward expansionist. Due to bad advice and poor route planning, the Donner-Reed Party became victims of blizzards, leading to hypothermia and starvation.

On the other end of the spectrum, the heat and dust on the trail got so bad that some pioneers resorted to rubbing wagon grease on their lips to treat irritation and blisters.

Wild Animal Injuries

Snakebites did happen, but you were more likely to be trampled by wild bison herds or attacked by injured animals while on the hunt. Wandering off alone would increase your risk of falling prey to animals in the wild.

Crossing Rivers

Because these trails were new, emigrants couldn’t look forward to the convenience of bridges to cross rivers. Pioneers had to rely on crude, expensive ferries or risk crossing dangerous water themselves.

Sometimes rivers would swell after a storm, making them even more treacherous. Your pack animals could become spooked and drag you down the river. Your wagon could also tip over, spilling everything and everyone into the water.

Ready To Learn More California Trail Facts?

Get more insider information on the trials that faced early American pioneers and the ones that overcame to tell us their stories. Plan a trip to visit us at The California Trail Center in Elko, Nevada, today.

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