It’s 1848, and whether you’ve decided to be a banker from Boston, a carpenter from Ohio, or a farmer from Illinois, you’re heading a party of westward-bound pioneers and an ox-pulled covered wagon across the United States. At least that was your goal if you ever sat in front of a middle school computer in the 70s, 80, and early 90s to learn about the trials related to the westward expansion in the first edition of The Oregon Trail.
Since then, kids of all ages have spent time in front of game consoles, at the table with a deck of cards, or more recently playing the 2021 edition of the game on our phones. Long before you reach Fort Kearney, you most likely had a party member come down with measles or dysentery and eventually die.
Common Illnesses On The California Trail
Now you can learn more about the reality of that situation. Traveling west overland on the California Trail or Oregon Trail meant you had to worry about exposure and complications related to many illnesses.
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
- Typhoid Fever
- Scarlet Fever
The Main Cause Of Death On The California Trail
According to the National Parks Service, the number one killer of emigrants who braved the overland trails was by far, disease. Illness claimed the lives of as many as 30,000 victims, for an average of about 10 to 15 deaths per mile.
As you start The Oregon Trail game, your friendly general store clerk, Matt, will help you purchase oxen, food, clothing, ammunition, and spare parts, but nowhere is there the choice to bring along medicine. That’s because these pioneers were more concerned about bad weather, Indian attacks, rattlesnake bites, or dying of starvation (remember the Donner-Reed Party) on the way.
Antibiotics weren’t around yet. No one knew about the dangers of close contact, unsanitary conditions, and dirty water.
Cholera – The Twenty-Four Hour Killer
In The Oregon Trail game, you often have to choose between fording a river, caulking your wagon and floating it across, or camping by the river to see if the water will go down, making it easier to ford another day. Unfortunately, in real life, thanks to thousands of other wagon trains that came before you, cholera might be waiting for you at your campsite.
Vibrio cholera, the bacteria that causes this malady of diarrhea, vomiting, stomachaches, and cramps, thrived in the stagnant, polluted water around campgrounds. That’s because animal hides, animal waste, and human waste were left near campsites, rest stops, and animal watering areas.
The most common treatments for cholera on the Oregon and California Trails were camphor for cough and laudanum for pain. Neither was a real cure. Many people died of cholera during the first 24 hours of showing symptoms. It was nicknamed “the blue death” because people would sometimes turn a bluish-gray color due to a lack of fluids.
“…do not, as you value your lives, ever drink water out of springs and sunken wells on the side of the road or any where else. Always use the Platte River water and you will have no sickness. Even if you do have to go a mile or two miles, do it rather than to drink out of those cursed pittholes of deaths. For it is nothing less than that caused all of our sickness. We didn’t know anything about it, and as the water is generally good and pleasant to drink, we thought we were using the best water. So remember this, and as I said before, advise your friends to do the same.” – George Kiser
Dysentery – What Happens When There Are No Bathrooms
Sure, it was funny to name a member of your Oregon Trail party after a friend and then laugh as “Jennifer got dysentery.” The reality of dysentery was no laughing matter. Thanks to an abundance of unsanitary conditions – remember this was way before public bathrooms or even port-a-potties – this bacterial illness spread as people drank and washed in water that other people used as a restroom. Like cholera, dysentery causes fevers, cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea – usually bloody diarrhea.
Castor oil was the usual remedy. Castor oil is a laxative, so we can all imagine how helpful that was. Thankfully, dysentery was usually not fatal.
High Fevers? Red Spots? You Might Have Typhoid
We can’t say the same for typhoid fever, unfortunately. Typhoid, caused by the Salmonella Typhi bacteria infection, is another gastrointestinal illness with roots in water contaminated with fecal matter and urine. Typical symptoms were delirium, high fevers, diarrhea, and red spots on the abdomen.
Bouts of typhoid also called “cess-pool fever,” which lasted around three weeks, was highly contagious and killed between 10 and 20% of its victims, especially children and the elderly. Turpentine, quinine, and brandy were the most common treatments and not very good ones.
Measles – Yes, “Droplets” Were A Thing In The 1800s, Too
Like the COVID, measles is a virus spread from person to person and is highly contagious, especially to children. The most noticeable symptoms are coughs and itchy lesions. Unlike the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccines we have today, treatments for measles in the 1800s were highly ineffective, sometimes as little as a cup of tea.
More California Trail History In Elko, NV
Come see us at the California Trail Interpretive Center to learn more about the trials and victories of the brave men and women who traveled the westward expansion trails. Contact us today to ask about upcoming events and our current exhibits. We’d love to be part of your next trip to the Elko, Nevada, area.