The Oregon Trail – America’s Longest Graveyard

by MSO
The name Brown carved into a rock used as a grave marker along the Oregon Trail

Only a few graves were marked along the Oregon Trail most were not to deter grave robbers.

“Here lies an early traveler who lost his life in quest of riches in the west.” There’s no name or date on this grave marker to identify this traveler but he was on his way west via the Oregon Trail.

Between 1841 and 1869 more than 200,000 people packed all of their worldly belongings and their families into covered wagons that offered just over 80 square feet of space to travel on the 2000 mile long Oregon Trail to get to their promised land. It would take anywhere from four to six months to travel through what we know today as Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. At 1 to 2 miles an hour wagon trains covered about 100 miles in a week and every week hundreds died along the way.

Historians estimate anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000  never made it to their final destination. Death became monotonous “Another man died. Passed 6 new graves. We have passed 21 new-made graves. Made 18 miles. Passed 13 graves today. Passed 10 graves,” wrote Cecelia Adams herself traveling the trail in 1852. Cholera was the leading cause of death mostly contracted through contaminated water. Accidental shootings, wagon accidents, Indian attacks and the weather were factors in the death of thousands more. There were even executions. The resourceful pioneers would lift their wagon’s tongue skyward to hang murderers if there were no trees handy.

The grave and plaque of Nancy Jane Hill who died of cholera along Oregon Trail.

Nancy Jane Hill was 20 years old when she died of cholera along the Oregon Trail in Wyoming. Legend has it that her fiance never got over her death and made three trips back to her grave from California.

Wood was at a shortage and so many were buried in their own wagon boxes or at most wrapped in a quilt. The wagon train would stop to dig a grave or gather rocks to cover the body. Time was of the essence as the wagon train had to make it to Oregon before winter set in. Some wagon trains abandoned people not yet dead on the side of the trail. The more humane groups left the dying person with a watcher who would begin digging a grave while waiting for the person to die (there are stories of people being buried alive to save time) and he would then catch up with the wagon train after the burial was completed. Most graves were left unmarked to deter grave robbers. Often graves were dug right in the middle of the trail so that wagon trains passing over the area would continue to pack down the earth over the grave. Over the span of 25 years that the Oregon Trail was used it’s estimated that if they were evenly spaced, there would be a grave every 50 yards from Missouri to Oregon City.

When the first transcontinental railway was completed in 1869 the trail was slowly relegated to history as rail travel was faster, safer and more economical. There are many groups including the U.S. National Park Service that are working to preserve the history of The Oregon Trail.

Read More: National Park Service

Photos by: U.S. Bureau of Land Management

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