‘1883’ Episode 4: The Tragic Real-Life History Behind that Harrowing River Crossing

by Amy Myers
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Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2021 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The latest episode of 1883 told the tragically true story of pioneers that had to face the perilous conditions of large river crossings. Today, crossing a river certainly isn’t a death sentence with the right equipment.

However, as the pioneer series demonstrated, the travelers could take very little with them. And most times, the best they could do to protect themselves was to lighten the load in their wagons and hold tight on the reins. Unfortunately, many times, this wasn’t enough to escape the swift waters and unforgiving current that took so many lives.

During Episode 4 of 1883, “The Crossing,” main characters James Dutton (Tim McGraw) and Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) discussed how they could best prepare the travelers and animals for the journey across the water. They decided to cross midday when the animals would be hotter and more willing to enter the water. And while some members crossed without issue, others soon became victims of the water, despite their best efforts to save them.

According to FrontierLife.org, this depiction of river crossings is fairly accurate. While cholera was the number one cause of casualties along the Oregon Trail, river crossings weren’t too far behind.

“Crossing rivers on the Oregon Trail was one of the most dangerous parts of the journey,” the post read. “Back in the Oregon Trail days pioneers would have had to contend with much larger rivers with much higher volumes. While smaller streams didn’t present much of an issue, larger rivers were more challenging.”

Animals Were Both Necessary and Dangerous During River Crossings in ‘1883’

The water’s conditions weren’t the only dangerous elements in the river crossings. Just as treacherous were the animals, themselves. In 1883, Dutton and Brennan tried to make the water seem more inviting to the horses, but if the animal senses danger, there’s no stopping them from panicking and bucking. And once one starts, others are likely to follow.

That’s how so many wagons and travelers toppled into the water. Without any knowledge on how to swim or any safety gear to help them float, this became a death sentence.

Take a look at this reenactment from the early 1900s that demonstrated the chaos that ensued during river crossings on the Oregon Trail.

Historians have collected many accounts of travelers during the mid-1800s that, luckily, survived the crossings during their journeys. And though no situation was particularly safe in these moments, the travelers most at risk seemed to be those with wagons and animals. One pioneer named Isaac Wistar detailed the conditions he witnessed during his own journey.

“The crossings were bad and dangerous for wagons,” Wistar wrote on June 28, 1849, “–especially the last [crossing]–where the current and deepest channel were immediately under the near bank, and notwithstanding the many tons of rock thrown in to level up, the mules were swimming from the start, the wagons taking a headlong plunge after them.”

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