‘1883’: Top Causes of Death During Westward Expansion & Oregon Trail

by Jon D. B.
1883-top-causes-of-death-during-westward-expansion-oregon-trail

Yellowstone’s masterful prequel, 1883, depicts many of the perils of America’s Westward Expansion in brutal detail. In reality, however, the journey was so perilous that the show only hints at history’s top causes of death.

“Death is everywhere on the prairie. In every form you can imagine. And a few your worst nightmare couldn’t muster... But of all the perils awaiting us – sickness and snakes, bad horses and bandits – there was one thing above all that sent terror through both man and beast… There was one word so feared it was barely spoken and barely whispered… River.”

Elsa Dutton’s narration is at the heart of 1883, delivering a poetic crash-course in the dangers Western settlers faced around every corner. Some 400,000 travelers made the journey across the 19th century Oregon Trail alone, facing every peril she describes. Untold thousands more would take part in America’s surrounding Westward Expansion, too. But as history documents, even treacherous river crossings didn’t hold a candle to the top cause of death.

Travelers’ Enemy #1: Disease

It’s hard to know exact numbers as there is so little paperwork tied to the Westward Expansion. But according to the National Oregon Trail Center, diseases and serious illnesses caused the deaths of 9 out of 10 pioneers.

Pictured: Sam Elliott as Shea of the Paramount+ original series 1883. Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

As 1883 opens, the central characters face the horrid reality of Smallpox before their journey westward can even begin. Sam Elliott’s Shea Brennan loses his entire family to the prolific virus; one of humanity’s most notorious killers. Shea is also forced to dispatch of several hopeful immigrants carrying the disease in Fort Worth, Texas.

Millions died of smallpox in America during the 1880s, but once travelers hit the trails of the Westward Expansion, a slew of other deadly diseases became rampant.

Chief among them was Cholera, known as the “Scourge of the Trail.” Dysentery and Typhoid were often lumped together with, as all three diseases spread through unsanitary conditions. This made each highly contagious during the rough & dirty travel of 1883‘s time. If you grew up playing Oregon Trail in school, then you’ve surely seen the phrase “You Died of Dysentery” flash before your eyes, and this is why.

Yellow Fever also claimed many lives as there was no way to control its spread by mosquitoes. Massive outbreaks of the disease took tens of thousands of people in clusters throughout the 1800s. Poor nutrition from limited supplies also led to tens of thousands of deaths by Scurvy; the deadly condition brought on by lack of Vitamin-C.

And this was but the tip of the iceberg.

Not Seen in ‘1883’: Flu, Measles, Mumps, and Tuberculosis

Ambulance sorting 19th century epidemic illustration from The Graphic, volume XXVII, no 685, January 13, 1883. (Getty Images Archives)

These wildly contagious viruses could spread through an entire wagon train in a single day, claiming entire camps, families, and would-be towns in a matter of days. If travelers managed to survive Cholera during 1883‘s time, then they still had to watch out for symptoms of the flu, measles, mumps, and especially Tuberculosis: the top documented cause of death in the 19th century’s city-dwelling adults.

Other Top Causes of Death: Rivers, Wagons, and Suicide

1883‘s focus on the perilous crossing of rivers, however, is completely accurate. Not only would thousands die by drowning, but loss of supplies, shelter, and domesticated animals to rivers led to death, too.

But as famed Oregon Trail researcher Dr. Peter D. Olch cites, being run over by wagon wheels was the most documented and frequent cause of death or injury on the trails. Children, in particular, were susceptible to death in this manner.

Behind these two top causes of death was firearm mortality. A shocking amount of pioneers died by accidental firearm discharge. Nearly all emigrant-on-emigrant disputes were armed, as well, claiming countless lives. This undoubtedly includes bandit and outlaw raids, which were as prevalent as 1883 depicts.

Surrounded by such death, disease, and uncertainty, many also took their own lives. The hellish reality of the untamed West took a severe mental toll, causing suicide to be a top killer during 1883‘s time.

Outside of these top causes of death, pioneers would’ve contended with rattlesnakes, severe weather, lightning strikes, and livestock stampeded, as well. It is a myth, however, that Native Americans were a leading cause of mortality for settlers during the Westward Expansion. And how 1883 deals with this remains to be seen.

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