The Wagons West



Weather was one of the greatest hardships that the westward wagons faced. There is nothing gentle about weather on the prairie. Even a summer rain can consists of a sudden diluge and 50 miles per hour winds. Aside from the discomfort of these rainstorms, settlers faced a variety of other weather related perils. Lightning strikes can be potentially deadly on the open plains when you are the tallest thing for miles in all directions. Next think of how frieghtening a tornado would be with absolutely no place to seek protection. Settlers could of course find shelter from hailstones under their wagons but what of their teams and livestock?

Hardships in the summer would be the blinding heat, which could build to well over 100 degrees. Death from heatstroke, for both settlers and animals was not uncommon.

As if all this was not enough the hardships of the winter could be even more frieghting. The winters on the open plains brought frigid temperatures and howling winds. The mountains offered no quarter as the snows often piled to unpassable depths. Many a wagon train never made it through the mountains if they were caught there during a winter storm.


Traveling west in the 1800's had many obstacles; the trails were poor and there were no bridges. Fording rivers were particularly dangerous for wagon trains. On many rivers, the only way to cross was to "drive through and hope for the best" and on other occassions when the water was to swift or to deep pioneers just had to wait for the river to go down. When the rivers were at an acceptable level, the settlers secured their supplies, caulked their wagons, and attempted crossing. This process could be extremely time-consuming for wagon trains, since each team and wagon had to be taken across one at a time to prevent them from becoming entangled. At deeper and more swiftly flowing rivers, many settlers were forced to build rafts to carry their wagons over the water. After sickness and accidental gunshot wounds, drownings at river crossings were the most common cause of fatalities among settlers.


In addition to the discomfort of weather and the monotony of life on the trail, settlers were also subjected to an expansive array of dangers and calamities. Since the wagons moved so slowly, many children and some adults, got lost when they straggled behind, or wandered off looking for food or berries. Though many made their way back to camp, some were thought to have fallen prey to wild animals or Indians and left behind.

Accidents with draft animals were another common place mishap while traveling. Although the oxen moved slowly, they were very large and very heavy, and there was no way to quickly stop them. Many women were injured when their long skirts got caught up on the wheels and dragged them under the wagon. There too are unhappy tales of children, thought to be safe in the wagon, that toppled over the gate and fell to their death beneath the rear wheels.

Accients with firearms proved to be another peril for wagon trains. In actuallity, few settlers where proficient with guns. Yet, the neccessity to shoot game and protect the wagons and livestock from wild animals or Indians made it mandatory for everyone, often young children, to handle firearms. Lack of rudimary safety precausions and shooting skills proved fatal for many a pioneer.


Disease proved to be the biggest killer of emigrants in the West. Smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, diptheria, typhoid, "mountain fever", and scurvy, caused by a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables for months at a time, frequently struck down settlers, who rarely had any medical expertise. In the rudimentary conditions that existed on the trail, these sicknesses often resulted in death.

Young children where paticularly suseptible to diseases and it was not uncommon for pioneers to have to bury two or more children while crossing the continent. Those who died on the trail were buried in hastily scratched-out holes. Some graves were marked, but more frequently settlers went out of their way to disguise the grave, to discourage animals from digging up the bodies.


Contrary to popular belief, while in transit, Indians were among the least of the settlers' problems, though the settlers themselves generally believed otherwise. While there are several cases of Indian attacks on wagon trains, the majority of settlers made their journeys without incident. Many settlers made their trips without ever even seeing an Indian. However, tales of the Indians' conduct, and the horror stories that sprang up around them, fueled many settlers' sense of dread and foreboding. They often carried startlingly large arsenals of weaponry to fend off Indians, but far more settlers died from the mishandling of their own firearms than from actual attacks.

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