Information About Cholera Oregon Page--oregon Trail

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Information About Cholera

Oregon Page--Oregon Trail

Of the known deaths along the Oregon Trail, cholera was the leading cause. The present day state of Nebraska was the deadliest state for cholera. Ninety-six percent of all cholera deaths occurred by the time the emigrants reached South Pass. The disease "cholera" was first reported in the United States during the years of 1832-1834. St. Louis lost a tenth of its population to this disease. Many pioneers thought that by going west they might be able to escape this disease. But as one emigrant diary read, "The road from Independence to Fort Laramie is a grave-yard." "Another emigrant put the number of burials at 1,500 to 2,000 at this point on the trail, while yet another put the death total at around 5,000."
Cholera, a diarrhea illness, causes infection of the intestine. Some of the effects of cholera were watery diarrhea, vomiting, and leg cramps. Cholera is spread by contaminated water and food.
The Oregon Trail -- Hardships


An infectious disease caught by many emigrants on the Oregon Trail. It spread rapidly because of unsanitary water. There was no cure and most died within a day. There is almost no Cholera in the United States today because of better living conditions, but there have been epidemics recently in poor countries.

Oregon-California Trails Association

Nearly one in ten who set off on the Oregon Trail did not survive. The two biggest causes of death were disease and accidents. The disease with the worst reputation was Asiatic cholera, known as the "unseen destroyer." Cholera crept silently, caused by unsanitary conditions: people camped amid garbage left by previous parties, picked up the disease, and then went about spreading it, themselves. People in good spirits in the morning could be in agony by noon and dead by evening. Symptoms started with a stomach ache that grew to intense pain within minutes. Then came diarrhea and vomiting that quickly dehydrated the victim. Within hours the skin was wrinkling and turning blue. If death did not occur within the first 12 to 24 hours, the victim usually recovered. One of this author's relatives, Martha Freel, came to Oregon in 1852. A letter sent home to an aunt in Iowa from Ash Hollow is now in my possession:

"First of all I would mention the sickness we have had and I am sorry to say the deaths. First of all Francis Freel died June 4, 1852, and Maria Freel followed the 6th, next came Polly Casner who died the 9th and LaFayette Freel soon followed, he died the 10th, Elizabeth Freel, wife of Amos [and Martha's mother] died the 11th, and her baby died the 17th. You see we have lost 7 persons in a few short days, all died of Cholera."
- Martha Freel, June 23, 1852

The cholera outbreak along the Oregon Trail was part of a worldwide pandemic which began in Bengal. Cities throughout the United States were struck, and the disease reached the overland emigrants by traveling up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. The epidemic thrived in the unsanitary conditions along the Trail, peaking in 1850 as it was stoked by the immense numbers of prospectors and would-be gold miners on the overland trails in 1849 and '50. Adults originating from Missouri seemed to be most vulnerable to the disease. Fortunately, it was prevalent on the Great Plains, and once past Fort Laramie, pioneers were largely safe from cholera at the higher elevations.

New Perspectives on The West

Throughout time, disease has played a role in the lives and deaths of people. During the 1800s, there were a variety of diseases that found their way to this soil. Once here, diseases spread across the lands sparing no one. White settlers were responsible for introducing several diseases to the Native American population. A disease of particular concern, cholera, wiped out 50% of the Northern Cheyenne and killed many others along the wagon trails. Cholera is an infectious disease transmitted through contaminated food and water. For more information on cholera, go to CDC Web Search at

Cholera, which had been almost completely wiped out, has re-emerged as an infectious disease in those countries where deficient food regulations exist and/or water and sanitation systems are not maintained. For the entire document surrounding re-emerging infectious diseases, go to Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases at

My Share of the Rocks

The real danger on the plains was cholera -- with its soaring fevers, chronic dysentery and ghastly death from dehydration. Cholera was rampant all across the United States in 1849, and quickly spread through the wagon trains. Some 1,500 of the gold seekers who set out for California that spring died from it on the trail.

Youngstown, New York
Dear Brother William,
We... were in a perfect fever of anxiety about you.... We know the cholera will be with you in crossing the plains.... Do write as soon as you get there.
George Swain

Sabbath, May 27, 1849
In violation of our principle, we travel today on account of the sickness on the route.

May 31, 1849
I was attacked at noon by dysentery very badly. I... got Reverend Hobart to make me a composition tea.

June 1, 1849
Still taking medicine, opium and astringent powders... Today I have thought much of home and of my little girl, who is today one year old.

June 7, 1849
I am... on the gain, but very weak.... My appetite is good but I cannot eat hearty for fear of the consequences.
William Swain

West To Home: The Oregon Trail Pioneers

Indeed, disease was perhaps the most dangerous and relentless enemy of those who traveled west in the search for land. Water-borne diseases were unfortunately very common in these times. Very little was known about how to adequately dispose of waste water, as could be found in the latrines of the camps, and how to ensure that it was not introduced into the springs or rivers that supplied precious drinking water.

Another problem: finding drinkable water along the trail, especially in the years that followed the original drive westward. Thousands and thousands of teams of oxen and mules had depleted the stores of water from viable streams, lakes, and springs. Those traveling throughout the late eighteen sixties would happen upon bodies of water known as 'Poison Spring' and 'Bad Water.' Many times the pioneers would walk through miles of badlands that contained no water whatsoever. The Great Basin was particularly difficult to pass for those who continued on westward; the dust would very often choke and blind the travelers as they made their way. Water could be found but was not drinkable; the teams often died from thirst or became so exhausted from the heat they had to be left to die.

All of the aforementioned dangers almost pale in comparison to the deadly threat posed to the pioneers by cholera, a highly contagious disease that ran rampant among the wagon trains. An extremely fast spreading disease, it was made even worse with the terrible sanitary practices of those traveling. It has been reported that perhaps thousands died from this horrible disease. From eighteen forty nine to eighteen fifty four, cholera was reported from all over the country; some tried to escape its clutches by joining other wagon trains only to be followed by it.

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