Causes of Death for Emigrants

“[T]he actual dangers of the overland venture have been considerably misrepresented by the myth-makers’ overemphasis on Indian treachery. The less than 400 emigrants killed by Indians during the antebellum era represent a mere 4 percent of the estimated 10,000 or more emigrant deaths. It follows that disease and trail accidents were far more to be feared by the prospective overlander than were the native inhabitants of the West.

Disease was far and away the number one killer, accounting for nine out of every ten deaths. Although the emigrant was never completely safe from the scourge of epidemic disease, the initial portion of the trail to Fort Laramie, otherwise the easiest segment of the journey, occasioned the most disease-induced deaths. . . .Diarrhea, tuberculosis, smallpox, mumps, and a host of other illnesses downed travelers, but the chief afflictions were cholera, mountain fever, and scurvy. . . .

[C]arelessness was second only to disease as a hazard of cross-country travel. . . . One of the most unexpected facets of the ‘overland’ journey was that death by water claimed almost as many victims during the antebellum era as did the much-feared Indians—perhaps as many as 300, at least 90 in 1850 alone. . . .

After drownings the commonest cause of fatal accidents was careless handling of the fantastic arsenal of firearms the overlanders carried wist with them.