Changing Attitude Toward Cholera Victims

“While families might grieve, the attitude of emigrants generally toward their fallen associates underwent gradual change as they moved westward. If death occurred during the first few weeks out, as along the Blue River, there might be full-dress funeral services . . . but as the migration moved out along the Platte, and emigrants began to die in wholesale lots, the ‘spirit of gloom’ gave way to a sense of panic with the realization that ‘Sierra snows were waiting,’ and burials and funeral services were performed perfunctorily, sometimes with indecent haste.

Sometimes a company would encamp waiting for a stricken member to die; more often he would be carried along in a wagon, suffering with every jolt, ‘gradually yielding to the embrace of the monster.’ When death seemed imminent, some trains left ‘watchers’ to wait for the end and provide burial; others simply abandoned hopeless cases along the roadside. Carlisle Abbott and Lucy Cooke cite cases of men digging raves within sight of a dying companion, while Elisha Brooks makes the horrible accusation that ‘come were buried before life was extinct.’ Helen Carpenter, herself a highly sensitive person, suggests that there was a numbing process of dehumanization in which emigrants along the Platte were ‘robbed of all sentiment.'”