Cholera Along the Platte

“The swampy drainage of the Platte extended several hundred yards from the main river channels. The expanse of standing pools of brackish water and salty, alkaline mudflats often began just a few steps from the wagon ruts. This created a natural petri dish for the microorganism responsible for causing cholera, and the pioneers were adding fresh host material for bacteria-human waste, animal manure, the carcasses and offal of slaughtered animals-every day. Biologists now know that the alkaline deposits that occurred naturally along the Platte River flats mimicked the salty delta conditions of the bacteria’s native India, encouraging the growth of Vibrio cholerae in the squalid waste piles of the camps. The anarchy of latrines in the camps festered overnight, becoming killers for the next arriving train. When the river rose after storms, cholera traveled downstream several miles in a single night.

“Viewed in this way, the largest land migration in history created a fascinating intersection between human need and biological self-destruction. For 450 miles the Platte offered the pioneers everything they required in an otherwise arid, hostile environment—clear navigation points west, water, fresh game, and timber for cooking fires. But the Platte also provided ideal conditions for disease: warm temperatures, alkali soil, and mud holes that acted as stewpots for organic waste.”