Cholera

“[W]e have the testimony of physicians of the day that it was the genuine, simon-pure article which filtered up the Mississippi on the river boats from the port of New Orleans. Up the Missouri it traveled, and into the trail outfitting towns, whose cemeteries grew apace. Out to the  prairies it marched with the emigrant columns, reserving the full strength of its attack until it struck the Platte Valley, where crowded campsites and polluted wells provided a fertile field for its spread. Here it reigned supreme in its terror, for while it raged the Indians gave the camps wide berth. . . .

The onslaught of cholera was sudden and violent. In extreme cases a traveler might get up as usual in the morning and be buried at the noon stop. It was made more mysterious and dreaded by the utter ignorance of the emigrants as to what caused it. Physicians and thinkers advocated the use of swiftly running water instead of the polluted wells; but the general knowledge of the action of germs was still in the future, and few, if any, consistently boiled their drinking water. Some guidebooks recommended it, and, in reminiscences compiled many years later, a few pioneers have written that they did so; but I suspect that most of them merely made coffee or tea as being more palatable, and that boiling the water was incidental. . . 

Some of the travelers worked themselves into such a frenzy of fear that they drove their animals day and night in a growing crescendo of terror. Some grew so callous in their mad flight that they would not stop to give adequate assistance to the dying, but rushed on, carrying them helpless and unattended in the wagons. . . . In other cases the sufferer was simply left behind when the train pulled out in the morning through lack of any one sufficiently concerned to brave the terror of the epidemic by caring for him. . . .

Sheer terror prompted much of the cruelty, necessity the rest; but it was a stark, raving, maniacal period which the emigrants experienced in the plague-smitten Platte Valley.

Turning to softer, but no less moving, aspects of the unhappy visitation, we find records of people who tended and buried the abandoned; carried sick strangers in their wagons, took orphaned children or mothers with families, maintaining them out of their own scanty supplies clear to the Pacific coast. These disconsolate and bereaved families were perhaps the saddest sight that the Overland Trail had to offer; crushed and stupefied by their loss; hurried along willy-nilly in a company of strangers, with their nearest and dearest left for the wolves to dig up and devour.”