“The only reliable daily source [of water in the Platte Valley] was the Platte River itself.
Platte river water was obtained in two ways: by scooping it up out of the main stream or its backwaters, or by digging a hole two to four feet deep in sandy soil near river level. The latter method was used by many, and while there was more exertion, by this method ‘most excellent cold pure water can be obtained anywhere. It leaches through the sand from the river and is perfectly filtered.’ Most emigrants disagreed, however; well water was more apt to be warm, dirty, and often alive with tiny creatures. After trial and error, several affirmed that ‘river water is safer.’ Hence, the majority drank water straight out of the Platte.
If river water was deemed safer than well water, it still held few charms for the fastidious. John Wyeth warned that a Platte River cocktail ‘is warm and muddy, causing diarrhoea.’ Celinda Hines observed that this water ‘partakes of the same laxative properties of the Missouri and Mississippi.’ Getting his out of a slue, or backwater, John Dalton called it ‘nasty, filthy stuff.’ D.A. Shaw proclaimed it ‘usable only if filtered and strained’ with a cloth, since this is not a river at all, but “simply moving sand.’ Randall Hewitt came up with another formula for dealing with ‘the mud of a river intent on wearing away half a continent.’ He recommended putting a handful of meal in the bucket, and ‘a few moments time is sufficient to precipitate the silt and render the water very palatable.
Some of the women recommended boiling, not to kill bacteria, which they had never heard of, but to immobilize the wiggle-tails. Tompkins was ahead of his day in believing the ‘secret of boiling water [was] to evaporate the deleterious properties.’ Drinking untreated shallow well water and Platte River water was doubtless a factor in the high mortality rate.”