Trailside Graves

“[E]migrants ‘had a horror of being buried without a coffin,’ but this dismal piece of furniture was too cumbersome to take along ‘just in case.’ While still within reach of timber, along creeks in eastern Kansas, crude coffins could be constructed. Out on the Plains a ‘rude box’  might be made from tail gates or packing boxes, but this source was soon gone, and the departed was fortunate if he was wrapped in so much as a blanket. . . .

The graves were promptly invaded by wild animals. Succeeding emigrants were greeted, not only with scattered bones, buttons, and bits of clothing, but hands, feet, and various other parts of the human anatomy in varying stages of decomposition, with ‘prairie wolves howling over their loathsome repast.’

Horrified by the desecration and havoc wrought by wild animals, the emigrants experimented with methods of protecting the mortal remains, covering and lining the grave where possible with rocks, stone slabs, or timbers.  . . . 

[G]raves were not always marked. Polly Purcell recalled that Indians robbed emigrant graves. To forestall this practice, efforts were made to conceal graves by driving back and forth over them, in some cases going so far as to replace sod, prickly pear, and other vegetation.  . . .In 1849 and later . . . Indians had a healthy respect for epidemics and left the graves to the mournful coyote.”