Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Danger on the Westward Trail

By Anna Kathryn Lanier (Guest Blogger)

My current work in progress is set during the 1860’s and takes place on a wagon train heading to Oregon. I’ve taken to read diaries of the brave women who took this arduous journey. In some cases, truth is stranger than fiction, but in all journeys, the trip was fraught with danger.

In “Days on the Road: Crossing the Plains in 1865,” Sarah Raymond Herndon’s diary relates the accidental death of a fellow traveler. As was the custom, the men often hunted for wild game while the wagons moved across the prairie. In this case, they were hunting prairie chickens. All the men and boys fired at once, but one boy’s gun failed to go off, so he tossed it into a wagon. Soon thereafter, the wagon passed by Mr. Milburn, who dropped to his knees, saying “I am shot.” It was thought he’d shot himself, but whileholding his cold gun, they knew he hadn’t. Upon investigation, it was discovered that when the wagon struck a hole, the gun the boy had thrown into it had fired, striking and killing Mr. Milburn.

Disease was very common among the travelers, cholera being especially rampant. In “Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849,” Sallie Hester’s diary relates “a great many deaths; graves everywhere.” Anna Marie King writes in a letter “sickness and death attended us the rest of the way…whooping cough and measles went through our little camp…and a lingering fever prevailed.” She goes on to say that “eight [in] our two families have gone to their long home.”

River crossings were numerous and very dangerous. Elizabeth Dixon Smith tells of a man “swam after the cattle…sunk and was seen no more.” Sallie tells of “a lady and four children were drowned” on the Platte.

An unfortunate, but common danger for the emigrants was taking the suggestion of a guide to follow them on a “short-cut.” Often, these short-cuts were undeveloped trails not worthy of wagon travel. Sallie Hester and Tabitha Brown’s families both fell victim to “rascally” fellows. Believing the route to be faster, Sallie’s train finds “neither wood nor water for fifty-two miles.” (The average daily mileage was 10-20 miles; in rough terrain, it could be as little as two miles a day). Tabitha’s wagons faired much worse. The men had to hack and clear a trail after their guide ran off. They were caught in a canyon for two to three weeks, their food running out and they themselves dying from fatigue and starvation.

With winter setting in and two mountains still to climb, they group decided to settle in for the winter. Her son-in-law went ahead in the hopes of at least bringing back provisions. He didn’t have to go far, however. Tabitha’s son, who had already made it to Oregon, had heard of a “wayward” train and he had set out with provisions to find it. The two men met up and returned to the starving emigrants. With the help of mixed-blood French-Indians as guides, the train soon found a settlement to spend the coming winter.

Six and half months after starting their journey, Sallie’s family arrives in Vernon, California. “Our party of fifty, now only thirteen, has at last reached this haven of rest.”

Many of the diaries note the number of graves passed each day. Others keep note of the deaths in their own party. One estimate states that one in seventeen emigrants died on the trail. That’s 20,000 people of the more than 350,000 who travelled westward between 1840-1860.

I do not know if I would have had the fortitude to make such a long, hard journey, but we should be grateful to those who did.


Anna Kathryn Lanier writes both contemporary and historical westerns. Her novella Salvation Bride is a best seller at The Wild Rose Press and won the Preidtors and Editors Reader’s Poll for best short story of 2009. You can discover more about Anna Kathryn at or


Lorrie said...

Hi Anna,

I've read many novels about the arduous travels of our early pioneers. The story of Donner's Pass is particularly chilling. Your story, told by a young woman, facing the perils of the trail, sounds like a wonderful read.
Nice post. Good luck with the novel.

orelukjp0 said...

I have never read Ms. Lanier but Salvation Bride sounds wonderful. I like that the story is in a diary form. I am glad to have discovered a new to me author and will definitely pick up a copy.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Lorrie, thanks for stopping by. I love reading the old diaries of these women. It's amazing what they recorded, but even more so what they didn't. They would often only tell of being with child until after the birthing. Can you imagine doing this journey pregnant?

Rebecca Lynn said...

As someone who is from the West and consistently likes to read stories about women from the West, I must admit that these stories are some of my favorites. Thanks so much for posting this, Anna Kathryn. And thanks for letting us know about it over at HHRW.

Sounds like a great book!

Jennie Marsland said...

Hi Anna,
It's hard to imagine the dangers and difficulties those travellers faced, and life didn't get much easier after they stopped. You're right, we should be grateful.

Clarissa Southwick said...

Great blog, Anna. I love Oregon Trail stories and can't wait to read yours.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Anna Kathryn, I love reading those old memoirs of pioneer women. You are so correct--truth is stranger than fiction and no one would believe us if we used some of the stories. Still, they give us an understanding of the times and difficulties those people experiences. Great blog and I am ordering your book. You are a very good writer.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

This blog dose not like me! It keeps losing my posts....this is the third time I've written this particular one. And since I'm mad, it probably won't be as Geez! SALVATION BRIDE is not a wagon train story. I am still writing, slowly, the wagon train story. SALVATION BRIDE takes place in 1873 Texas and the heroine is a mail order bride. It may not be a wagon train story, but it's still a great story.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Rebecca, Jennie, Clarissa and Caroline (who is also a great writer), thanks for stopping by. I enjoyed reading your comments. Sarah Raymond Herndon's diary DAYS ON THE ROAD is a great read and if you've not gotten it yet, I highly recommend it. And Kenneth Holmes' compiled stories in COVERED WAGON WOMEN is also a good read, as it has letters and diaries from about a dozen women. Both are very interesting.

P.L. Parker said...

I must have read some of the same books when I researched my wagon train story. Some of the events I included were actually from my own family's history. I would not have made a good emigrant. I like my comforts too much.

Margaret West said...

I love watching films like this, never mind reading books too lol Loved the blog. Glad I stopped by now.

Ilona Fridl said...

Anna, your book sounds great! I don't think people today could even imagine what life was like going overland in a wagon.

Mary Ricksen said...

I love to read about this stuff. So I know I'm gonna love your book. What a horribly rough life!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Anna,

Sorry about the blog! It's not always kind to me either!

Thank you for being my guest and for pulling in so many fascinated readers. I always find your historical pieces on your own blog to be fascinating.


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