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Jim McKee: Stories about of life, death on trails west

March 11, 2018 GMT

The Oregon Trail is often thought of as it was presented in the old western movies, as a sort of romantic and picturesque journey across the U.S. to California and Oregon. The truth is the route was often called America’s longest graveyard, where thousands died en route from accidents, drowning, firearms and most frequently from diseases including smallpox, scurvy, consumption/tuberculosis and, primarily, in the form of cholera.

The “Great Killer” of Asian cholera arrived, most probably, first in 1832, at the port of New Orleans, carried principally by rats. From there the “Monster’s Sting or Ruthless Destroyer” moved up the Missouri River to St. Louis. Cholera was usually acute and sudden, worse after rain and was spread through over-used campsites on the trail where the bacterial infection contaminated water sources.

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A healthy adult in the morning could be in pain by noon, dead and buried by sundown. The disease sometimes spread to the American Indians who often thought they had been poisoned and attacked wagon trains in retaliation.

The year 1849 was noted as a good one to commence the journey westward, as it was a good year for grass along the trail, but with increased traffic came the scourge of cholera. The greatest occurrence was between Independence, Missouri to Fort Laramie beyond which it tapered off “diminishing at this elevation,” leaving in its wake a graveyard with thousands of shallow, unmarked graves, about 6% of all the trails’ adult travelers. One tragic train in 1849 lost one third of its party.

In 1850 alone nearly 2,500 were estimated to have died, four graves to a mile with one diarist noting he was “scarcely out of sight of grave diggers” particularly on the north side of the Platte River. 1851 was a lighter year but the next year both sides of the river were affected with the trail’s peak use of around 70,000 with “the dead sometimes in rows of fifties.” One diary stated he had seen “21 newly-made graves in only 18 miles.” After 1853, the peak of travel, the deaths began to abate.

Susan C. (Seawell) Haile was born near Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Her husband Richard Haile joined the California gold rush in 1849 and returned to Missouri in 1851. The following May the couple sold their 40-acre farm to Susan’s brother and set off for the west coast on the Oregon/California Trail that June.

One account says a man, hoping to sell water to freighters and travelers, dug a 100 foot well but was killed by Indians who then poisoned the well. There is no confirmation of this, but it was recorded that U. S. Army soldiers did dig a well two miles east of Kenesaw, Nebraska, in the same general time frame. It is probable that the Hailes used water from the “old government well.” Although Richard was sickened, Susan died three miles northwest of Kenesaw on June 2, 1852. The wood frame from the wagon box was fabricated into a coffin and while their children were left with an aunt, Richard took the horses back to St. Joseph, Missouri, where he traded them for a marble headstone and wheelbarrow. The headstone was then walked back to her grave in the wheelbarrow.

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The headstone was discovered in 1871 “with very little of the inscription left.” The nearby Waterhouse Sunday School replaced the marker with a second stone in 1896, which was rediscovered by Ezra Meeker in 1910 who saw it again in 1916, but relic hunters had robbed all but a “wooden frame and chicken wire netting.” The Hastings Outdoor Club replaced the second stone in July of 1933 and built a steel fence.

Rebecca Winters was born in 1802 in New York. Rebecca and her husband Hiram left Iowa in June of 1852 as part of a Mormon handcart exodus to Utah with what was known as the James Snow Company. Like Susan Haile, Rebecca succumbed to cholera on the Oregon Trail but considerably further west near Gering and Scottsbluff on Aug. 15, 1852.

Although many graves on the trail were shallow and hastily dug, sometimes directly on the trail itself so that subsequent traffic would obliterate and pack the thin ground above them, Rebecca’s was eight feet deep and well off the trail. Without wood for a coffin, her body was merely wrapped in blankets. With help from William Reynolds, a steel wagon wheel’s “tire” was bent to resemble the outline of a grave stone and etched “Rebecca Winters, Age 50.” Hiram continued west with the company and settled in Pleasant Grove, Utah.

The 1899 route of the Union Pacific Railroad was supposedly altered by about six feet to avoid the grave, which was continually albeit only occasionally, visited, and in 1902 it was fenced and a monument erected. In a 1939 published guide book, the site was defined as being “on a dirt road running through a farmyard; then on foot ... crawl under a barbed wire fence.” Her decedents moved the grave in 1995 to a site near Highway 26 northeast of Gering/Scottsbluff with a short section of railroad tracks placed a few feet away.

Virtually all of the thousands of burials along the Oregon/California Trail are unmarked though those closest to the trail’s origin in Missouri are usually deeper and were more formally interred than those through Nebraska, as numbers and frequency increased. The details of deaths are often also cloaked in mystery and sometimes romance.

Susan, for example, whose name has several spellings, was not poisoned by Indians, and the story of her husband’s transporting the headstone back by wheelbarrow may be embellished.

Rebecca definitely did not bounce along for 500 miles in a blanket in a wagon before dying and it is unclear if the railroad did alter its course to avoid the grave.

Still the heartbreaking stories of those who died along the “cemetery corridor” were retold many thousands of times.