The Estimated Number Of Deaths On The Oregon Trail Is Probably More Than You Think

Who would have thought that a 1990 video game about carting through the uncharted west in a caravan of covered wagons, oxen, disease, death, and rifles would have become such a hit? Granted, the video game didn't get everything quite right, especially the leisurely leg-dangling in pools of fresh water, as you can see in Vox. But there's something about the Wild West, with its largely (even totally) inaccurate romantic vision of freedom — wandering on horseback towards sunsets, reveling in American rugged heroic individualism, all that sort of thing — that's made it stick in memory and come to be lauded in countless TV shows, movies, and of course, games like Oregon Trail.

The real Oregon Trail, though, was of course the absolute pits, as Legends of America recounts. An anonymous settler had this advice for anyone who wanted to join the approximately 350,000 who made the journey from Illinois to Oregon, during the 1830s to the late 1860s: "He must learn to eat with his unwashed fingers, drink out of the same vessel as his mules, sleep on the ground when it rains, share his blanket with vermin, and have patience with mosquitos." This settler might not have precisely known that 10-15 people died every mile (true story) on the Oregon Trail, but if he made it all the way to the west coast and the shores of Oregon, it would be interesting to know what he'd think of his descendants in the hipsterific land of vegans and bicycle lanes that is now Portland.

Diseases aplenty killed people by the thousands

So how many people died on the trail? Let's say "lots," which means at least 20,000, per History. If you knew that you had a five percent chance of dying while taking a flight from O'Hare to PDX, would you bother to pack a carry-on? And forget the sterile discomfort of airplane air or the sodden fabric of airplane seats. We're talking a deathly host of festering disease.

Mental Floss has a list. There's cholera, which basically kills you through diarrheal dehydration. Diptheria, which causes a "gray, fibrous material" to grow within the lungs. Dysentery, which causes (again) death by diarrhea, except this time it's bloody. Typhoid fever, which devours intestines. Measles, which in the modern day is manageable, but without antibiotics in the middle of the dusty, dirty, waterless wastebowl of the West? No. Practically all of these diseases come from unclean water, which if you recall from the anonymous settler's advice (and erroneously portrayed in the Oregon Trail game), wasn't in too great of a supply while embarking on the world's worst one-way road trip.

And if you're thinking you're going to get buried in any sort of respectful way? No, you'd probably just get rolled over by wagon wheels, intentionally, to help minimize the appeal of your corpse to scavengers or wolves, as the Oregon Trail Center tells us. And Native Americans? It's estimated that they killed 362 settlers in skirmishes, also per the Oregon Trail Center. For their part, the would-be settlers killed around 426 of them.