5 Dangers Real Pioneers Faced On Their Journeys

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The Yellowstone prequel series 1883 followed a group of pioneers on a journey across the American West.

Over the course of1883 we watched several members of the wagon train die due to various causes. One man was crushed by a wagon, a woman was bitten by a venomous snake, and several people drowned when the group crossed the river in Episode Four. In Episode Five, Elsa Dutton was devastated when a bandit shot and killed the cowboy she loved, Ennis.

Tragically, Elsa also died at the end of the show. She was wounded in a battle and the arrow pierced her liver, leading to an infection.

That’s a lot of tragedy for one group to suffer. But how closely do the events of 1883 mimic what real-life pioneers faced on their journeys? Did they deal with the same dangers?

Keeping reading for a list of five hazards the pioneers often encountered on their travels.

1. Diseases

According to the National Oregon/California Trail Center, “diseases and serious illnesses caused the deaths of nine out of ten pioneers.”

Some of the diseases the pioneers suffered from included cholera, smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis. We see how disease affected the pioneers in the first episode of 1883, which shows the travelers being inspected for measles before leaving on their journey. It’s also revealed that Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) lost his wife and daughter to measles.

In real life, the Trail Center says “cholera was the main scourge of the trail.” A completely healthy person could be fine in the morning but be dead by lunch once the disease took hold.

Sometimes, the wagon train would stop if one of its members was ill and nearing the end. They’d wait for them to pass away, bury them, and then move forward.

2. Animal-Related Incidents

In 1883 we see a few members of the travel party meet their demise in animal-related incidents. As mentioned previously, one woman was bitten by a venomous snake, while another person was killed by a wolf.

The Trail Center does mention snakebites as one of the main causes of death on the journey west. But according to the National Park Service, “While some bites did occur, the danger was not as high as they anticipated.” The NPS states the pioneers had greater reason to be concerned about bison, because they “sometimes overran wagon trains causing havoc and injury.”

The Trail Center cites Peter D. Olch, who found that the pioneers were also harmed by the animals they brought with them. Olch determined the third most frequent cause of injury or death “was stampeding livestock.” The animals would run over people and crush them. Also, people died or were seriously injured after being thrown from their horses.

3. Bad Weather

The weather has not yet impacted the characters of 1883. But poor weather was one of the main dangers the real-life pioneers had to face. Pioneers traveled through thunderstorms, hailstorms, lightning, high winds, and even tornadoes.

According to the NPS, “intense heat” was also major challenge the pioneers had to face. 

The intense heat of the prairie cause[d] wood to shrink, and wagon wheels had to be soaked in rivers at night to keep their iron rims from rolling off during the day. The dust on the trail could be two or three inches deep and as fine as flour. Emigrant’s [sic] lips blistered and split in the dry air, and the only remedy was to rub axle grease on them.”

For those who were traveling through cold or mountainous regions, there was immense pressure to get moving through those areas before winter set in. It didn’t end well for travelers who got stuck in the cold and snow for months on end.

4. Accidents

Citing Olch again, the Trail Center states that “being run over by wagon wheels was the most frequent cause of injury or death.” We see this take place in 1883 when a man falls under a wagon, is crushed, and dies as a result.

The Trail Center states that children were at high risk of being run over by heavy wagons. Though wagon-related accidents led to the deaths of many adults as well.

The NPS doubles down on this, saying “wagon accidents were the most prevalent.

Other pioneers died in accidents involving firearms. Olch found that “firearms were the second leading cause of emigrant injury and death.” The Trail Center states that “a surprisingly large number of pioneers were injured by accidental firearm discharge.”

The NPS says many pioneers also died in hunting accidents. Many travelers were inexperienced with firearms, and would accidentally shoot themselves while they were hunting.

5. River Crossings

1883 dedicated an entire episode to the wagon train’s trek across the river. Such ventures were just as dangerous, and fatal, for the real-life pioneers.

According to the Trail Center, “Crossing rivers [was] probably the most dangerous thing pioneers did.” Some horses and oxen panicked when they entered deep water, and flipped the wagons they pulled. This could cause the pioneers to lose their supplies, while others lost their lives.

We hope you learned something today about the dangers the real-life pioneers faced on their travels. They didn’t have it easy, that’s for certain.