By Katie Frankel
By the time we even reached the jumping-off place in Missouri, we had been traveling for what I naïvely thought was quite some time. Though my sisters – even Sarah, who had dreaded leaving Tennessee almost as much as I – had slowly yet steadily let the sadness of leaving fade away, I myself felt I could not. I was silent, speaking nearly not a word the entire way to the jumping-off place in Missouri, my heart feeling heavy in my chest. None of my family members could lure me away from my broken heart and sullen mood, and they eventually stopped trying.
I knew hardly a thing about the Oregon Trail, only that it led to both Oregon and California where land was free despite the Indians who surrounded it. Though he wouldn’t admit it, I did not think that Jack knew very much about the trail either, only what his friend knew and had told them. My brother had warned us all that, at times, the journey would prove challenging, but our trouble would be well worth it to reap the reward that would await us.
There were very many other wagons already in Missouri, far more than I had imagined. So many families awaited their departure that we could not even leave right away, instead having to wait for several days before finally being able to start out on the official trail. Even with waiting, our wagon train was long, wagons following ours as far as I could see.
Jack told me that for the first part of our journey we would be traveling on land that was long and yellow, allowing the river to guide us until we finally reached the mountain region. It was May now and the weather was mostly warm and pleasant, save for some slightly cooler nights. There was always a lot going on during our time on the Oregon Trail, both while traveling and while resting at night. Even after a long day of travel, Jack and Carissa both had things they had to tend to, with Carissa leaving two-year-old Joshua in my care during the time. There was always seemingly endless amounts of work to be done while traveling both in the wagon and out, from changing and oiling the wheel axels to taking care of the oxen and horses, and then finally, taking care of the people.
I was surprised to see that Carissa by no means was the only woman traveling with a young child; there were actually quite a few expectant mothers and mothers with children much younger than Joshua. Depending on how long each family decided to travel, I knew that some mothers would be giving birth on the trail and, recalling Carissa’s difficult birth, I was very grateful that she was not due to have another child.
Despite the large number of children traveling on the Oregon Trail, Jack had forbidden my sisters and me from wandering off with them; though I did not have desire to do so, I knew that my other sisters did. My brother warned us that children could get lost for days among the long wagon train and we witnessed this first hand only about ten days into our journey. A family traveling just two wagons up from ours became frantic one evening during rest when they could not find their five-year-old son. The mother was inconsolable, and although Carissa would not admit it, I knew that the other mother’s grief struck fear in her. The boy was not found for two days later when he finally reappeared, dirty and hungry. I knew it could have been much worse.
Many of the other families on the trail had oxen to pull their wagons but no horses, and although I feared Jack would consider them a burden, I was grateful that we had our three horses. I felt that Scout was a part of Connor always with me, though I continued to mourn for him every day. Just like three years prior when we had first moved to the Smiths’ farm, I rode Scout bareback on the trail often, and he seemed happy to oblige as he walked forward proudly. Each time I sat on the Paint’s back I felt a mixture of comfort and sorrow, my longing for Connor so overwhelming sitting aboard the horse who was so dear to him.
Sarah was friends with a family of seven children from age three to fifteen, and the older ones filled my head with countless terrors of horrible things that could happen to anyone on the Trail; we could be attacked by Indians, drown while crossing water, freeze to death or die of thirst, and an abundance of other terrible fates. Despite these warnings, Jack still seemed confident and I trusted his judgment completely, sure he wouldn’t knowingly put any of us in danger.
We were roughly halfway between our jumping-off place and Fort Laramie when something horrible happened.
We had been traveling for many miles and the sun had grown extremely hot at times during the day, but the weather was unpredictable. At times, we were pelted with hail bigger than the hoof of a horse, or had to wait out rainstorms that seemed to be never ending. However, the challenging weather was nothing compared to what happened to Annie.
She was nine, and her family drove the wagon that was usually in front of us. All of us children, even me, had become comfortable and accustomed to traveling and admittedly a bit careless. All of the older children frequently got off and on the wagons even while they were in motion to walk, meet up with other kids, or ride horses if they had any.
Jack used to allow Sarah and me to jump off the wagon at any point, but Hanna and Gracie were still too small. One day when Sarah jumped off, she landed hard and badly twisted her ankle, unable to walk for two days. After that Jack, forbid us from jumping off while the wagon was in motion, but Annie’s parents didn’t mind so much and allowed her to continue to do so.
I’m not sure what Annie planned to do when she jumped off that day, but in the end, it didn’t matter. As Jack stared ahead while driving, Annie jumped off the wagon as she usually did, but this time, the skirt of her dress became snagged on part of the wagon as she did so. The fabric did not rip but instead, drug Annie underneath.
“Stop! Stop!” Jack screamed at the top of his lungs, startling me so badly I leapt up from my seat in the wagon. Annie’s father immediately pulled back the oxen, but by the time he was able to fully bring them to a halt, it was too late; the wheels of the wagon had already completely crushed Annie’s body, the sound of her bones crunching sickly recognizable.
She didn’t die right away. The screams were atrocious, bloodcurdling; not only from Annie, but from her mother and father and siblings. The noise was deafening and brutal and the rest of us wept inside the wagon, even Carissa. By the end of the day, Annie was dead but the nightmare was far from over.
Because we were traveling in the middle of nowhere, the men had no choice but to dig Annie a shallow grave right on the side of the trail. There was not time to dig it extremely deep, and I knew now from what other children had told me that scavengers were attracted to fresh graves, whether they were animals looking for flesh or humans trying to steal the very clothes off of the deceased’s body. The thought made me so sick that I vomited over the side of the wagon.
Annie was not my first experience with death, yet her death was so extremely different from my mother’s and unlike anything I would have ever been able to imagine. Jack and Carissa were among some of the people who desperately tried to console Annie’s mother and father, and over the next weeks Annie’s mother’s grief was so brutal and crushing that I truly wondered if someone could die from a broken heart.
Everyone in my family dramatically changed after Annie’s death. Jack no longer spoke of traveling to Oregon with excitement and enthusiasm but became solemn, neither he nor Carissa speaking much at all. My sisters and I had lost the desire to explore with the other children, and we oftentimes felt we did not even want to leave the safety of the wagon, packed with supplies as it was. Additionally, I knew that the land we traveled on now was mostly flat and consisted of just tall grasses and streams; up ahead was the mountain region and places that not only put us at higher risk from Indian attacks, but had much more challenging terrain than what we had navigated so far. I suddenly was terrified of continuing to travel on the Oregon Trail, feeling sick the further we traveled and wanting to beg Jack to turn around. Some families did, with Annie’s death by no means being the only tragic occurrence that had happened in our wagon train so far.
We travelled for weeks longer. The Platte River was brown and full of silt, yet when there was no other source of water, we had to make due by collecting water from the river, letting it sit for an hour, and mixing in cornmeal to try and sink the silt to the bottom. Even so, the water tasted horrible and because of this, everyone in our wagon train preferred to set up camp near some of the fresh water streams that drained into the Platte River. Although the water tasted better, it held deadly, unknown dangers.
Sometimes after drinking the water, a man, woman, or child would become severely ill with no explanation and die within a day. No one, including my own family, connected the sickness with the water.
We continued to drink the water because it looked so much fresher than the brackish water of the Platte, and it tasted better. We drank this water for weeks as we continued traveling until one day, Carissa, Sarah, and Hanna all become horribly ill. The symptoms were exactly the same as the cases of sickness we had been seeing; the sickness that seemed to kill nearly half of those infected. Though it was morning, we could not continue traveling because they were so ill, quickly becoming extremely dehydrated, their faces and bodies slick with sweat.
“It’s the water,” Annie’s father told us gravely, pursing his lips and shaking his head.
Jack was panicked. “But they’ve hardly drank any of the muddy water. They—”
“Not the Platte water,” the man interrupted impatiently. “The clear water, from the streams. It looks good but it has disease in it. I know it does.”
He didn’t elaborate, but Jack didn’t care; half of our family was dying. Gracie and Joshua clung to me, crying and afraid as my brother desperately tried to keep his wife and our two sisters alive. Despite the fact that they wanted nothing to do with it, he brought them the muddy water to drink, forcing the three of them to continue to drink it because he said their bodies had become so dried up from the inside.
We stayed camped at that one spot for days, the wagon train moving on without us. Jack forbid us to continue to drink from the streams, and the fresh water was no longer so tempting. Once when I went to check on my sisters and Carissa, I thought they were dead, lying pale, sweaty, and motionless in the dirt.
After what seemed like months but was really only about a week, the three began to slowly recover. The process was difficult, with all of them having lost a great deal of weight and strength in the one week they had been sick, barely able to move much at all at first. Finally, though, one by one they did recover, and a few days later, we joined another much smaller wagon train that had come by to resume our journey; only now, Jack no longer wished to.
The challenges of the Oregon Trail had proven torturous and fatal so far, with Jack claiming it was only by God’s grace that all three had survived the sickness. the journey all the way to Oregon was supposed to take only four months, yet we had not even reached Fort Laramie and had been traveling for two months already. Despite the great difficulties that presented themselves ahead, Jack was afraid to turn back. Too late into our journey, Jack decided that bringing us onto the Oregon Trail had been a horrible mistake.
Katie Frankel is a senior at Texas Wesleyan University majoring in English with a writing concentration. She enjoys writing and reading pieces of historical fiction, browsing antique stores, and riding her horse. She currently lives in Fort Worth and hopes to write professionally.