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Homestead History
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Settlers often left notes scrawled on boards, rocks, or animal bones for emigrants who were following them. The messages could range from advice on good campsites to more ominous messages, such as "For God's sake, don't drink this water."
Rawhide Johnson demonstrates the inner workings of a wagon.
y two o'clock in the afternoon, the wagon train would be back on the move, until five or six o'clock in the evening, when the wagons would be moved into a circle or U-shape for the night to afford protection from animals and Indians. After a simple supper, settlers might socialize or talk for a while, but more frequently, they were so exhausted from their day of travel that they would soon go to sleep. While some settlers slept in their wagons or in tents, most slept on the ground wrapped in blankets or on rubber mats. Any of these options provided little protection from the elements. Pamelia Fergus wrote her husband:

"Sunday night we had a storm on the Plat [River]. I will asure you that we had eight cotten stufed comforters wet through and not a dry rag to put on ... everything was wet in the wagon through a thick blanket and cover."

Aside from the discomfort of rain, settlers faced a variety of weather-related perils: lightning strikes, potentially lethal hailstones, tornadoes, blinding heat, and intense cold. The great fluctuations in temperature caused the wood of the wagon wheels to shrink, and if they were not soaked overnight in a river or stream bed, their iron rims would roll off the wagon during the day. One Montana settler recalled, "The days were scorching and the coolness of the nights was welcome, until it too gnawed through your bones because of the suddenness of the change."

By mid-May of 1864, Pamelia Fergus' wagon train had reached present-day Nebraska. Unhappy with the discomfort of life on the trail and with the driver her husband had hired to lead them west, she groused in a letter to him, "We are alive yet but better dead. You were very foolish to send for us by a man you knew so well. He does not regard the truth but uses your money just as he pleases with no regard for your family ... next time I cross the planes it will be with my husband or on my own hook this is the awfless mess I was ever in."

In addition to the discomfort and monotony of life on the trail, settlers were subject to an expansive array of dangers and calamities. Since the wagons moved so slowly, many emigrants, particularly children, got lost when they straggled behind for too long, wandered off looking for flowers or berries, or attempted to hunt while traveling. Though many made their way back to their camps, some were thought to have fallen prey to wild animals or Indians and left behind.


D. Meek, south of Broken Bow, Custer County, Nebraska. The wagon cover over a hole in the ground is a common first dwelling.

Disease proved to be the biggest killer of emigrants in the West. Smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, diptheria, typhoid, "mountain fever," and a host of other sicknesses frequently struck down settlers, who had little or no medical expertise. Scurvy, caused by a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables for months at a time, was also commonplace. In the rudimentary conditions that existed on the trail, these sicknesses often resulted in death. Those who died on the road were buried in hastily scratched-out holes. Some graves were marked, but more frequently settlers went out of their way to disguise the grave, to discourage animals (and sometimes Indians) from digging up the body.

Rivers were particularly dangerous obstacles for many settlers. On many rivers, the only way to cross was to ford it, or, as one settler described it, "drive through and hope for the best." Henry Bierman, who settled in Montana in the 1880s, reported, "We forded every stream on the whole trip. The roads were poor and there were no bridges. When we reached the Powder River, there were thirty or forty emigrant wagons there, waiting for the river to go down."

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