“Death is everywhere on the prairie. In every form you can imagine. And a few your worst nightmare couldn’t muster... But of all the perils awaiting us – sickness and snakes, bad horses and bandits – there was one thing above all that sent terror through both man and beast… There was one word so feared it was barely spoken and barely whispered… River.”Elsa Dutton – 1883 Season 1, Episode 3, “River”
Elsa Dutton’s narration also kicks things off in our extensive breakdown, ‘1883’: Top Causes of Death During Westward Expansion & Oregon Trail. But it’s far more relevant here, as that article largely deals with the rampant diseases of the 19th century. Which were, in fact, the top causes of death during 1883‘s time by a landslide.
Here, however, we’re focusing on the perils Elsa highlights in episodes 3 and 4. As Episode 3 tells us, everything led to its title: “The Crossing.” Then, “The River” followed with the most harrowing depiction of a Westward Expansion river crossing ever put to film. Travelers drown while violently scraping at their would-be rescuers. Entire wagons are lost to the current. Bodies are buried on the other side of the River Brazos.
And while far fewer of the 400,000-something travelers made the journey across the 19th century Oregon Trail died of river crossings than disease and famine, rivers were undoubtedly the most feared element of the trail itself.
‘1883’ to Reality: River Crossings Took Immense Tolls
According to the National Oregon Trail Center, 20,000 travelers died on the 2,000 miles of the Oregon Trail alone. This comes to an average of 10 graves per mile.
A stirring 1847 reflection from Illinois native Loren Hastings after surviving his journey to Oregon sums this up best:
“I look back upon the long, dangerous and precarious emigrant road with a degree of romance and pleasure; but to others it is the graveyard of their friends.”Loren Hastings, December 1847
Of these 10 deaths per mile, it is estimated that 1 in 10 was lost to accidents like river crossings and/or being trampled by livestock and wagons.
As the Oregon~California Trails Association cites, even a slow and shallow river current was a recipe for disaster. Wagon wheels were damaged by submerged rocks. Wagons became stuck in muddy and sandy riverbeds. Stampeded of livestock would panic, trampling travelers or drowning them in the chaos.
And these were the perils of a tame river. Swollen river crossings resulted in tipping over entire wagons, drowning everyone onboard – and the oxen or horses attached. More often than not, it is the crossing with animals that resulted in large losses of pioneer lives.
‘We’ll cross twenty more rivers before we get to Oregon…’
As 1883 depicts, many Americans and immigrants alike could not swim, as there was no need for it in daily life. It only takes a few feet of water to drown someone who can’t tread water. The Yellowstone prequel’s harrowing crossing of the Brazos is wildly accurate in this sense – as it is in depicting all of the historical accounts above. Crossing with a thick rope for a lifeline as 1883 shows was common, too, but could still lead to death as Episode 4 illustrates.
In short: 1883‘s primal fear of river crossings is as accurate as they come. As Sam Elliott’s Shea Brennan warns the travelers after their first crossing, “We’ll cross twenty more rivers before we get to Oregon.” And the sheer amount of crossings the journey required combined with the perils of doing so certainly claimed more lives than history could ever record.