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Pioneers 'Meeting the Elephant'

You are probably wondering what American pioneers and elephants have to do with one another. Some pioneers would have told you “Too much!” “Meeting the Elephant” was a term used by westward emigrants to mean encountering the worst conditions possible.

There were hazards, illness, and accidents around every bend of the trail.

Many pioneers became ill along the trails west. Many people died. Even something as minor as a toothache could be fatal when real, trained doctors were few and far between and affective medicines and antibiotics were even more rare.

Research some of the illnesses and hazards that the emigrants faced:

§ Cholera
§ Dysentery
§ Scarlet fever
§ Measles
§ Snake bites
§ Typhoid
§ Malaria

Another area you can research is medicines in the 1800’s and the history of medicine in general.

It is estimated that there was one grave every 80 yards or so between the Missouri River and the Willamette Valley. To visualize this:

1. Find out how many feet are in a mile, then divide this by three to convert
2. Then, multiply “yards per mile” by the number of miles between the Missouri River and the Wilamette Valley by following the Oregon Trail.
3. Now you have the number of yards between those two points. Divide this number by “80” and you’ll have figured out about how many graves were along the Oregon Trail.

People were also hurt and killed because of accidents on the trail west. Make a list of the various kinds of accidents the emigrants would have faced.

There were also problems with the water supply along the trail which aggravated already severe conditions. Sometimes there was no fresh water available for days or the water was polluted or the water could even have been poisonous (e.g., alkaline water).

Here are some links that you might find useful and interesting:

Images from the History of Medicine
Oregon Trail’s Teacher Guide
Donner Online
A Unit Study of the Oregon Trail
Oregon Trail Thematic Unit from Connecting Students


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