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Children of the trail

December 3, 2011
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

Rock markers and wooden crosses dot the various trails used by settlers heading west in the mid 1800's. Many of those markers indicated the final resting place of children. For children the trek across the frontier was filled with peril. Violence, disease, and accidents caused thousands of infants and toddlers to die years before their time. So uncertain was their future that some pioneers held off naming the babies born en-route until they were two years old.

Pioneer kids on the trail saw a lot of interesting things, great herds of buffalo, vast grasslands, landmarks like Chimney Rock and Devils Gate, hot springs and waterfalls. Unfortunately too often they also saw sickness, death and horrendous accidents.

The trip west took about five or six months, was almost 2,000 miles long, and most kids walked, as people generally only rode in the wagons when they were sick, tired, or the weather was bad.

Children younger than six often succumbed to cholera, meningitis, and smallpox, but many also perished from fatal injuries when they fell under wagon wheels, into campfires, fell down canyons, or drowned in river crossings.

In some respects the difficulties afflicting families during trail travel were the price paid for seeking a better life. "Tomorrow" was a goal parents attempted to achieve, not just for themselves, but their children and their children's children.

The journey across the rugged plains was so risky that some political leaders suggested only men should make the trip. In 1843 Horace Greeley wrote, "It is palpable homicide to attempt or send women over the thousand miles of precipice and volcanic sterility to Oregon."

The stories of the many lives that ended before they got a chance to make their mark on the frontier are lost forever. Only by their weathered tombstones in cemeteries throughout the west are we able to know the tale of sacrifice to settle a new land.



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