Death on the Trail

Wednesday, June 23rd. Remained at the Fort; the things of Mr. Shotwell were sold at auction.

George Shotwell was the only casualty out of the 61 members who set out with the Bidwell-Bartleson Party. His death occurred about a week before the arrival at Fort Laramie.

Sunday, 13th. A mournful accident occurred in camp this morning–a young man by the name of Shotwell while in the act of taking a gun out of the wagon, drew it with the muzzle toward him in such a manner that it went off and shot him near the heart. He lived about an hour and died in the full possession of his senses.

These kind of accidents were not uncommon on the westward journey. Remarkably, and in spite of the dangers and deprivations faced by the Bidwell-Bartleson Party during their six-month journey, there were no more deaths. Later pioneers would experience a much higher death rate as disease and accidents took their toll. With heavy traffic on the plains and poor sanitation, cholera became a serious threat and about one in ten emigrants died on the trail.

The company buried Mr. Shotwell “in the most decent manner our circumstances would admit of,” and the Reverend Mr. Joseph Williams preached a funeral sermon. The sixty-four year old Mr. Williams was a Methodist minister and the oldest member of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party.

A young man by the name of Shotwell, shot himself accidentally and died about two hours afterwards. I was called upon by his comrades to preach his funeral, which I did. The death of this young man caused some seriousness in his comrades for a few days.

Of Fort Laramie, the Rev. Williams wrote:

We passed an old fort below the mouth of the Laramee River; and crossing that river we went up to a new fort that they were building, called Fort Johns. Here is a mixture of people; some white, some half-breeds, some French. Here is plenty of talk about their damnation, but none about their salvation.

The “damnation” he refers to is swearing and cussing. Mr. Williams frequently complained about the “dreadful oaths” of some of the men, and exclaimed “O the wickedness of the wicked!”


About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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