Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
sponsored by the Utah State Board of Education, the BYU-Public School Partnership and the Utah Education Network

Life On The Trail

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Disease-causing bacteria carry on a complex, hidden interaction with the human body. Emigrants along the trail were exposed to a variety of unsanitary conditions where bacteria could thrive and be easily picked up. Numerous bacteria cause diarrhea and probably most emigrants suffered this affliction to a lesser or greater degree. Severe diarrhea can kill, but it apparently benefits both the bacteria and the infected. Diarrhea spreads the bacteria to new human hosts, and it flushes the bacteria quickly from the human's body.

The intestines are exposed constantly to pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria. Each has a unique and very specific way of changing human cells. Stomach acid can kill bacteria in small amounts, but if the bacteria can enter the small intestines in significant numbers, illness results. Dr. Alessio Fasano, University of Maryland School of Medicine, in a Salt Lake Tribune article, Jan. 9, 1997, described nine diarrhea-causing bacteria and how they operate in the small intestine:

  1. Staphylococcus aureus: chemically punches holes in the cell membrane, making nutrients leak out. Illness lasts 1 to 6 hours and is spread by cream, meat, and poultry.

  2. Clostridium perfringens: produces a toxin that makes the cell's internal skeleton dissolve. Illness lasts 8 to 20 hours and is spread by reheated meat.

  3. Clostridium botulinum: (probably not common on the trail) lasts 12 to 36 hours and is spread by canned food.

  4. Rotavirus: lasts 2 to 5 days and is spread by fecal/oral contact

  5. Salmonella: forces the cell membrane to enclose it in a protective pocket. It lasts 1 to 2 days and is spread by eggs and poultry products.

  6. Shigella: enters cells, fashioning a path from the cell's own internal structures. It lasts 1 to 4 days and is spread by fecal/oral contact.

  7. Escherichia coli (E. Coli): shuts down protein manufacturing. It lasts 1 to 4 days and is spread by contaminated food or water.

  8. Vibrio CHOLERA: produces toxins which disrupt the salt balance, making cells steadily pump out water. It widens the space between cells, making the intestines leak. The person loses massive amounts of body fluids and electrolytes, such as salts. This disease, also known as "The Bloody Flux," was a serious killer along emigrant trails.

Emigrants heading to the gold fields in California in 1849 took too many supplies and discarded large amounts along the trail. Emigration in 1850 was twice as large. Travelers listened to reports filtering back to the east and overcompensated by taking too little provisions. Cholera struck with a vengeance, claiming more lives this year than any other during the emigration period. According to California Trail historian, George Stewart, The stretch of trail from Mary's sink (western end of the Humboldt River) to the Carson River in 1850 claimed 10,000 animals. As many as 3,000 wagons were abandoned, also.