Sarah Thomas died 1854 east of South Pass. Her grave was looted and Tom Bell and Joe Steinbrech re-buried it in 1969. (Photo courtesy of Todd Guenther. Originally published by Tom Bell in Camping News Weekly in September 1969.)

Lilies mark the graves of the unnamed and the forgotten along South Pass. Here, where hundreds of thousands of people passed in covered wagons looking for a better life, the soil is too compact for the flowers to naturally grow. The water won’t drain and the bulbs rot.

For lilies to bloom on this landscape, you must first disturb the soil, said Dana Pertermann, an associate professor of anthropology and geology at Western Wyoming Community College. And you must disturb the soil to bury a body.

This summer Pertermann will look for lilies and other clues of otherwise undetectable graves along the Oregon Trail near South Pass. She’ll then use decidedly more high-tech tools to find and record unknown burial sites for the Bureau of Land Management. With ground penetrating radar equipment on loan from Texas A&M University, Pertermann plans to survey below the surface along stretches of the trail where people likely died and were interred.

The equipment uses an electromagnetic system to detect differences in soil density — changes that can persist even 100 years after digging occurred. It’s like a giant metal detector, but more sophisticated, Pertermann said, and can reveal buried objects without disturbing a gravesite.

Think about the old computer game Oregon Trail, Pertermann said. “Think about the carnage.”

Most of the lost migrants were buried in shallow unmarked graves dug by those without the time, energy or equipment to cut six feet into the earth. People scratched out final resting places for their loved ones as best they could, covered them and kept going.

For some, more than a century later, the soil beneath the surface offers the only evidence they were ever there, Pertermann said.

Field students will assist Pertermann this summer. The crew will report the graves they find to the BLM, which will log them but likely won’t exhume the bodies or excavate the graves, Pertermann said. They’re simply documenting the locations for the historical record.  

“People streamed across this trail for a better life,” Pertermann said. “So there are bodies everywhere.”

Ephraim Brown’s grave is marked with a stone. Brown was murdered in 1857 near Rock Creek east of South Pass. There are numerous graves, some marked and many not, along South Pass. (Todd Guenther)

Pertermann doesn’t want them to be forgotten.

Major wagon traffic along the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail began in 1843, said Todd Guenther, anthropology and history professor at Central Wyoming College.

About 500,000 people embarked on the journey West via the historic trails — the California, Mormon and Oregon — starting in 1843. The trails merge at South Pass where the last documented wagon trains crossed in 1912, Guenther said.

Of those hundreds of thousands of travelers, about 50,000 people died en route, Guenther said. Travelers brought more than 1 million head of livestock West. In 1852, the peak year, more than 70,000 people walked westward. There was manure and human waste everywhere. Disease — particularly typhus, cholera and dysentery — contracted from contaminated water were the most common culprits, Guenther said. But accidents involving the wagons, livestock and firearms were also deadly.

There are thousands of indistinguishable graves along the trail, but they are most visible on South Pass, Guenther said. Soil doesn’t accumulate much in the area and it hasn’t been ploughed or farmed, he said. So 175 years after the first surge of wagons headed West, there are scores of still-visible but unidentifiable graves.

“The graves of people buried along the trails should be as hallowed as military graves,” he said. “They are people who built a nation, even if they were babies and old men.”

The historic trails changed the world, opening trade routes and expanding the United States across the continent. That impact is still felt today in geopolitics, he said.

Guenther has used equipment similar to what Pertermann will to search for graves. He’s taken students along the length of the state. Many of the major sites have been recorded.

“But along the length of the trail, there are still a lot of unknowns,” he said.

Pertermann will focus her hunt on areas she thinks are the most likely to contain graves — popular historic campsites, for example, and places with subtle clues such as cairns or lilies.

Pertermann plans to also scan some of the marked graves. Tombstones are often moved from their original locations — sometimes accidentally, other times to mark another grave. Tombstones were also repurposed for construction. Grave markers might appear in communities that the person whose name is carved into the stone never saw alive.

Unidentified graves in a trail cemetery east of South Pass. Because soil doesn’t accumulate much in the area, graves sites, though unmarked, show for more than 100 years. (Todd Guenther)

Finding and documenting the graves is a start, but it isn’t enough for Pertermann.

She wants to not only log those gravesites, but also learn and share the stories of the people in them. A name on a tombstone could lead to a birth certificate. She also might be able to match gravesite locations with historical accounts to identify the deceased.

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She describes the people who captivate her interest as “those of little note.” They aren’t the famous names in history, but the people who gave up what little they had to make an arduous journey they hoped would lead to a better life.

“We forget about the suffering and sacrifice,” she said.

She thinks about the women who lost their husbands, or buried their children along the trail and continued on. It’s heartbreaking, inspiring and a story that deserves to be discovered and told.

“I want to know about these people,” she said.

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. Wonderful article evoking new thoughts and memories of the South Pass. I agree these are stories that need to be discovered and told.