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Cool Things - Oregon Trail Tombstone

Oregon Trail tombstoneVery little is known about this Oregon Trail traveler who died of cholera in present-day Kansas.

What the first and middle initial stand for is unknown. Why he left his wife in Wadesboro, Kentucky, also remains a mystery. There is no known record of his age or occupation. All that is known with any certainty is that S.M. Marshall died from cholera en route to California near Baldwin Creek in what is now Pottawatomie County, Kansas, on May 27, 1849. Marshall and his party from Tennessee were part of the westward migration of nearly 40,000 people on the Oregon-California Trail in 1849.

The Oregon Trail

A 2,000 mile east-to-west route, the Oregon Trail took travelers north to Oregon (through Kansas), and also connected to another big trail, the California, heading southwest to the gold fields. To be prepared for the four to five month journey, an emigrant needed "200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt. The basic kitchenware was a cooking kettle, fry pan, coffee pot, tin plates, cups, knives, and forks" (according to the Oregon-California Trail Association). The one thing emigrants could not prepare for, though, was Asiatic cholera.

Cholera was the greatest killer on the trail in 1849 and 1850. Rarely transmitted person to person, it was spread through contaminated food or drinking water. Occurring primarily in the spring and early summer (the time of Marshall's trip), Asiatic cholera could kill a person within hours due to diarrhea, dehydration, and shock.

Close-up of tombstone

Consuming the cholera bacteria sealed Marshall's fate along with at least 41 other known emigrants during May, 1849. The portion of the Oregon trail winding through six Kansas counties has several graves. Most are unmarked. Very few stricken individuals were lucky enough to have a etched limestone marker like Marshall's, which remained untouched in its original location for almost 80 years.

Marshall's tombstone was found at Rockcreek Township, Section 21, near Baldwin Creek. Two other emigrant graves share the area, situated upon a hill.  During his final hours (according to local lore), Marshall requested to be buried on a high location, facing Kentucky where he had left behind a wife.

It is said that Marshall's party continued its journey on the trail after his death, eventually reaching California. It is not known if his wife received word of the gold seeker's death or if she ever visited the hilltop. At least one set of visitors did stop at Marshall's grave. In 1904, two men from Texas and Tennessee visited the site, stating they were Marshall's only living relatives.

A Mr. Billings, on whose land the grave was located, gave Marshall's tombstone to the Kansas Historical Society in 1928.

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Entry: Cool Things - Oregon Trail Tombstone

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: September 2008

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.