I recently stumbled upon a random newspaper article, “Deaths on the Plains this Season.” Other than the title, the article provides little in the way of detail about why, or how, or from where came the list of names of 250 people who perished as they journeyed to a new life in the west. Nearly all the names are associated with a death date, such as “C.S. Carter, June 5.” Some, like “John Holeman, June 5, age 19” are accompanied by a bit more information, but with “Joseph Langley, age 47,” readers don’t know when he passed.
A man known only as “Battsford” died July 26, “shot by his captain.” T Miller, age 26, was murdered June 15 by R. Tate. But possibly Mr. Tate received his due – “Lafayette Tate, hung June 15, for murder of T. Miller.”
M. J. Henderson died the same day. He was from Wisconsin, age 1 year, 2 months and 15 days.
The Hardcastles were hit hard in their migration – W. C. died 16 August, age 23; R. P. died, 23 June, age 25; Mrs. D. A. Hardcastle died 6 June, age 26; J. M. Hardcastle died 7 June, age 6; and Mrs. D. J. Hardcastle died 16 June, age 25. Who were these people who shared a surname? Where were they from? Where did they hope to make their new home?
A portion of names are associated with locations. Thomas H. Foster who died 18 May at age 25 hailed from Cumberland, Md. R. H. Nelson from Monroe, Michigan died 26 May at age 25. Illinois, Ohio, St. Louis, Pike county Mo., Harvard, Ind., Rarrington, Ohio, and Fairfield, Whoknowswhere all lost sons and daughters who once called those places home.
When I first ran across the article I considered how many genealogists who’ve had ancestors “just disappear” have thought about searching newspapers in far-flung locations? Does anyone researching the Baxton family from Ohio City, Ohio wonder what became of G. C. Baxton, born about 1830? He died – somewhere on the plains – 24 June 1852. I tried to find the back story on some of the faceless names from the column, searching 1850 census records to see if I could identify any of those who had a specific location and an age associate with their names. Sadly, I struck out on the handful I investigated.
But a Google search led me to David J. Langum’s “Pioneer Justice on the Overland Trails” with more news about two of those 250 deaths in the 1852 newspaper - T. Miller’s and Lafayette Tate. T. Miller, (unnamed in Langum’s article,) was a cattle overseer in the Brown emigrant party who fought with one of the drivers by the name of Tate. The driver's brother, Lafayette Tate, 19, ran up, stabbed Miller in the back, then slit his throat. Based on multiple diary accounts cited by Langum, we learn about the speedy frontier justice – with quickly assembled jury, judge, prosecutor and defense counsel. Witnesses were examined, Tate was found guilty and thirty minutes later hanged. According to the diaries Langum cited, the brother who originally fought with Miller was allowed to continue on with the company. For those interested in more about pioneer justice on the trails, be sure to read Langum’s article.
But even for those whose relatives might have disappeared in a less dramatic fashion, I hope this post might inspire researchers to not stop at just the local paper in their ancestral locations, but consult even far-off papers for details on their families’ lives.
 “Deaths on the Plains this Season,” Sacramento Daily Union, 2 November 1852, p. 2, col. 5; digital image, California Digital Newspaper Collection (www.cdnc.ucr.edu : accessed 7 July 2020). A search on The California Digital Newspaper Collection for “death on the plains” led to other articles in Sacramento and San Francisco newspapers, some of which were repeats of each other.
 “Death on the Plains this Season.”
 Langum, David J. "Pioneer Justice on the Overland Trails." The Western Historical Quarterly 5, no. 4 (1974): 421-39. Accessed July 7, 2020. doi:10.2307/967307.
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.