If they only they could have made it a regular practice to boil their drinking water, emigrants along the Oregon Trail might have saved thousands of lives among their cohort, including the lives of some of the children and other beloved family members who would succumb to illness during the arduous journey.
According to a National Park Service handout titled “Death and Danger Along the Trails,” illness was the leading killer on the Oregon Trail, easily outdistancing deaths by such other common causes as accidents and lack of food or water.
An estimated 6 to 10 percent of the approximately 350,000 people who are believed to have started the westward journey were cut down by disease.
“The most dangerous diseases were those spread by poor sanitary conditions and personal contact,” the Park Service publication notes. “Death from diseases usually came quickly and painfully.”
Although dysentery as a cause of death gained in notoriety with the popularity of 1970s educational computer game The Oregon Trail, in truth cholera killed a far greater number, according to various sources.
The Centers for Disease Control website states that people can get cholera “by drinking water or eating food contaminated with the cholera bacterium. … The disease can spread rapidly in areas with inadequate treatment of sewage and drinking water. The disease is not likely to spread directly from one person to another; therefore, casual contact with an infected person is not a risk for becoming ill.”
People who are traveling to areas where there are outbreaks of cholera can effectively reduce risk of catching the disease, CDC advises, by drinking “only bottled, boiled, or chemically treated water” and also by eating foods that are freshly cooked and served hot, and by washing one’s hands frequently, using “safe water” and preferably soap. If no soap is available, CDC advises, “scrub hands often with ash or sand and rinse with safe water.”
So there you have it. Oregon Trail emigrants of course did not have access to bottled or chemically treated water, but if they had been able to maintain a supply of water that had gone through at least a full minute of boiling (the CDC recommendation), their chances for avoiding cholera would arguably have been increased.
Boiling water and washing hands are likewise important precautions against catching typhoid and dysentery.
On the Oregon Trail, recovery from illness was evidently an achievement exclusively of a body’s own defenses, because most “doctoring” that was going on was far off-target. This, according to Finn J.D. John in his article, “Oregon Trail medicine; or, How Not to Die of Dysentery,” on the Offbeat Oregon website (offbeatoregon.com).
“It’s hard for modern people to believe, but in the mid-1800s medical practice had much more in common with religion than science,” John writes. “Microbes were completely unheard-of, and no one knew why people got sick; so everything from ‘too much blood’ to the vengeance of an angry god got blamed for things like cholera and malaria.”
Bleeding and purging, which had been common forms of treatment when Lewis and Clark’s small group undertook the Journey of Discovery very early in the 19th century, were unfortunately still part of mainstream medicine decades later when relatively vast numbers of people were on the move.
John writes that by this time, however, “most regular people had little use for mainstream medicine,” and they turned instead to “the witches’-brew formulations of herbalist Samuel Thompson.”
According to John, at least one wagon train carried a book of remedies written by Dr. William Dains, a Thompsonian practitioner. Recipes for medicinal concoctions to treat anything from dysentery to a persistent cough, or to ease a woman’s pain during childbirth, called for ingredients that may sound rather quaint to us today. An incomplete list includes “beef gall,” “Colcynth,” “Bloodroot,” “May apple,” “culver root,” “lobelia seed,” “lickrish root,” “cayenne pepper,” “Gilead buds,” vinigar,” and “sirrip of skunk cabbage root.”
The National Park Service publication states that camphor and laudanum were the go-to “medicines” for cholera. “These were painkillers and cough suppressants and did little to cure cholera,” the publication adds. Meanwhile, for dysentery “and other bowel disorders,” many emigrants’ treatment of choice was castor oil.
Cholera and dysentery may have been most depressingly common, but a number of other illnesses also bear mention. The Park Service’s list includes (Rocky) Mountain fever, measles, food poisoning, scurvy, and pneumonia. Quinine water was used for Rocky Mountain fever, and citric acid against scurvy.
Treating headaches, coughs, and muscle aches on the Oregon Trail could call for vinegar or whiskey, and the least fortunate patient might receive turpentine.