Medicine–or the lack of it–played a major role in settling the frontier West. It’s an accepted fact that the informal “First Families of the West”–those on the Pacific slope of the Continental Divide–were a hardy folk, whether offspring of mountaineers, homesteaders, farmers, miners, ranchers, drifters or whatever. They had gumption, grit and backbone–essentials for survival in the great wide open and its attendant perils.
They had no national health plan to fall back on, just native intelligence, a robust constitution and a high threshold of pain to endure ailments and injury. Early settlers responded to bruises, cuts and fractures with poultices, splints, needles and thread. Genuine doctors, when they were available, functioned on the barter system, accepting foodstuffs and products for services rendered.
There are plenty of cases of fur trappers and traders who took to the mountains with their city ailments to die–only to discover years later that the rugged life agreed with them. Just how tough and resilient these frontiersmen–and women–were is exemplified by Hugh Glass, a fur trapper left for dead by his companions in September 1823 after being terribly mauled by a “she grizzly.” Yet Glass, near death and despite horrific wounds that left him with arms, legs and body torn open, and neck bitten so savagely he barely could breathe, was able with but the tatters of clothes on his back, and weaponless, to claw his way from the Yellowstone River down to the Grand and ultimately the Missouri to rejoin his astonished brigade camped at Fort Kiowa some 300 miles away. They had long since marked him as a fatality of the season.
Another example is Jim Bridger, the celebrated mountaineer, trapper, trader and guide, who for years carried a Blackfoot arrowhead imbedded in his back, until the medical missionary Marcus Whitman dug it out at the fur rendezvous of 1835 on Horse Creek of the Green near today’s Daniel, Wyoming. Women of the early West endured unattended childbirth, and in turn later assumed the role of doctor and nurse to their offspring. Beyond that are the heroics of covered-wagon women like those of the Donner-Reed party who suffered the torment of the waterless salt-desert crossing and survived the horrors of starvation and isolation in the snowbound fastness of the Sierra Nevada.
Newlywed Lucena Pfuffer Parsons, 28, was headed for California with her husband in March 1850 to settle in Oakland. The wagon train to which they attached themselves was hit by cholera. Her diary entries, as edited by historian Kenneth L. Holmes, record her thoughts; the spelling and language are preserved:
“June 23  Last night visited a very sick boy, son of the first man that died. This morning [wagon train] started early. Passt some beautifull country. All it wants to make it delightfull is a little of the arts of civilization. It has rained early all day. Encampt at 3 oclock on what I call Mud creek from the nature of the stream, having made 18 miles. The boy that was sick died about noon to day on the way coming. These are hard time for us but harder on the sick. Nothing for their relief at all it seems. Still it rains. Very hot.
June 24 Last evening there was 3 more died out of the same family. One was a young lady & there was another child. The 3 are buried together 2 Spoffords & one Brown. Staid here all day & some of the company did up there washing. Had a meeting in the afternoon to consider whether it is best to travel in such large company or not. We are to remain as we are a short time longer & then split if the sickness continues. Passt 5 graves to day of people who had died in another company.”
Mormon journals are sprinkled with cures and home recipes for treating colds, rheumatism, toothache, diarrhea, colic and a list of other “miseries.” Usually these remedies were jotted at the back of a journal, almost as an afterthought with Grandpa’s favorite blend of cider.
In the late 1860s, Eastern newspapers were dotted with ads extolling private convalescent homes for “veterans.” It’s impossible to tell how many Blue and Gray casualties suffering the agonies of war wounds, were placed in these havens by well-meaning families, to be cared for–and innocently sentenced to a lifetime of drug addiction. Laudanum and a variety of other potions laced with opium and its derivatives were as available as laxative from the nearest apothecary–no prescription necessary, thank you.
The popular image of frontier pharmacology is a snort of “Dr. Snidely’s Miracle Snake Oil” peddled at a medicine show from the back of a wagon. And while that description is stretching things a bit, the truth wasn’t far off. Here’s a sampling of patent medicines found alongside other sundries on the shelves of a Utah general store at the turn of the century. Included are such nostrums as:
Loxol Pain-Expeller (Contains 49% alcohol, capsicum, ammonia, camphor, soap, essential oils). For sore muscles, strains, sprains, bruises, neuralgia, muscular lumbago, chest cold, stiff neck due to exposure, wet feet, non-venomous insect bites, and for hours of comforting warmth and relief from rheumatic pains. Use externally as a liniment. Price 75 cents.
Seven Barks Compound (Alcohol 7 3/4%). For Dyspepsia, Indigestion, Rheumatism. Dose: 10 to 20 Drops in a Wine Glassful of Water. Price 60 cents.
Kickapoo Worm Killer, made by the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Co. (Contents 12 tablets, in the form of candy lozenges, containing Santonin, Hydragyri, Subchloridum, Podophyllin, Sugar, Rice Flour, Fat, Licorice, Oil Anise). For Worms….Adults take 2 lozenges half hour before supper and before breakfast. Kickapoo Worm killer is also a laxative and assists Nature in expelling worms. . . . Price 35 cents.
Chamberlain’s Colic Cholera Diarrhoea Remedy (Contains 48% alcohol, 19 minims of chloroform, 1.99 grains of opium). For pain in the stomach, colic, cholera morbus, summer complaints, dysentery, bloody flux, and bowel complaint in all its forms. The wrapper also carries the aforementioned description in eight foreign languages: Polish, Dutch, Bohemian, German, French, Swedish, Norwegian and Italian. Price 25 cents.
Egyptian Regulator Tea (Contains “Egyptian Regulator Tea made in America from the original formula”). A remedy for constipation and biliousness. Dose: An ordinary dose for an adult is a teaspoonful of the herbs and a cup of hot water taken every night. Price 35 cents per package.
The first true “drug store” in Utah was opened by William S. Godbe in the autumn of 1855 on East Temple [Main Street] near First South. Godbe advertised his new establishment–the Deseret Drug Store–in announcing his return from a buying trip in the East with “a valuable assortment of merchandise–drugs and medicine, chiefly botanical; soaps, oils and perfumeries, gunpowder, [percussion] caps, knives, toys, spices, jams, preserves, cordials, nuts, candies, lozenges, medical liquors.” Utah was a step closer to taming its frontier.