With close to a quarter of a million travelers, the California Trail was no stranger to disease and death. The brave souls who picked up their lives and headed west during the mid-and late nineteenth century were heading into trials it is hard for most of us to imagine today. Unfortunately, frontier doctors were few and far between, and medicine along America’s overland trails can be summed up in these four words: “anything but the doctor.”

Accidents & Illnesses On The California Trail

Unsanitary conditions, a lack of clean water access, limited diets, harsh weather, and exhaustion all contributed to the number one killer on the overland trails west — illness. Although many travelers thought moving away from crowded cities would decrease their chances of getting sick, the westward expansion also expanded the potential areas for bacteria and viruses to spread.

Cholera, for example, made its way to the west coast from a Missouri epidemic of the disease on and in the bodies of hopeful 49ers joining the California Gold Rush.

You can get a good idea of typical overland trail hazards from the diary of James Akin, Jr., which lists three drownings, a man crushed by a wagon, three cholera deaths, many more unspecified illnesses, the death of his mother, father, and sister.

  • Cholera
  • Diphtheria
  • Dysentery
  • Lice Transmitted Typhus
  • The Flu
  • Malaria
  • Mountain Fever
  • Measles
  • Pneumonia
  • Scurvy
  • Summer Complaint aka Food Poisoning
  • Tuberculosis
  • Typhoid Fever

Who Were These Frontier Doctors?

So, with such a prevalence of disease and potential for fatal infection, why didn’t every wagon trail have its own doctor? Believe it or not, in the mid-1800’s physicians had little science-based knowledge on what caused most sickness.

Calling the doctor in was as much of a crap shoot as relying on the nearest quack or untrained person calling themselves a doctor.

“Physicians, as a profession, were held in such low regard during the early and mid-1800s that several states stopped certifying and licensing doctors — anybody could put up a sign and call themselves a doctor and a lot of folks did.” — The End of the Oregon Trail

“Until the 1860s—and in some sections long afterward—a frontier doctor was almost any man who called himself one. It is a safe guess that not more than a fourth of them held degrees from medical schools. Most learned by the apprentice system, and some were self-taught, self-appointed healers who hung out their shingles when they “got the call.” — American Heritage

  • Trained Doctors Working From Old “Science”
  • Doctors Apprenticed To Other Doctors For 2-3 Years
  • Untrained, “Quack” Doctors — No Training Or Self-Trained
  • ”Indian” Doctors — Claiming Medical Knowledge From Native Peoples

Early American Medicine

Many mid-19th century medical remedies did more harm than good. Often, your best-case scenario was to have no benefit from the treatment without fatal side effects. Today, seeing a list of common doctor prescribed and practice remedies from this time at our own medical clinics would send us running, most likely to the nearest medical board.

“Flannel should be worn constantly next to the skin, especially in wet weather… Washing the feet every morning in cold water will conduce very much to fortify them against the action of cold…” — Dr. Benjamin Rush to Captain Meriwether Lewis for preserving his health.

  • Cold Water Baths
  • Bleeding, Purging & Blistering
  • Restrictive Diets
  • Cupping
  • Hypnotism
  • Coca-Cola & Dr. Pepper
  • Mercury
  • Dovers Powder — Opium & Ipecac
  • Black Drops — Opium & Vinegar
  • Laudanum— Opium & Alcohol

Pioneer Remedies

Common pioneer remedies, on the other hand, were more similar to folk medicine, aka grannie medicine. The typical trail medical kit might include a popular home remedy reference (The Family Nurse, Gunn’s Domestic Medicine, or The Family Hand Book), pills, castor oil, rum or whiskey, peppermint oil, quinine for malaria, hartshorn for snakebite, citric acid for scurvy, opium, laudanum, morphine, calomel, and tincture of camphor.

Mountain men working for the early fur trapping industry were known to treat illness with native herbs and plants gleaned from Native Americans and to get rid of lice from their clothes by leaving them atop an anthill.

”…using peppermint oil to treat all manner of aches and pains because it causes a sensation of warmth when applied to the skin. Asparagus was widely thought to be good for the kidneys because it makes urine smell odd. Snakebites were often treated with extracts made from plants with long, stringy roots that looked sort of snake-like.”— Legends of America

Learn More About The California Trail

Now that you know a little bit more about healing and medicine on The California Trail, we invite you to experience pioneer life and the people who lived it with us. Schedule your visit to the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, Nevada, today.

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