A Note from Cottonwood Corners

In early America, there were many ways for someone on the frontier to die.  Those explorers and settlers were faced with an abundance of causes which often resulted in their death.  It was an often painful and gruesome experience.

The first to practice medicine in America was the American Indian.  As the frontier moved steadily westward from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific Ocean, the early arrivals combined what European-taught medical skills they brought with them and the Indians’ well-developed knowledge of local herbal remedies.  This formed the foundation of early American medicine.

During the earliest days of medicine in America, few knew, medically, quite what they were doing.  Doctoring was generally an amateur activity at best and the cures were often far worse than the diseases.  The benefits of hygiene were not understood and bathing was thought to remove crucial oils from the skin.  The importance of proper sanitation and disposal of waste had not been acknowledged.

Early “Frontier Medicine” contrasted the “heroic medicine” practiced by the English and colonial doctors with that of the American Indian.  They first practiced bloodletting, blistering, and other medieval-sounding acts and the second often relied on herbs.

Today, social historians have enormous respect for early Indian cures and they deplore the way the English ignored them.  “Most English looked down on the native peoples and considered them savages,” David Dary wrote, “and rejected anything associated with them.”

Over time, American Indian practices did catch on.  “It is fair to say,” Dary wrote, “Indian medical knowledge is what gives early American medicine its particular character.”

Have you ever wondered why it often seems as though civilization seldom makes a mistake in our favor?  The many, man-made, current problems which we now face in America are a prime example of “not making a mistake in our favor!”

As the settlements moved westward, we learn that advancements in the practice of medicine were being made.  In the 1720s, seventy-five years before Edward Jenner’s experiments with smallpox vaccine, a Boston doctor learned from an African slave how to vaccinate against the disease.  In 1809, a backwoods Kentucky doctor performed the first successful abdominal surgery.  A Missouri doctor, in 1820 realized quinine could prevent as well as cure malaria.

In the frontier west, Dary wrote:

“If someone had a medical emergency, he usually had three choices: find a doctor or perhaps an apothecary (one who prepares and sells drugs or compounds for medicinal purposes), treat himself, or die.”

The diaries, journals, newspapers, letters, advertisements, medical records and pharmacological writings, reveal firsthand accounts of Indian cures and the ingenious self-healings of the mountain men and fur trappers.  The settlers carried their home remedies with them and the cowboys learned to provide for themselves.

It is estimated that thousands of the early settlers and pioneers died each year on their way west.  Some thought it was impossible to leave Independence Missouri and travel on the Santa Fe or Oregon trails to their final destination without stepping on a grave with each step that they took.

Finally, the indispensable role of the country doctor and midwives became available to those who were determined to find their “El Dorado” in the west.  Unfortunately, the “Medicine Show” with its patent medicines and quack cures appeared on the scene at about the same time.

The Civil War was a turning point of sorts for American medicine because it gave countless surgeons a lifetime’s worth of on-the-job training.  Dentistry was still ignored by the Army at that time.  In fact, “recruits were turned away if they did not have six opposing upper and lower front teeth with which to bite off the end of the powder cartridges used with muzzle-loaded weapons.”

The contributions of army doctors, the formation of the American Medical Association, the first black doctors, and the first women doctors cannot be overstated.  Finally the early-twentieth-century shift to a formal scientific approach to medicine for the most part eliminated the trial-and-error practical methods of frontier medicine.

The way in which a lady was treated on the open range by a cowboy in the last half of the 1800s was a code which demanded the highest honor from these fellows.  We often believe all that nonsense and rubbish in the movies and on TV.  Except for outlaws, a woman journeying alone on the open range was as safe as though in her own house.

Philip Rollins, in his book “The Cowboy” writes:  “No ambulance from a metropolitan hospital could have offered more gentleness in the transport of a female patient than was intended by the group of silent men escorting across the snow a figure huddled on a ‘travois’ and bound for a hospital via the railway over a hundred miles away.”

The open range cowboy, in medical matters, treated himself (with assistance from the cook), and took patent medicines.  In dental affairs, he treated himself with blacksmith’s pincers.  In surgical cases, he went to the settlements, where a doctor might be found.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on April 20, 2022

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