In the last half of the 19th and earliest part of the 20th centuries, medicine was often carried out far from the doctor’s office. If the settlement or outpost was lucky enough to have a doctor living within a day’s journey, settlers often expected the doctor to come to them.
Doctors traveled long distances on foot or horseback and in wagons or buggies to reach their patients. The doctor’s bag was designed to carry the tools of the trade and withstand travel in all sorts of weather.
By necessity, those earliest doctors were general practitioners. They delivered babies, set broken bones, pulled teeth, and tended to all sorts of wounds and diseases. They often created their own medications, as well as some of the instruments which they used.
That rural doctor quickly became well known and was considered the most valuable asset in the area. They most likely delivered every child in the community as well as sat with the dying as they drew their last breath. They saw people into and out of this world. In the meantime, they did everything they could to keep them alive and healthy.
Despite a few undisputed charlatans and incompetents, our earliest doctors on the prairie and elsewhere were incredibly dedicated. Many of these doctors risked their lives to travel tremendous distances, often over dangerous terrain to provide medical care.
Often, they were paid with fresh eggs, produce, firewood, or not at all. Whatever the situation, they continued to serve their friends and neighbors, regardless of the weather. We must never forget the contribution they made to the development and progress of this new country.
A valuable part of the medical team which seems to have been overlooked by historians was the doctor’s wife. The comfort and assurance which she gave folks as they were frantically looking for the doctor seems to have been lost in our early records. She was an invaluable, forgotten, and underestimated part of every community.
For those who needed medical care on the frontier during the last half of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, it came in a variety of forms. Doctors, where they were available, could provide care; however, our earliest settlers often relied on their own herbal concoctions and the traditional cures of the Native Americans.
The healing and medical traditions of Native Americans have been practiced in North America for centuries. From the very beginning, it was based on a spiritual view of life. To them, a healthy person was someone who had a sense of purpose and followed the guidance of the “Great Spirit.”
Healing and even the term “medicine” from the Native American perspective suggests a view which differed from the medical model which was later practiced by Western Civilization. While Western Civilization typically viewed and equated healing with curing, from the Native American perspective, healing was more akin to “recovering one’s wholeness” or “to reestablish harmony with nature.”
Traditionally, Native Americans observed the plants within their environment and learned which parts of certain plants contributed to healing. At the time of the arrival of the Europeans to America, the Native Americans had experienced a good level of health from their traditional diets and herbal treatments.
They understood the medicinal merits of many plants and the value of both baths and sweating for the cure of their ills. They were all used with great skill and judgement.
Unlike Western Civilization medicine, Native Americans believed that the beneficial effects were not solely in their herbal medicine. They believed that the spiritual connection that the healer had with the plants was of great importance. Therefore, to them, synthetic pharmaceuticals manufactured in the lab would not be equivalent.
“Medicine Butte,” the highest and most prominent peak in eastern Lyman County is located six miles north of Reliance. It was where the Sioux gathered to “make medicine.”
“Medicine Creek” rises in Jones County and runs east through Lyman County, emptying into the Missouri just above Big Bend. It got its name from the herbs along the creek.
The Red Cloud Indian Agency was located at the mouth of this creek in 1878. Earlier, about 1845, “Fort Defiance” was established as a trading post near the mouth of the creek. Because it was competing with a post of the American Fur Company, it gained the name “Defiance.” It was sometimes known as “Fort Bouis” for the name of one of the owners. This area quickly became an important fur trading location.
The July 28, 1942, issue of The Daily Republic contained the following story: “Medicine Butte, which overlooks all of Lyman County and parts of Stanley, Hughes, Hyde, Brule, and Buffalo, has been selected as a lookout station (for range fires). A telephone line to the top of the Butte is being constructed by the local farmers and a road has already been built to the shack on top of the butte. Plans are being made to have someone on this lookout with binoculars 24 hours a day.”
Today, there are several radio/television towers located on Medicine Butte which are visible to travelers on Interstate 90.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on April 27, 2022