The early fur trapper or mountain man was an individual in tune with the world he inhabited. Most of the time alone in the wilderness, he was his own cook, surgeon, soldier, wrangler, guide, seamstress, veterinarian, and gunsmith.
An 1830 report from one of the trading firms on the Missouri reported that “among our parties in the mountains, sickness and natural deaths are almost unknown.” That same report listed sixteen deaths at the hands of the Indians, three deaths by fighting among themselves, one drowning, one death from wounds received from a bear, and one natural death.
Those trappers and traders who survived invariably carried the scars of fights and mishaps, the limps and twisted limbs of broken bones not properly set, and the rheumatism and arthritis resulting from the thousands of hours spent wading in icy streams. Not known for their attention to personal hygiene, they frequently “deloused their clothes” by spreading them over a large ant hill for several hours.
After the establishment of Fort Randall in 1856, army medical personnel treated and vaccinated Native Americans, army personnel, and those who came into the area. In 1873, the area experienced a measles epidemic.
Because of vaccination programs conducted at the fort, the Sioux were not as susceptible to the devastating epidemics that struck the Arikaras, Mandans, and Hidatsas farther up the Missouri corridor. However, the introduction of liquor and its demoralizing effects resulted in devastating consequences for families and the communities nearby.
Whenever the opportunity presented itself, a store or supply house, popularly called a “ranch” was started. Several of these were located on the east side of the river between Fort Randall and Wheeler. Their principal business was the sale of whiskey.
One of these “whiskey ranches” was established two miles east of Wheeler at Papineau Spring by Cuthbert DuCharme in 1857. It was a lively place and the sale of liquor far overshadowed everything else that he sold. Rough crowds, including locals and those from the steamboats, regularly gathered at his “store.” Several steamboat landings where located nearby and many boats stopped at this site to take on firewood.
DuCharme kept a ledger of his sales between 1869 and 1872. He was described as “A drinker and when under the influence of intoxicants was a veritable demon. He was a volatile and violent man who abused both alcohol and women.” On June 22, 1894 he was admitted to the State Hospital for Insane at Yankton. He died there on January 12, 1903 from inanition (the absence or loss of social, moral, or intellectual vitality or vigor).
Under the territorial government, attention was paid to health measures by the citizens and their leaders. However, few believed that any special effort or expense on health was necessary in Dakota Territory. With an abundance of sunshine and a refreshing and invigorating rigorous climate, they believed that little effort was required for good health.
However, boards of health were organized and this helped in the checking of epidemics. Medical societies were formed for mutual protection, benefit, and success. The same was later continued when South Dakota became a state.
The State Medical Society was reorganized at Chamberlain in June of 1891. With a membership of over one hundred, this was the most important meeting thus far held in the territory or state by the medical profession.
In the early 1900s, the Hot Springs of the Black Hills attracted the attention of the medical fraternity throughout the country. Many patients came here for treatment under the advice of physicians residing in all parts of the United States.
In 1895 scarlet fever was epidemic in several parts of the state. It was particularly bad in the public schools of several communities. It was found necessary to dismiss the students for a week or two and to quarantine citizens to check the disease.
In 1899, the State Board of Health was required to enforce compulsory vaccination where necessary. They were suddenly called to Sioux Falls in December where smallpox had broken out and threatened to spread over the city. Everyone over one year of age who had not been vaccinated, particularly school children, were ordered to be vaccinated.
The health board also carried out still more stringent and definite rules concerning the control of diphtheria, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and smallpox. During a smallpox epidemic, all children were excluded from school unless they could produce a doctor’s certificate showing that they had been vaccinated. In more than one school in the state, when smallpox appeared, all children who attended were required to line up and be vaccinated unless they had previously gone through the same experience.
Generally speaking, during the first part of the 20th Century, the various health officials and boards did remarkably well in preventing and controlling the diseases which were a part of life on the frontier. Their biggest obstacle was the South Dakota State Legislature.
In 1915, George Kingsbury wrote: “The Legislature thus far had never given the health department what it really merited and deserved. Generally, the health of the state was so good that they apparently thought it unnecessary to make any specific appropriation for health purposes. Up to this time not over $600 had been appropriated annually for all health purposes.”
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on May 11, 2022