Florence Allen, Dorothy Gilbert, Russell  N. Hirst, Julia Rawlins, Joan Shaw, Estelle Smith, Guy Swendsen, Edis Taggart,  Virginia Van Orden, Lloyd Walker 29 North Main 
 Lewiston, Utah 84320

May 1996 
Historical Report #3

 Frontier Life in the Nineteenth Century

 Joan Shaw

In 1826, in the northeast Indian province of Bengal, a microscopic, curved rod, the bacillus Vibrio cholerae, began entering human intestines, working quickly to kill fifty percent of its hosts.  Spread primarily by contaminated water and by flies that carry contamination from fecal matter to food, within weeks the disease--cholera--had reached every part of India.

Recognition of water as a vehicle for the cholera bacillus and of the germ theory in general was decades away. Plagues and epidemics were considered a punishment for humanity's sins or simply a fact of life.  The idea was to leave the area, if that was possible; and if it wasn't, to pray.

So, unwittingly, pilgrims, immigrants, and traders carried the bacillus from India to ports in the Balkans, France and the Netherlands.  In October of 1831, it entered England and Wales on European vessels, killing more than 21,500 in the two countries before it subsided.  By that time it had found its way to the port of New York, spread north and south on the east coast of the United States, and then moved westward, carried by trappers and soldiers and the wagon trains of early pioneers, contaminating streams and water holes along the way.  By 1834 it had reached the Pacific coast.

During the nineteenth century, variations of this wave of contagion were repeated again and again, not only of the cholera bacillus, but of agents of a whole host of other infectious diseases. When Utah's pioneers set off on their own westward trek, Vibrio cholerae went with them.  So did the bacteria of typhoid, diphtheria, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, and whooping cough; so did the Plasmodium species of malaria; so did the viruses of smallpox and influenza; so did the fleas carrying typhus.

Once in the settlements, threats from these diseases were compounded by inadequate diets, especially during winter, and by the damp, dirt-floored cabins, drafty wagon boxes, and dugouts where the pioneers spent their first years.  Daily baths were out of the question; drinking water came from ditches or shallow wells contaminated by nearby outhouses.  "Rare was the father," wrote one doctor in his review of early medicine in Cache Valley, Utah, "that could boast, 'all feeling well' or 'no sickness among us' in his journal."  Wrote another,  "Sickness was so commonplace that [it] was often looked upon as normal and only in the case of acute episodes did people consider themselves to be sick, although they in all probability were chronically ill much of the time."

The stark simplicity of diary and journal entries recording death and sickness in pioneer families is wrenching to read: "Florina took sick with whooping cough and died when 3 weeks old.... I helped lay out 6 children, dead of diphtheria." Margaret Elzirah Rawlins, Relief Society President in Lewiston, Utah, from 1876 to 1902, pictured below, spoke for most of the mothers in the area when she wrote in her journal, "There was so much sickness among my children, I was in dread all the time."

In dread, but not fatalistic, for on the frontier in the nineteenth century, death happened.  Aside from a sustaining religious 

faith and an optimism in the teeth of such adversity that it seems impossible to us today, the pioneers concocted their own nostrums in an attempt to stem the tide.  Among the home remedies mentioned by medical historians were mixtures of pungent herbs or turpentine mixed with lard--and in one case, a split chicken--applied to the chest in the case of  respiratory distress; honey, red pepper, and butter for sore throat; and assorted syrups containing vinegar, molasses, and whiskey for coughs.  Some of these folk remedies leave us boggled a bit.  In the spring of 1868, for instance, Nancy Kerr administered dried chicken gizzards as a deterrent to vomiting to seven-year-old Mary Eveline Rawlins who was suffering from cholera.  The fact that the child lived could be a testimonial for dried chicken gizzards to settle the stomach, though the dose might seem to modern minds to have the opposite effect!

But they did what they could, these frontier women; they nursed each other and acted as midwives.  They moved in with families--some with every one of their members stricken--and nursed them for weeks.  Margaret Elzirah Rawlins herself was a well-loved nurse in the Lewiston area.  Scores of others are mentioned by name in a paper given before the Cache valley Historical Society by Dr. S.M. Budge in 1954, and one gets the sense that these nurses were infinitely more important, then, than doctors.

During the early years of Cache Valley's settlement, in fact, there were no licensed medical doctors.  James Hancey in Hyde Park, for instance, was a casket maker, locksmith, and builder, who also acted as dentist, veterinarian and doctor.  People like James Hancey made their own medicines and salves, and performed minor surgery and setting of fractures.  Often their services were free, as in the case of Dr. Hughes, an herb doctor who practiced in Mendon in the 1880s.

Nor were there actual cures available for diseases like cholera, in spite of the claims of a wide range of healers practicing under the name of doctor.  But as naive and ineffectual as the folk remedies current at the time may seem to us today, they at least did little harm, and at best let the sick die in peace and, in some cases, comfort.  This was more than could be claimed by the licensed medical profession of the day.  Brigham Young, for one, advised his people against calling in professional doctors, recommending as a safer course faith in God through the laying on of hands, and on mild food and herbs.  In that, he was echoing a broad majority of people nationwide who had a healthy fear of nineteenth century doctors.

Lister's antiseptic measures, the Koch and Pasteur germ theory, Jenner's vaccination as a deterrent to smallpox, and other medical innovations surfacing during the nineteenth century were not immediately accepted, even by the medical profession of the time.  And, until the transcontinental railroad linked the West to the rest of the nation, this potentially life-saving knowledge was not even available to the early settlers.  In practice, professional doctoring during the early half of the nineteenth century had as its goal balancing the ancient "four humors" of the body, and if it took catastrophic purging and bleeding to do it, doctors were not going to be remiss in their duties--particularly, America's Dr. Rush.

Dr. Benjamin Rush was considered in the 1790s to be the American Hippocrates. His namesake, the Rush Medical College in Chicago, trained several generations of doctors in "heroic medicine"--the hero, as one historian put it, being above all, the patient.  The sicker she was, the more bleeding was applied, until a patient could be parted with four-fifths of her blood.  Lobelia (chief constituent, lobeline), a poison that is guaranteed to quickly empty the stomach, was administered freely. Conversely, and often at the same time, calomel (mercurous chloride) was administered to empty the bowels.  The sick were doused with ice water to induce the shakes, and covered with hot glass cups to "draw out noxious vapors"--and , incidentally, to raise some terrific blisters. Invariably, these people died, and it took many decades before the medical profession lost its onerous "bleed, sweat, and purge to death" reputation.

Yes, sickness on the frontier was a grim and frequent visitor.  But was it any less oppressive in the rest of nineteenth century America?  In the United States' mortality census of 1850, 40% of total deaths nationwide were attributed to epidemics.  During our own Civil War, four times as many men died from disease as from wounds of battle.  In New York City of 1870, more than 38% of infants born alive died of disease before the age of one year.  Because of the number of infant fatalities, the average life expectancy in the United States in 1855 was brought down to 39.8 years.  The average did not rise appreciably until 1901 when it reached 49, mainly due to improvements in public sanitation.

Frontier families were thus not much more susceptible to disease than the rest of the world--especially the urban poor--and many among the settlers would see huge steps taken in Utah's health care in their own lifetime. Toward the end of the century, the medical profession had progressed far enough in actually helping patients to have gained a considerable amount of credibility.  In 1870, Apostle George Q. Cannon editorialized in the Deseret Evening News on one of professional medicine's greatest discoveries, the germ theory, and The Women's Exponent published appeals for widespread smallpox vaccination later in the decade.  By 1882, Brigham Young,  reversing his earlier advice, wholeheartedly endorsed the emphasis on modern medical treatment of disease.

By the end of the century, Lister's antiseptic measures had been introduced in Utah for operations and obstetrics, and Cache

 Valley received its first hospital, founded in 1903 by Dr. D.C. Budge and Dr. Calderwood.  The building was located on the corner of Second West and Center Street, and held seven beds and one operating room.  By 1907 this hospital had been joined by another, the Cache Valley Latter Day Saints' Hospital at 337 West on First North, at which Dr. William B. Parkinson Sr., was superintendent and medical director.  Dr. Parkinson, Sr, pictured here in his buggy in front of the old Pioneer  Drug Store, 33 North Main, in Logan, Utah, was a licensed medical doctor, and arrived in Cache Valley in 1885 as a general practitioner, later specializing in ear, nose, and throat.

In 1900 the Utah State Board of Health passed an ordinance requiring vaccination of all school children for smallpox.  The first antitoxin for diphtheria in Cache Valley was used by Dr. D. C. Budge in 1901.  Since 1890, telephone lines had allowed people from even the most outlying Cache Valley community to talk with doctors living many miles away.  Nurses in the valley were trained in chemistry, bacteriology, anatomy, and physiology.  Lewiston's Jenny Bergeson, pictured below at her graduation in 1907, received her obstetrics and nursing degree in 1907 from Dr. Parkinson's hospital and, among other places, nursed at the Lewiston sugar factory.  In 1911, Dr. Parkinson's son, Dr. William B. Parkinson Jr., came to practice in Lewiston.

Statewide, Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon and Dr. Ellis R. Shipp were two professional women, trained in the East, who were instrumental in warning of contaminated water and other issues of sanitation. Dr. Shipp and a sister began publishing, in 1888, the Salt Lake Sanitarian, a health journal, in which were articles on disinfection, drinking water, and industrial hazards, especially in relation to tuberculosis.

By the early twentieth century, Utah's medical climate had changed dramatically. The state had organized the first state board of health in the Intermountain area which had, in effect, ended the frontier period in Utah's health care.  Today, Utah's record in health care is among the best in the nation.  Reflection on how little was available to Utah's earliest settlers to combat their suffering from epidemics and disease may keep us from taking our own good fortune for granted.

Many thanks to Julia Rawlins and the NC-L Historical Board members for help with this piece  Most interesting among the work consulted at USU's Special Collections: "Early History of Medicine in Utah and Cache Valley," by Dr. S.M. Budge, "Frontier Health Care," Utah HSA Report, February 1978; Medicine and the Mormons, Divett ; "Heroes and Horse Doctors," Dr. Richard Daines.  Excellent  reading is Rocky Mountain Medicine, Shikes; Medicine in the West,Breeden; Encyclopedia of Plagues and Pestilence, Kohn; A Half Century of Public Health, Ravenel; and the two recently published works, Utah: The Struggle for Statehood and Utah History Encyclopedia.

There will be a conference on folk medicine at USU on June 10-14;  it's this year's subject for the Fife Folk Conference Series

Illustration Credits:

Photo of the 1880s Willie Egbert child's marker in the Lewiston Cemetery by Joan Shaw 
Photo of Margaret Elzirah Rawlins from the Rawlins family history, courtesy of Julia Rawlins of Lewiston, Utah 
Photo of Dr. William B. Parkinson, Sr., in his biuggy before Pioneer Drug Store, 33 North Main St., Logan, Utah, circa 1912, courtesy of Utah State University Special Collections 
Photo of Nurse Jenny Reader Bergeson in 1907, courtesy of the late Edythe Bair 

Epidemics and Disease