Physical Ills on the Frontier

From A History of Ohio, by Eugene H. Roseboom and Francis P. Weisenburger

Copyright 1953, TheOhioHistorical Society 

At times life in pioneer Ohio seemed like a constant struggle against bodily ills and the threat of death.  Chills and fevers, the ague, “milk sickness,” and afflictions of the lungs and digestive organs were very prevalent, while cholera infantum took heavy toll among the young.  Poorly drained areas contributed to malaria, and quinine (known as beneficial in the treatment of the disease) was costly and difficult to obtain.  Tuberculosis took a heavy toll of life, and a lack of sanitation accentuated the spread of diseases of many kinds.  Smallpox, however, lost much of its terror with the use of vaccination.

Home remedies of a varied sort were commonly employed.  These included snake root, catnip, pennyroyal, peppermint, tansy, turpentine, saffron, and slippery elm.  Doctors were generally summoned only when such remedies had failed to bring improvement or when an accident proved to be too serious for the elementary treatment which seasoned laymen were able to administer. 

Frequently illness was so widespread that not enough persons were available to tend the sick, and in times of serious epidemics, as when the Asiatic cholera invaded a community, there was wholesale demoralization.  [In the fall of 1832 it] attacked Cincinnati with a savage fury.  Individuals seemingly in perfect health fell prey to the disease and died within a relatively few hours.  Cold weather deterred its ravages, but in the summer of 1833, in communities like Cincinnati and Columbus, so many persons succumbed to it that the burial of the dead became a serious problem.  Until after the Civil War, when greater control of hygienic conditions had been attained, the disease reappeared at intervals.

From Shall We Gather at the River?, used with the author’s permission:  

The fertile land that was a blessing on the frontier was likewise a trigger for illness.  Pioneers chose the lowlands along stagnant water and dipped their cups for a cool drink.  The plowed fields permitted the sun to act upon the decomposing vegetation; the mist rose for months causing malarial diseases and a condition known as ague when fever and chills took their turns attacking the body.  The most dreaded disease was fast-moving cholera.

The cabins made their contribution to the pioneers’ poor health.  Substandard construction and exposure brought on respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia, bronchitis, consumption, and diphtheria.  Doctors were in short supply on the frontier, and even the best doctors of the time lacked the tools to fight the ravages of frontier diseases. 

The cabins might have been filled with children, but it has been estimated that at least a quarter of the children died before the age of four.  The mothers, in appalling numbers, were claimed by early graves whether from childbirth or the privation of the frontier.  The darkness of the forest clearing took its toll on the women who took up smoking to “drive away their sorrow.” 




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