Diseases on the Trail

“The gamut of contagious diseases associated associated with childhood are indicated as causes of adult death on the Trail: whooping cough, measles or vareloid, mumps, and smallpox. Other serious conditions often reported are ‘pneumonia or lung fever’ and malaria, identified also as ‘fever and ague.’ The common cold or it symptoms were much in evidence, but the most common non-fatal afflictions were internal disorders variously identified as ‘derangements of the liver or kidney,’ ‘bilious complaints,’ ‘inflammation of the bowels,’ summer complaints,’ ‘the ailment incidental to travel on the Plains,’ or just plain dysentery or diarrhea (spelled, of course, at least fifteen different ways). . . . Philura Vanderburgh’s father had a standard remedy for this condition: ‘Fill a saucer with brandy, sugar and mutton tallow.’

Among miscellaneous sicknesses reported are ‘congestion of the brain,’ delirium tremens,’ hydrophobia, bloody flux, intestinal inertia, inflammatory rheumatism, vertigo, and mountain fever, the last probably a western variant of dysentery. The agony of tootjache, sometimes relieved by opium or amateur extractions, was another frequent phenomenon pf the prairies.”