The history of medicine on the California and Oregon trail has been reviewed fairly poorly in the past. I base this criticism on the review of 19th century Trail medicine as primarily a review of Trail medicine in relation to regular medicine, yet the medicine being practiced along the trail also consisted of plain and basic domestic medicine and herbalism, Thomsonianism, Indian Root doctoring, botanical medicine (botanico-medicine), reformed medicine, eclectic medicine, homeopathy, physiomedicine, chronothermalism, galvanists, early Quimbyism and hypnotism, one of the earliest forms of Christian science medicine, one of the first forms of medicine learned and practiced by actual medical schools in which classes were held within an actual church building, the types of medicine practiced by spirit-rappers and their related followers living in the midwest, utopians practicing a form of medicine forming an important part of their early socialist-type of lifestyle, grahamites, female hydropaths, etc. etc. This information exists in the trail diaries and journals, and is evidenced based on review of the home towns from which many of these trail-blazers came. One of the major reasons these ofther forms of medicine are not noted by trail historians is that they are at first glance hard to recognize, hard to define, and often simply not readily apparent based on the writings themselves and the witnessed irregular medical practices noted in jest by third parties.
I came upon this important piece of trail history in 1993 after completing and mailing out an article for my extensive study of Dr. Cornelius Osborn, the Revolutionary War physician. In early Spring of of that year I came upon another diary with another series of recipes to decipher. This time, the vade mecum was more recent and my abilities to recognize the medicines were much better now that I had a singificant background in reviewing this type of document. This time it only took me just a few days to transcribe and enter into my computer the recipes penned by John Kennedy Bristow, a physiomedical physician with quite a mixed background in medical training and practice. Dr. Bristow practiced from 1850 to 1883, during which time he took on and/or documented the practice of Thomsonianism, Eclectic Medicine, and was referred to as a physiomedical physician due to his Bible Belt upbringing. Raised in Kentucky and Tennessee, but later removed to Illinois by the mid-1830s, when he decided to learn medicine Bristow had the option of attending schools within a church setting in Illinois, or a school just across the river in Iowa which was teaching and practicing some form of eclectic medicine merged with allopathy defined by its founding professor, any of several short programs produced within the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois, or to simply remain in his hometown region of Adams County, Illinois to learn as an apprentice. JK Bristow chose the latter, and so was taught by his practice of medicine by a local physician who later became a minsiter following his and the Bristow’s migration to Oregon in 1852.
John Kennedy Bristow left us with a vade mecum and an acounting book in which he kept detailed records of names, dates, type of illness, and types of medicines given. He also penned into what later became his vade mecum a series of poems or verses, then a popular hobby at the time, in which he detailed much of his personal life prior to becoming a physician. This provided us with yet a little more insight in Bristow’s personality, desires, goals in life, and tells us about just how he spent much of his time between doctoring. Bristow lost at least two wives due to disease. One before deciding to learn medicine in 1847/8, and the second along the Oregon trail afterwards in 1852. He also lost at tleast one child on the trail, due to the loss of her mother as well as the likely poisoning of cattle and oxen milk developed in western Nebraska due to a milk sickness-inducing plant prevalent throughout this part of the trail. When he reached Oregon, it took Bristow 3 or more years to get back to practicing medicine following the lost of everyone in his immediate family, with the exception of his oldest son Elijah, Jr. reviewing Bristow’s experiences in Illinois, along the Trail and in Oregon, provides use with an important piece of United States medical history in some sort of cross-sectional way, demonstrating the activities and practice of non-allopathic medicine from New York (where his first wife was raised along with her pro-Jacksonian Thomsonian family), to Illinois (the heart of Religious allopathy and Physiomedicine (neothomsonian) country), to the Trail and finally to the Pacific Northwest. This work therefore begins with JK Bristow, but also includes numerous reviews of other topics relavent to this part of Trail history.
There is also a review of the practices of medicine as they relate to John’s father, Elijah Bristow Sr., and his migration to California in 1840. Elijah’s team of explorers (Gold was not yet discovered in California) were led by Solomon Tetherow, whose knowledge and recommendations in overland medical practices were provided by William Dain, a former trapper working the Hudson Bay’s Company still active in the Pacific Northwest, but now a simple trail scout. Due to his background and experience, William Dain was trained in Thomsonianism, Indian herbal medicine (he married an Indian woman) and traditional British allopathy medicine.
Throughout his years in practice, Bristow provides us with insight into the various forms of practices he attempted to employ in his professional life. This also included a note he took on an herbal remedy taught to him by local trapper-like neighbor of his who called himself “Catnip”, his brother-in-law who took on the new form of gymnastics being popularized following his Civil War service years, the teachings of New York Eclectic medicine founder Wooster Beach, and the practices of a local physiomedical political leader at a time when the State of Oregon had yet to develop a strong political force promoting the practice of allopathy.