The Medical Geography of Osborn’s Land

The home which Osborn moved into around 1744 had a brief history in the written documents regarding the collection of local taxes.  In the oldest of these documents it is referred to as an “Old Dutch Farm”, suggesting the dwelling was a small house set up on a fairly large piece of farming property.  There is a good chance this homestead may have been occupied by an early squatter of these lands who was a farmer.  Such was the common practice whenever large pieces of property were awarded to a landowner, who in return for this land grant was required to have this land cleared, settled and used by a few or more families.  During the early Colonial period these lands would have been developed for personal farms mostly, with their agricultural goals defined by the local weather and topographic features.  It was usually the case that within a year or two this development should have been mostly completed, making it easy for a visiting government official such as an assessor or tax collector to be able to document the completion of this part of the land claims process. 

The geography of Osborn’s place of dwelling is important to understand because it most likely relates to the common philosophy in medicine for the time in which the healthiness of a place to stay was very closely related to its overall topography, climate, weather variabilities, direction of seasonal winds, average humidity, soil and landuse/tree features, and the overall behavior of storms and seasons in the local setting.  Osborn’s place of stay resided on the south slope of the hill (later called Osborn Hill), which afforded his home more solar heating and light for much of the year, a neccessity for a home that was heated by fire during the 1700s.  A decent homestead will also have ample farming opportunities, even if they weren’t taken full advantage of.  Whether or not Osborn had much in terms of farminig fields is uncertain due to the local topography, which was primarily a hillside setting.  Were there any such opportunities to be had, they could have been used to produce feed for his horse, vegetables and other crops for his family, and numerous domestic crops to be farmed and had for use as medicines. 

A more obvious observation to have when touring the region about the former Osborn home is that this home was positioned close to an area that was probably well-wooded, and more diverse than it is now.  By strolling through these woods close to his home, one will see that Dr. osborn had a few rock outcroppings in these woods where he could to visit to find unique medicinal plants available for harvesting.   Osborn’s estate holdings in terms of wildcrafted plants would most likely be very similar to those noted by a neighbor of the Osborn family situated across the river, jane Colden and her father Cadwallader, who had already documented the typical plants of such regions at least once before Osborn’s arrival. 

The slope of Osborn’s immediately property outside the home provided the family with the opportunity for digging a root cellar.  In this cellar he could store some of his medicines, tonics, and herbs, along with the other stores typically kept in such places such as root crops.  (This root cellar was still  apparently visible last time I visited this site, in 1992 approximately). 

The reason to pose such questions regarding Osborn’s property is that we have to understand the geography of Osborn’s place as that this pertains to his understanding of diseases as a doctor during this important period in colonial time.  Osborn mostly likely would have been taught to believe in and agree with the popular concept that disease can often be the results of one or more environmental features such as the “miasma” produced by the local swamps, the local humidity, the weather and its related airflow patterns, the local soil type and form in relation to nearby water features such as the Fishkill Creek, etc., etc.   Along with the issues of acclimation and predisposition for becoming ill, one typically had the take into account the impacts the immediate local environment had on physique.   One popular philosophy about health and disease for this time that any sort of energy-requiring practice in the form of recreation would be healthier than living a sedentary lifestyle.  Osborn’s homestead had the woodlands, trails, hilly roadways, and overall outdoor requirements and space needed to make such a lifestyle happen.

With this in mind, it is reasonable to propose the notion that Osborn may have selected this place of stay on a hill just outside of the village setting of Fishkill, and fairly inland from the Fishkill Landing, due to its partial elevation above the village and the local waterways.  Fishkill Village was pretty much built upon a flat surface next to the Fishkill Creek or its floodplain.  Fishkill Landing was the main docking site for the Hudson River.  For each, the immediately local land was level with the creek or river, stretching along significant portions of these waterways and expanding well away from their borders.  For the Fishkill Village are in particular, there were sizeable tracts of land stretching across large floodplains, which as a consequence of their topography, tended to gather and hold water and over become filled so as to form the marshes and swamps typical of this area.  Along with the marshes and swamps there were also numerous small ponds and lakes, and creek connecting them to each other, which landowners might wish to reduce in size due to their perceived unhealthiness based on the local disease histories.  As an attempt to settle the open tracts in Dutchess County, and as part of the attempts being made to produce more manageable roadways for short and long distance travel, many of these small water bodies were filled in the years ahead.  This allowed for more dwellings to be built and more land to be occupied, as requested by the colonial government in charge of this settlement process.  Unlike the residents fo the creek area, Osborn resided close to but not immediately adjacent to places where diseases like to prevail, such as the various forms of fever, dysentery and colic that his patients and he would have to contend with for years to come. 

Another related reason for dwelling in a place with high elevation had to deal with Dutch history itself.  Was it commonplace knowledge for Osborn’s family that in fact the Dutch residing in the Netherlands also noted similar problems for those living in the lowlands, next to the ocean and dike, versus those families residing in the more aristocratic Upper-Dutch settings where artists, scientists and politicians could socialized?  This philosophy may have very well been taken into consideration by Osborn, and became yet another reason for him to reside on a piece of property positioned well above the creek’s floodplains.

Healthy Climates.  Finally, it is important to note that such logic in determining your homestead environment was also not unusual for many governmental officials and physicians to write about during this period of colonial settlement.   The whole issue of migration had attached to it the problems related to acclimation and the ability to stay in good health when residing within a new environmental setting.  Latitude was already an important feature in this public health logic, but so too were the notions that certain ecological settings and water versus dry land conditions as defined by the local topography had everything to do with the healthiness of a given new hamlet or township setting.  The much warmer environments around the globe had developed a colloquial and scientific/geographic term for their placement in the world healthwise–“torrid zones”.  Cadwallader makes reference to this in An Account of the Climate of New York, which he sent to London sometime in 1730 [Ref: E. B. O’Callaghan.  Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York. Vol. 5, pp. 690-2, Section title: Mr. Colden’s Account of the Climate of New-York,  with “An Account of the Climate of New York.  by C. Colden Surveyor Genll [sic] of the Province”  [New York Papers, CC., 118.]: 

“The City of New York lyes nearly in 40. degr: & 40 min: of North latitutde and about five hours west from London–The climate partakes of the extreem climates  Sometimes the summer is as hot as in the Torrid Zone, and the Winter often is not less cold that in the Northern Parts of europe–The Heat & cold depends very much upon the winds and for that reason in the same season of the year are very various.”

For the Hudson Valley, he adds:

“The air of the Country being almost always clear and its Spring strong[,] we have few consumption or diseases of the Lungs [and] I never heard of a broken winded horse in this Country.  People inclined to be consumptive in England are often perfectly cured by our fine air, but if there be ulcers formed they die in a little time.”

This association of climate and health to the Torrid Zone is a philosophy that began during the 1590s when this term was first coined for specific reference to extremely hot and humid portions of the globe.  Between the 1500s and the 1600s the associations between global positions, climate patterns and disease were becoming better understood, due primarily to the major expeditions that took place during this time.  Colden’s mention of the Torrid Zone in relation to health was not at all atypical, but it seems to become a more popular way of discussing disease history and epidemiology once physicians and scientists had a better understanding of the world and the various climate-related features shown to have specific relationships with very well localized diseases, such a the impacts of temperature and humidity readings or the amount of precipitation that fell.  

With the spread of disease due to global migration activities, this became an even more important issue for physicians like Osborn and Colden to be concerned with.  During Osborn’s time, we find the relationships drawn between Torrid Zones and disease to be important to the understanding of disease phenomena within colonial settings, but not a necessity as indicated by its lack of commonness in the standard medical texts for the time.  For the most part, the medical climatology and medical topography ways of interpreting disease incidence and patterns only related to the Hudson Valley due to the seasonal uncomfortable humidity and high temperatures that are developed during the hottest months of the year.  Most explorers during the Colonial years only mention this Hudson Valley-related discomfort only in passing, as if they were trying to prevent their books from dissuading their readers from engaging in any future migration plans.

Climate, Human Behaviors, and Disease.  The recommendation that Colden made in his report concerning the Hudson valley and its less than Torrid conditions is followed a much lengthier section in which he discusses the climate and various weather patterns for this part of New York.  This part of the letter also includes detailed reviews of the history and behaviors of various diseases that tend to occur locally, such as “intermitting Fevers, Cholera Morbus and Fluxes.”  Colden also notes the local seasonal requirements necessary for people locally to develop “Rheumatic pains” at the beginning of Winter and “Bastard Pleurisies” (Pneumonia or Influenza?) in and around February.  In his discussion of Spring weather he writes:  “In the Spring the people are subject to Pleurisies and inflammatory fevers, as in all other countrys upon the breaking up of hard winters . . . ”  

Some of these diseases Colden blamed on human habits and behaviors.  Following his report on the fevers, cholera and flux cases, he states for us his impressions that these are due to the living behaviors of the settlers in these regions, blaming much of the disease history on local dietary habits and the effects of the local water on health, a problem he deduces based on the inability of this water to form suds when soap is added, a risk to cleanliness and health in some peoples’ minds.   Much later in this essay, Colden adds his personal  invitation and recommendation for potential travellers to make this part of the country their next place of residence: 

“The Climate grows every day better as the country is cleared of the woods, and more healthy as all the people that have lived long here, testifie, . . . I therefore doubt not but it will in time become one of the most agreeable & healthy Climates on the face of the Earth.”

Another document detailing the health of New York was mailed in December 1730.  This “Affidavit in support of Captain Rutgers’ Petition” [ ibid, v. 5, p. 916-7, “New York Papers Bundle Dd., 189”] was submitted to England in order to get some assistance making the island of Manhattan more inhabitable and less likely to harbor diseases.  This letter sent by local government officials  stated the problems regarding health that were related to a sizeable swamp on Manhattan Island, based in part on the experiences of prior settlers to the region as well:

“[T]he said Swamp hath for many years past and ever since [have] been constantly filled with standing water for which there is no natural vent and the said Swamp being very narrow and very long, and being covered with Breaks and Bushes and small trees is by the Stagnation and rotteness of said water become exceedingly dangerous and of very pernicious consequence . . . [those] who live near the said Swamp they being subject to many diseases and distempers which by the physicians there and by long experience are imputed to those unwholesome vapours occasioned thereby . . . “

This swamp, located in the middle of Manhattan Island, was blamed for much of the “agues and fever” that erupted locally, “occasioned by the unwholesome Damps and vapours arising from the said Swamp.”   This same interpretation of the relationship between environment and disease can also be related to the Fishkill Village.  The Village is located along a flat plain following the creek edge.  Its geography consisted of  the Fishkill creek with floodplains to the south, a large swamp that came to be known as the Green Vly positioned directly to the north of the village.  The Fishkill Creek swamps and floodplain were situated were positioned well south of Osborn’s residency.  The Green Vly swamp was positioned directly east and about 1-1.5 miles away.  This would have made Green Vly Osborn’s primary concern with the position of his property.  Were the typical seasonal winds habitually travelling from east to west, he could be in trouble due to increased risk for diseases brought on by miasma.  Once fall and winter came he would have to face the coldest of winds from the north, with the mountains and hills serving more the capture these breezes, rather than release them to the south and west.  But due to the ongoing evidence for a west-to-east windflow, this was of little concern for Osborn.  Instead,  Osborn was most likely more concerned with such local medical matters as the possibility for any local causes developing for the consumption to set in or for the effects of the humidity to bring on more cases of pleurisy.  Until all of the local lands become well settled, and in Colden’s way of thinking, the broad, dense forests leveled to the ground, the valley would remain in need of increased settlement and increased farming activities. 

In retrospect, if we consider the way in which Osborn’s childhood life took place well south of the Dutchess’s County, this provided him with ample experience during his childhood and apprenticeship years in order to prepare him for his decision to remove to this part of the Valley once he began his career as a physician.  His move to the north was in part due to the need for open space and lands to settle during this period of rapid expansion in colonial history, but this move was also due to a wife-to-be that he met just a year or so earlier.  Osborn’s wife-to-be was Helena Parmentier, a Huguenot residing on land in what would later become known as the New Paltz area.  Her parents owned a large mansion, some called it a “castle”, positioned right on the edge of the Hudson River and almost directly across the way from Cornelius and Helena Osborn’s place-to-be (assuming the Parmentier’s lands extended as far as the lands just north of Newburgh).  To the north of Cornelius and Helena Osborn’s farmland was the Wappingers Lake, and the lower tracts of land that form the future southern edge of the city of Poughkeepsie.  This land was at least once owned and bartered with and traded for by Osborn and the Parmentiers and other members of the immediate family such as the Van Kleecks (aka Van Klecks or Van Kleeks), i.e.

Relating all of this back to Osborn’s property, the one principal question we have remaining about Osborn’s land is:  in which direction did his 35+ acres piece of property extend as its stretched away from his home?  Did it travel south towards the village, and/or east along the roadway?  Did it make its way northwards up and over the hill?  Did it extend in any distance westward towards the Green Vly swamp? 

To date, the answers to these questions remain pretty much unresolved, although one land record from the same NY Deeds record provides important insight into this question, enough to even completely solve this issue perhaps.

Where does this study take us?

This Osborn Study introduces to us the potential impacts a variety of philosophies and philosophers can have on later professional medical practice and thinking.  This review of Cornelius Osborn also introduced me to several new concepts about Hudson valley medicine that I never imagined could exist. 

Dr. Osborn’s closest or most professional business partner during his earliest years was Isaac Marks, a physician who is the perhaps the first rural Jewish physician of who much can be told.  Was Isaac Marks Ashkenazi, Sephardic or an example of the new form of Baal Shem Tov natural philosophy followers, precursors to the mid-19th century birth of Hasidism? 

Another discovery made and series of questions answered pertained to the teachings of Shadrach Ricketson, an early United States Quaker physician and one of the first to publish a book.  This book would later have its impacts on the Nutrition Health programs in the country, and more importantly, is the most important American author noted by scholars in Sports Medicine as the first American physician to document the relationship between health and exercise. 

And then there is the history of the Fowlerhouse area where I grew up, the role of the Octagon house in local medical history, and the important roles played by such followers of phrenologist Orson Fowler as AJ Davis and Rev. John Bovee Dods, two important self-defined specialists, often called “quacks”, who worked in a field often considered to be the dawn of psychology as it would come to be practiced and philosophized during the late 19th century. 

This project also exposed me to the works of local historian Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, whose early to mid-20th century research notes made me ask some of the very same questions?  What exactly was the medical electricity being practiced in the valley between 1790 and 1820?  This too was a question that has since been answered.

There was also a major research project developed form Reynold’s noted that left me with a riddle that took nearly 20 years to solve.  This pertained to the public interpretation of Poughkeepsie as a gifted place, one blessed by the Creator, and the only place to turn to when certain epidemics persist, since they were interpreted as signs of the upcoming plague.  This previously unknown part of Dutchess County cultural history was also solved as a part of these studies.  The reasons why Yellow Fever brought so many people and their culture to the value was obvious, once you learned to read between the lines of Webster’s writing, other than those already included within his Dictionary

Between the three families related to Cornelius Osborn (the Osborns, Parmentiers and Van Kleecks), much of the valley between Poughkeepsie and Fishkill Landing was pretty much broken down into segments, some of which remained completely under the control of one or more family members.   The “healthiness” of this large area of properties, as told by Colden, but propagated and improved upon by later physicians, politicians and landowners of the Valley, would ultimately become responsible for its major settlement and industrial changes during the years to come.  Although this is most likely not the reason these three families came to exert so much influence upon this part of the river edge and valley, it became to be the primary reason for others like the Livingstons, Van Kleecks and various newcomers to the medical profession to continue marketing the healthiness of the valley during the years and decades to come.  It is important to note that the multicultural background of this family’s history also played an important role in this development of the valley as a place for new medical thinking.  

Much of the valley’s medical history was influenced by these new methods of thinking about human psychology and health, and this resulted in a variety of influences of the hinterlands population upon the typical bourgoisie living in New York City.  As medicine continued to change drastically from one philosophy to the next, from one generation to the next, this sped up the evolution of the Colonial Period of Hudson Valley history into the post-war and transcendental periods impacting health care during the years up to the 1850s.  Until the Civil War began, the fields of regular medicine had their successful competitors and “new age thinkers”. 

During Osborn’s lifespan, the valley was his home and his place to learn about both the philosophy and science of past and present medicine, as he knew it to be.  Following Cornelius Osborn death, especially the years between 1790 and 1845, the Hudson Valley became the center of numerous new and alternative medical professions.   The events that cause alternative medicine to rise and take form are therefore revealed to us by researching the details of the local history of this culturally-active, culturally-sensitive region.   This makes the study of Hudson Valley medical history a medical geography topic in need of continued exploration.