Captain Randolph B. Marcy’s book is a late addition to the writings out there about the Overlanders’ lifestyle.  The peak of the Overland Trail years were 1845 to 1855, during which time this book would have been a tremendous asset to this way of life. From 1845 to 1848, the first overlanders attached to some religious cause might have benefitted from it. From 1849 to 1850, the argonauts might have used it. From 1850 to 1853, overland migrating families might have appreciated it.

However, the problem with Marcy’s book is its content, and its lack of much relevance to the Overland Trail experience. Marcy wrote his book based upon his experiences in Mexico, Central America and even South America, experiences not transferrable that easily to the Oregon and California trails. For one thing the latitude features were considerably different, and based upon the importance of latitude in defining whether a region is rich in certain diseases, we see Marcy’s writings lacking this important medical climatology feature. Still, the major problem with Marcy’s book is that it is really an interpretation of how to travel, written in retrospect.  His lessons no longer hold true due to development of new transportation methods and new routes for making your way westward. The traditional wagon train image was being replaced by stage coaches, and many of those engaged in these overland wagon train activities were doing so more as a reminiscence of the past.  Marcy’s book was therefore more a summary of what had already taken place, with little introspection into what was true for the time.

Marcy reminds us of other late comers to this new and fascinating profession–being an overlander.  Other latecomers who came into this field as an author also seemed very successful at first, and to modern historians, well learned in the outdoor experience, were this way due to what was already published.  In some cases we see direct stated and inferred evidence about how little they knew about this profession.  The evidence for my claims of this go back to the material medica for these writers.  We envision a highly experienced man of the wilderness someone who is going to know the difference between a “Cat stail” and a herd of bisons, or better stated in plant terms, a Cattail and a Bulrush.  Marcy does provide us with clues of his basic botany experience, and even zoology when he mentions his knowledge of snakes, which of course is more pertinent to readers who planned to travel down south, like in Panama or Brazil, order to make their way to California.

Marcy’s experience was in Tex-Mex country on down to the southern hemisphere.  Overland trail riders’ experiences were much further north of the Tex-Mex divide known as the Rio Grande.  There are a few geographic resemblances of Marcy’s history to trail geography, but not enough to warrant giving his writing high credibility with regard to Overland trail natural history.

One good example of the lack of useful knowledge of the overland living experience, almost identical in content to the writings of Marcy, is found in the work of purported trapper and later Oregon congressman Osborne Russell.  Russell’s work in turn is as well rounded, non-evidentiary and intellectual in nature as this other poor examples of a book dealing with the lessons of three generations of trapping, published out of the 17th century heart of trapper’s country, New York City.  Newhouse’s Trapper’s Guide is the example referred to here, and is filled with what to do and how tos that New York urbanites might understand, but put them out there into the wilderness and they know little about what to do, except what to tell someone else who is out there doing their trapping, cutting and cleaning, tanning and dying of skins for them.  This is kind of like a store merchant telling his supplier of goods how to better make the cookies, candies or roast the coffee beans.  All show and little ‘know’ or experience.

With all three of these books, I am so critical due to one telltale clue that always immediately become clear to me–the knowledge of wild plants.  When you look at a writer, he at least has to know what a dandelion or daisy is.  If he does not mention such common weeds, sometimes not considered to be medicine, then at least he will know the most medicinal plants out there in the American Midwest and Far West wilderness setting, such as the shiny, resin-coated cottonwood buds reminiscent of some Biblical resin, like it was to trappers twenty years earlier.  He should be able to see and recognize a wild mint, as well as the wild cuke or American colocynth vine, one of the better known and most effective laxatives for the time with its similarly looking and physiologically active relatives known worldwide.  He should in the least know how to name a bark of his choosing, the most famous of which being the bitter peruvian, but locally, a medicine for which the equally bitter barks of dogwood, willow or oaks were felt to suffice as substitutes.  Marcy should have known that to eliminate his joint pains he could find some effective pain-relieving process provided using the latex producing dandelion, but even better he should have  also be aware of the value of a plaster made from leaves of the local spurge or Croton,a plant with leaves which when pounded, made into a poultice and then applied to your sore knees would certainly make you forget about any pain within deep, by first feeling its warmth, and then its burn, and if you kept it on too long, experience its blistering effect.   These were some of the most valuable recipes for the trail according to botanically-trained doctors, not the use of some imported opium or some mineral salts you managed to buy and then pack in with your two mule packs worth of humble outdoors attire.  Marcy, Osborne Russell, and other leaders of the ‘westward-ho! pack’ did exactly this, providing insight into this part of Far Western medical history as Easterners untrained in wilderness settings.

In all, these observations tell me that neither Russell nor Marcy have much knowledge of the local flora and their traditional indigenous uses, much less their Euro-American herbal medicine uses.  They spent too little time discussing some traditional way of practicing medicine in their books, minus the opium and European recipes, for me to believe they knew Oregon Trail or Far West medicine.  They are much like to loyalists out there devoted to the Hudson Bay Company, who observed but didn’t practice indigenous or trappers medical behaviors.   They were tourists passing through a region and continuing to rely upon the more trustworthy western European ways of practicing medicine, not American Indian medicine.  They used the best mercury and salts, the best opium or purified pain killers they could buy from European distributors, and the best non-indigenous plant medicines imported from other continents, only relying on the simplest forms of local medicines in the same way that Lewis and Clark did decades before.  They trusted pine tar.  After all, one cannot be wrong with this belief, using Pine pitch and resin , or so the inexperienced think and speak.  It ends up of course that if you did try to do the same in the southern hemisphere, you would quickly learn that this substance is not that tarry at all, but instead dries fast and is therefore called copal or damar.  However, expecting someone like Marcy, who spent only a little bit of time so close to this part of the world, to as a result know southern hemisphere plants,  is perhaps expecting too much.

To understand the overland trail experience we also have to see evidence for knowledge about such terrible medical states as starvation, broken arms and legs, gun-, horse- or ox-, and wagon-wheel afflicted wounds, cases of dehydration due to too lengthy and too frequent diarrhea spells, cases of fatigue, and sunstroke, more often referred to then as apoplexy.  This is also not very evident in Marcy’s book.  He seemed to lack much experience with trail health and problems, and perhaps never witnessed directly many of the death of comrades that occurred as a direct result of travelling wilderness, and the affliction trail-bound diseases like tick-generated mountain fever, mosquito generated plains fever, or fly-ridden decaying carcass induced spells of dysentery, nausea, vomiting, weakness, dehydration and then death.  For these reasons, I find Marcy’s book is really not that useful when it comes to researching Overland Trail medical history, but is slightly useful with its information of living habits and practices, so long as your are vacationing on the trail, but not for too long a season or lifetime.

As previously mentioned. one of the incredible mismatches between Marcy’s book and the trail experience is his coverage of the snake bite.  Marcy’s experiences in the field were in Central America and Mexico, and so his field observations don’t really match anything to do directly with the routes to California and Oregon.  Although his comments and observations on the prairie rattler are correct, his recommendation of a medicine in Panama is really unrelated to trail history, except for involving those who travelled the Panama route and fromn the western shores took a boat northward to the ports in California, Oregon and Washington. There is this recurring theme with Middle and South American plants medicine regarding the Ayahuasca, a plant that has several times been popularized for its use in treating snakebites and other problems. This fad first popularized around 1800 is revitalized by Marcy, again demonstrating some of the personality of Marcy’s character and his trustworthiness as a source–this is old information being recycled as if it were something new, all because Marcy discovered it–rather late I might add. Marcy is the trail medicine as much as William Buchan was to domestic US medicine in the early 1800s. (My criticisms on Buchan’s book as an example of Revolutionary War and colonial US medicine are provided elsewhere.)

In contrast with these criticisms, I do have other things to state about Marcy’s book. This books provides us with some helpful information on trail life, but only in retrospect, and perhaps only as this information pertains to the Southern Overland route to California.  Marcy in fact may have been trying to catch a ride on the last train westward before Overland migrations turned into travels by Stage Coach and then trains.  This book may have been written in haste, trying to capture the final years of popularity of the overland experience before it completely faded away.  As a retrospective on the trail, this book is somewhat reliable, but again, the descriptions of eating, sleeping, travel and health are based little on Marcy’s direct experience along these routes.  It is more his reflection of these experiences as he heard or even read them to be.

Note: to see more on the pretrial history years in which trapping, mountainmen and medicine had their influences on the overland experience, see the following pages/section of this blogsite (links are included here on this list).  A listing of Marcy’s recommended supply or materials follows these links.

Trapper and Explorer Medicine (ca. 1790-1840)


Randolph B. Marcy.  The Prairie Traveller.  A Handbook for Overland Expeditions.  Originally published by Harper & Brothers. Publishers, New York. 1859.  Reprinted by Corner House Publishers, Williamstown, Mass., 1968.


Bedding (p. 40)

  • 2 Blankets
  • Comforter
  • Pillow
  • Canvas Cloth painted or coated with Gutta Percha for use as a groundcloth.

Other (pp. 39, 40)

  • Matches.  Phosphorous-tips invented ca. 18(40)
  • Covered Tar Bucket, with tar of grease inside.
  • Ropes made of hemp.
  • Castile Soap
  • Beeswax

Dress [p. 37]

  • “A suitable dress for prairie travelling is of great import to health and comfort.”
  • Cotton and Linen, though do not hold body temperature very well when wet.
  • Wool– Marcy considered this to be the best fabric to wear to protect against “the direct rays of the sun at midday, [and] against rains of sudden changes of temperature.”

Climatology Inferences

  • The Cold (to prevent frostbite, hypothermia, puncture-wound related foot infections):  crossing the Rocky Mountains with intensely cold weather requires wool, a blanket, and buckskin moccasins to prevent air penetration and to protect the pioneer against brush and thorns. [pp. 37-38]
  • The Sunlight (to prevent sunburn):  Wear green or blue glasses and apply charcoal or wet [gun]powder to the skin around the eyes and nose.  [p. 39]

Travel Schedule (P. 45)

  • Travel till noon on sunny days, then take a break, bear grass and water for the draft animals.


(Transferred to separate file.)


Marcy made special notes of the camping along the Trail due one proximity to the river and adjacent marshlands.

All along the Platte River, and into Wyoming after the departure from Platte River, fresh water was a scarcity.  In the eastern third of Nebraska, the aquifers provided water tainted by the limestone substrata.  It was thus carbonated, often bearing Gypsum as well, and alkaline.  Where the Trails from Iowa and Kansas merged along the Platte River, the problem then came to be the dirty, muddy, bracken and/or mineral-rich water.  During years of high rains the water was colored by suspended silt, detritus and  and upstream sediment.  To this was added the chemistry of the soil and minerals erided or dissolved from the shoreline and contained within the small feeder streams.  The water was most likely feeding into the flood plains.  The Platte River appeared wide and shallow.

During the drought years, the mid-Platte River region was primarily channel water.  Waterholes which were dug had more highly concentrated regions where adjacent mineral concentrates made their way into the shallow wells.

Near Fort Kearney, this behavior within the soil and water continued.  The drought years of ca. 1840 to 1845 led to the digging of a canal between Fort Kearney and Platte River, in order to provide the Fort with water.  This canal may have provided a temporary aquatic environment capable of supporting vibrio ecologically (we need alkaline water, shellfish, and copepods or the like).

After leaving Fort Kearney, pioneers next had to face the rapidly diminishing water table and the effects of the underlying Ogallala substratum.  This time, the water was not only alkaline, but also younger in terms of Platte River influence, with areas of carbonates, thus making this water palatable.  By the time they reached the end of the first day, pioneers had to deal with either the consequences of their exposure to water and others at Fort Kearney, or the effects of some of the marshy regions along Platte River.

According to Marcy, Dr. Robert Johnson, Inspector General of Hospitals in the English Army in 1845 determined the methods to determine where to camp and what diseases to consider when setting up camp.  Johnson writes of the theory of disease based on miasmata.  According to many preceding writers and doctors, putrefaction which hit the air and remained stagnant over particular areas had a greater ability of inducing a number of periodic, seasonal and epidemic illnesses.  Ventilated regions, where the putrefaction passed through due to the winds, in theory suffered less due to reduced exposure time.  Thus it was felt that windy regions help keep the air clean and non-epidemical.

But Johnson recognized the possibility that wind could also bring epidemics with it.  Due to this, he recommended selecting a site above the level of the riverwater and at least 300 paces away from the stream, possibly with “impediments..to break the current in its progress from the noxious source.”  Broken, irregular, hilly countries he claims are more likely to induce a disease due to aberrant temperature patterns and winds which “descend with fury from the mountains.”

Those sicknesses he notes Johnson soldiers experienced due to such local climate-weather patterns were “fever of cholera,” putrid fever, and “noxious malaria.”


  • Mess (p. 40)
  • Meat
  • Ingredients for making Soup/Dried Soup cakes
  • Ingredients for making Bread
  • Coffee (usually green beans were taken, to be roasted over the fire)
  • Daily Subsistence (p. 32)
  • Pemmican
  • biscuits
  • Edward’s preserved potatoes
  • flour
  • tea
  • sugar
  • grease
  • Pemmican of buffalo meat made into flour
  • High-energy food (complex carbohydrates)
  • “Cold Flour” (pp. 33-34)  Parched corn, pounded in a mortar, to which is added cinnamon and sugar; mix with water and drink.
  • Antiscorbutics (to prevent Land Scurvy) (p. 32)
  • canned and dessicated vegetables
  • citric acid, sugar, water and some lemon essence
  • Wild Onions
  • Wild Grapes
  • Wild Greens
  • Hemlock tree needles (or leaves?) infused
  • Stores and Provisions (pp. 30-37)
  • Sugar
  • Bacon
  • Pork
  • Flour
  • Butter, boiled and then clarified for storage in the hot climate
  • Dessicated/Dried Vegetables.  Marcy felt dessication did not impair anti-scorbutic properties.
  • Canned vegetables  (age of canning process?)


  • Burnt mule steaks, sprinkled with a little gunpowder
  •       Gunpowder chemistry (estimated ratios):

            Carbon (charcoal powder), 1 part,

            Sulphur,                       1 part,

            Potassium Nitrate (KNO3), 2 parts.

                                                    [p. 35]


  • Wild or Horse Mint.  Found growing especially in the more mountainous or hilly regions near deciduous forests.  During the early spring it can be found growing beneath the snow.  A drink made from it was used instead of coffee. [p. 35]


  • Red Willow bark (Salix sp.) taken from a tree “which grows upon many mountain streams in the vicinity…the outer bark is first removed with a knife after which inner bark is scraped up into ridges around the sticks, and held in the fire until it is thoroughly roasted….pulverized in the hand, and is ready for smoking…[it] is quite agreeable to the taste and smell.” [pp. 34-35]  Note: this is very well known common folklore knowledge, but may seem novel to those not read up in history and the previous tales of local explorers.
  • Sumach leaf (Rhus typhina?)  [p. 35]


  • Blue Mass
  • Quinine
  • Opium
  • Cathartic
  • Medicine Chest

WATER (pp. 46-52)

  • Notes the scarcity of water.
  • Discusses the caves with Hueco tanks, situated 30 miles east of El Paso, New Mexico
  • Use of a green twig (chewing stick) or leaf to quench thirst
  • Find water atop clay bed prior to dry spells
  • Within dry, sandy stream beds, diggings may help find water beneath the depressed parts of the bed and the outer parts of its turns.
  • Method of sinking a well in a stream bed, especially when quick sand is present–makes use of a flour barrel and shovel.
  • Water indicator plants:
  • Mentions green saplings of Cottonwoods, and fresh leaf bearers.
  • Green willow saplings.
  • Flags (Iris spp.)
  • Water Rushes (var. Cyperus, Carex, Scirpus, etc.)
  • Tall-green grass
  • “etc.”:
  • Cattail
  • Gathering Rainwater
  • with Canvas Cloths painted with India rubber or gutta percha
  • With blanket dragged across dew-ridden grasses
  • Stagnated pools of water were felt to be “charged with putrid vegetable matter and animalculae”; capable of causing fevers and dysentery.

To Clean Water [p. 49]

  • Boil, remove scum from surface, mix in powdered charcoal.
  • Or take Alum, “in the end of a stick that has been spilt” and submerge it in the water for a short while.
  • “Charcoal and the leaves of a prickly pear” [p.49]
  • A charcoal filter can be made by filling a barrel with grass or moss. [p.50]
  • A cloth or handkerchief fitted over the wouth or cup.
  • Keep water cool the way the Arabs did, in a wet letahern bottle, hung on the side of the wagon, horse or oxen; or make use of a wet sack. [p.50]
  • Warning given about mineral-rich waters
  • The 1852 drought along Red River led to the production of acrid, bitter water, comprised of Gypsum and salts, ingestion of which caused “a most painful and burning sensation, accompanied with diarrhea.”


 According to Marcy, Rattlesnakes are often found along the southern routes. “but it is seldom that any person is bitten by them.”  The Prairie Rattler is perhaps the most conspicuous of these to pioneers due to the behavior of this type, which is more apt to appear in the open territories of the Great Plains.

Marcy recommends for the treatment of snakebites “Hartshorn applied externally to the wound, and drunk in small quantitites diluted with water whenever the patient becomes faint or exhausted from the effects of the poison.”

Ligatures to tie the afflicted appendage with, followed by an incision “above the puncture”, and sucking the woun of course were recommended as well.

Writings on the history of snakebites are briefly described, using examples from Southwestern Africa where the venoms are typically more violent, if not more deadly.  The mild to graphic descriptions he gives of a venom-stricken bird and turtle were to make a point.  The subsequent description of a snake-bitten Indian child and the mother’s treatment for it, which involved lancing, sucking and the application of a tobacco poultice is one example of the generic trait many snakebite treatments had due to their limited efficacy.

Other treatments for snakebite included “a huge draught of liquor” poured down a child’s throat, “a small piece of indigo…pulverized” placed atop the site until the indigo becomes “white” (pale in color), and Cedron or Rattlesnake’s Bean, the nut-like seed from Simaba cedron (Simaroubaceae) of Panama.  Non-herbal remedies include “burn powder” and “ardent spirits.”  Marcy also notes the regimen proposed by Dr. Philip Weston in a London Lancet article dated July 1859, given here in the order prescribed: “bleeding [followed] by warm solutions to favor the escape of the poison”;  cauterization with “a strong solution of nitrate of silver”;  “ammonia in aerated or soda-water, every quarter of the hour to support the nervous energy and allay the distressing thirst”;  “a powerful tonic and alterative in impaired vitality of the blood arising from the absorption of certain blood-poisons”; and Fowler’s solution given every fifteen minutes with compound spirit of ammonia in aerated or soda-water, until “the patient [is] relieved by copious bilious dejections.”