Oregon Trail history is one of the harder periods for studying American medical history.  Medicine at this time was practiced in multiple ways, based on multiple cultural beliefs and settings, and multiple schools of training.  Unlike most of the studies of 19th century medical history published, Oregon Trail medicine is not based on a particular school or set of medical books.  One cannot simply pull out a few of the major authors at the time to determine what medical philosophies were popular at the time.  One cannot look at governmental documents or any other forms of official records to learn what kinds of physicians travelled the Oregon Trail

The best way to understand Oregon Trail medicine is to first take the people themselves into consideration, then try to determine if any of these overlanders are physicians or some other form of practitioner, and finally determine what official doctors or medical trained government officials were present in the regions where important interactions were taking place between people, such as pioneers in need of some local physician.   Due to governmental activities related to and sometimes prevalent along the trail such as near Fort Kearney, we can get some perspective of the way medicine might have been practices in the fort and immediately outside the fort setting.  But once we travel a half a day or so away from these places, we are back to relying upon domestic and cultural learning in health, followed by the practice of medicine by family and team members.

The other problem with researching trail medicine is that the alternative healers are not always apparent based on the observations and entries made along the way to the Western shores.  Of the numerous journals, diaries, recollections and letters I have reviewed about health, searching for evidence of any sort of indicators of the kinds of medicine being practiced, I have only found three forms of evidence that can be definitively identified by medicine type and directly linked to the trail.   These indicators are

  1. the background of the writer, indicated as “MD” either by the writer or by the biographer of the diary or journal later edited and published about this MD
  2. the mention of another physician by his medical type, such as “homeopath”
  3. the production of a diary with an adequate amount of details enabling the work to be related to a specific medical philosophy being practiced along the trail.

 Based on these observations, the following can be stated.

  • Regular medicine was probably the most common form of medicine practiced at the time which required MD.  The other MD option then possible was the Eclectic or Reformed Medicine physician.  These physicians also made use of the ‘MD’  after their name and well into the twentieth century were allowed to continue this use of the professional abbreviation.
  • Eclectic medicine and Homeopathic medicine were definitely practiced along the trail, but were usually not publicized as such, and often are proven to be present on the trail by third party onlookers documenting this profession’s presence, or by a review of retrospective information such as a match in the name of a pioneer with data on type of medicine practiced by this individual as noted in the 1883 Polk’s Medical Directory.
  • Hydropathy was very much present on the trail, and may have been a form of practice believed in and adhered to mostly by women.  Several diaries demonstrating this philosophy exist.  These diaries tend to provide some of the most important descriptions of trail life and the healthiness of the environment along the trail, including observations pertaining to livestock health and clusters of human and animal deaths.
  • Understanding a pioneer’s cultural background does help in identifying the type of medicine that was practiced.  
  • Homeopathy was more popular to German communities for example.  Botanical Medicine was a midwestern philosophy. 
  • Thomsonian was mostly practiced by the first 15 states, and more in the north than in the south, with the exception perhaps of Memphis, Tn down to Alabama and over to Georgia
  • Eclectic medicine was common to, but not limited to New York-Ohio region, Missouri, and western Tennessee.
  • Reviewing my listing of the schools and their locations relative to years helps to define what practices were being taught in what major cities.  [See J K Bristow section for this list.]

Merrill Mattes has provided us with some very useful specific about the medicine being practiced along the trail.  According to the types of medicines he notes, domestic medicine and regular allopathic medicine were the most commonly practiced forms of health care along the trail.   The use of patent medicines was also fairly popular.  Mattes notes do not mention much about the use of specific local plants as medicines along the trail.  Evidence from other books on Trail history do provide a little insight into this, with the uses of local herbs mentioned in passing, often without much specificity on the type of herb or nature of its use. 

The following are medications and nutriment noted by Mattes in his general coverage of Oregon Trail medicine.  Most of the material Mattes’ notes infer allopathic use, although Thomsonian and Physio-Medical practice is possibly inferred as well by any mention of Lobelia or Myrrh.  The use of Cayenne is shared by allopaths, Thomsonians, physio-medics and homeopaths.

Merrill Mattes.  The Great Platte River Road.  pp. 82-89. 


The following lists of remedies are either allopathic or come from a patent medicine industry.

Elizabeth Geer’s list of “trusted home remedies”      p. 82

  • “a box of physicing pills”
  • “a box of castor oil”
  • “a quart of best rum”
  • “a vial of peppermint essence”

This is an Allopathic remedy list.  According to John King [Eclectic physician], this vial of peppermint essence in Brandy would cure most ills.

Catherine Haun’s “potable apothecary shop” [Allopathic]

  • quinine for malaria
  • hartshorn for snakebite
  • citric acid for scurvy and blueness
  • opium
  • whiskey

Other listings  [most or all single drugs mentioned are Allopathic, the rest are patent medicines]:

  • Opium    (Noted by Mattes for treating Toothaches, p. 83.)
  • Laudanum
  • Morphine
  • Calomel
  • tincture of Camphor
  • Ayer’s Pain Killer            [Thissel]
  • Dover’s Powders         [Lampton]
  • Jayne’s Carminative balsam [Snodgrass]

Climatology                                                 p. 83

John Minto (1844):

“to secure the life-preserving qualities of the country air.”  He later died from “continuing dampness.”


John Clark, east of Big Blue Crossing (1852):

“a few men were digging graves, others tending the sick.  Women and children crying, some hunting medicine and none to be found scarcely…”

Diseases                                                    pp. 84-85


J.D. Randall, 1852:

“We found that Amos Hinshaw was dying.  He has the cholera morbus and measles set and took him right off.”

Note:  it is perhaps the later stage in cholera being noted when onset of “measles” (a skin rash?) is referred to.


Often the victim died within hours, but in some cases the disease malingered a few days. A disease that caused “great agony.” [Dr. Caldwell; Chapman]

Diarrhea was the forerunner of cholera. [Benson]

cholera and diarrhea are considered synonymous as the causes for deaths [Ebey; Crane]

Sore Throat, Vomiting, and Bowel Discharge are the most common symptoms. (Mattes, p. 86)

Burning the clothes and wagons of the deceased was thought to help prevent the recurrence of this epidemic. [R.C. Shaw; Duniway]  (from Mattes, p. 86)

In some cases, recoveries were high in certain wagon trains.  [John Scott; William Pleasants]

Dr. Lord of New York notes a detailed description of Cholera and its treatment, which employed allopathic remedies.  [Lord] (See page 86 of Mattes, and later research note.)


Children were often orphaned.

Children on the California trail were not as effected by the disease.  Mattes called it the “California Trail variety of cholera.”  (p. 85)

(Is this perhaps due to different aquifer behaviors in the substrata?  The western part of Nebraska had a large wetlands habitat, which could have accounted for the soil chemistry and the tendency for cholera to inhabit it.)

“it seemed that cholera was worse while it was raining”  [George Hearst]

Cholera was felt to be greater after a spell of wet weather.  [Dr. Caldwell]


a blizzard was felt to check the disease [Carlisle Abbott]


Emigrants from Missouri suffered the highest casualties according to Kimball Webster.  Mattes writes: “There is little pattern to the geographical distribution of cases from the river to Fort Laramie, except for the prevalence on the south side prior to 1852.”  (p. 85-86)

“Beyond Fort Laramie, the sickness abates.”  According to Mattes, the pioneers attributed this to drier air and higher altitude.  [see Lowe’s diary]  

Cholera’s Incidental Geography:


  • 1500-2000 estimate [McCollum], or,               6% mortality rate (Merrill Mattes, p. 84).
  • 2/3 of large trains [Foster]
  • children orphaned and entire families wiped out [Goldsmith]


  • estimated number of deaths given as “more than 1000” [Langworthy]
  • 5000 [Ezra Meeker]
  • 2500 accepted as avrage number of graves between St. Joe and Foprt Laramiew, or four graves to the mile, for the overall mortality incidence.  [Mattes, p. 84]
  • 130 graves (some 1849) between Fort Laramie and Ash Hollow [Micajah Littleton] (this was at the midpoint of the migration period according to Mattes, p. 85)
  • Cholera “struck like a cyclone on both sides of the Platte” [Carlisle Abbott]
  • Cholera raged on the south side of the Platte, and the north side was relatively immune to its incidence  [Rev. Hinds and Franklin Langworthy]
  • near Ash Hollow, the recommendation is to cross the river to the north side to avoid the epidemic [Thissell]


  • the casualties were light, “little sickness on the Plains this year.” (Mattes, p. 85)


  • “[We] passed camps every day waiting for someone to die.”  West of Ash Hollow, three men returned, the only ones out of a party of seventeen.  [J.H. Clark]
  • At first the rampage appeared to be limited to the south shore again.  By the time Jared Fox reached the Council Bluff Road on the north side, he noted increased incidence of cholera deaths.  “Plenty of teams, miles of them, on the other side in sight, and many crossing and some drowning in the attempt…The cholera is raging on the south side of the Platte at a dreadful rate and all are hustling over trying to escape it…but now they are falling on the north side.”  [Jared Fox]
  • Ezra Meeker found the north side to be healthy until Fort Kearney was reached.  He writes: “the epidemic struck our moving column where the throngs from the south side of the Platte began crossing.”  From that point on, says Meeker, it looked like a battlefield: “Crowds of people were continually hurrying past us in their desparate haste to escape the dreadful epidemic.”  [Ezra Meeker]
  • John Kennedy Bristow’s team rode in a hurry to pass by these dying people.  The team barely stopped for anything, including food and rest. (self note)
  • “We done some good travelling, for we were in the midst of sickness, pain and death, and thought if we could manage to out travel the bulk of immigration we would not be so exposed to the cholera, measels and smallpox, which is scattered along the road.”  [Richard Hickman]


Dr. Lord:

“A single dose of laudunum, with pepper, camphor, musk, ammonia, peppermint or other stimulants usually effect a cure in minutes.  If pain in the bowels was present [persistent?], another dose was required.  If cramp in the calves of the legs had supervened, a larger dose was given.  If skin had become cold, and covered with sweat…the doses were frequently repeated until warmth is restored.  The medicines were aided by friction, mustard plasters, and other external applications.  If to all these symptoms vomiting was added, there was no more to be done.  Vomiting was the worst symptom, and every case proved fatal where vomiting, purging, cramp and cold sweating skin were present…”

The following protocol is typical Allopathy:

  • Laudanum, 1 dose

  • pepper,
  • camphor,
  • musk
  • ammonia
  • peppermint, or other stimulants
  • aided by friction
  • mustard plasters, and
  • other external applications

Other Doctors noted by Mattes:

  • Dr. Knox
  • Dr. Flint
  • Dr. Crane
  • Dr. Dalton
  • Dr. Pleasants
  • Dr. Bradway

See also diaries kept by Francis Sawyer and John Benson.

Noted: “J. Morely, Physician and Surgeon.” [Sawyer]

Dr. J. Nobles used red paint advertising put on several grave markers.  [Helen Carpenter]

Funeral Services and Burials:

Henry Shombre, along Blue River

J.G. Bruff and James Tate, prior to the Platte (Blue River?)

“Sierra snows were waiting” when deaths occurred in the far western end of the Platte, thereby reducing the time frame for performing burials.          [Elisha Brooks; Searls]

Use of “Watchers” when deaths seemed imminent in someone.

grave digging, prior to the death.  [Carlisle Abbott; Lucy Cooke; Elisha Brooks]

grave frequency was counted [Bruff; Littleton; William Hampton; John Clark of Virginia; Montgomery; McIlhany; Helen Carpenter; Webster; Ezra Meeker]

grave makings [Ida McPherren; Shombre; Thissell]

Points of Concentration:                     (pp. 87-88)

  •       Big Blue Crossing,
  •       South Platte,
  •       mouth of Ash Hollow.
  •       the southern trail to California, “for 300 miles”

Past Graves and animals: 

  •       prairie creatures [Walter Pigman; Emily Horton]
  •       prairie wolves    [Chamberlain]
  •       coyotes                 [David Cartwright]
  •       fear of wild animals    [W. Bailey; Cartwright]
  •       desecrated graves [Agnes Stewart, 1853]
  • Use of grave sites to store goods and Brandy (see Mattes, p. 89)


Contagious Diseases

  • Common Cold and symptoms
  • Whooping Cough                            (Waters)
  • Measles                                         (Short; Searls)
  • Vareloid                                        (Hickman)
  • Mumps                                           (Vanderburg)
  • Small Pox                              (Kilgore; Searls)
  • Pneumonia or Lung Fever                         (McBride)
  • Fever and Ague                            (Malaria)
  • mountain fever                                  (J. Stewart)
  • hydrophobia                                     (Hedges)
  • inflammatory rheumatism                   (Bradway)
  • “congestion of the brain”                 (Searls)
  • Asiatic Cholera
  • colory                                          (E. Lewis)
  • chollery                                        (Stine)
  • coleramer                                       (Shombre)
  • etc. etc.

Intestinal Disorders

  • plain dysentery or diarrhea
  • dysentery
  • bloody flux                                     (Snodgrass)
  • “derangements of the liver or kidney”     (Langworthy)
  • “bilious complaints”                      (J. Ware)
  • “inflammation of the bowels”              (Biddle)
  • “summer complaint”                              (Geer)
  • “the ailment incidental to travel on the Plains”                      (McCoy)
  • “intestinal inertia”                      (Cipriani)

Other Disorders

  • delirium tremens                                (Anon.)
  • vertigo                                         (Reading)
  • toothache

Accidents [Mattes, p. 90-93]

Sanitary problems

Trail Accidents

      (Given in descending order of magnitude according to Mattes, p. 90)

One needed good swimming skills, must practice adequate firearm safety, and behold useful riflery knowledge and sanitation skills in order to avoid illness, injury or death, not to mention a little luck at avoiding the cholera, avoiding bad weather and the related natural disasters, and selecting the right medicines.

Weather problems

  • drenching rainfall–hypothermia
  • hail-induced injuries
  • field burns during droughts
  • lightning strikes
  • poor selection of edible and medicinal plants?
  • rattlesnake bites?
  • natural marsh and salt water contamination
  •       fog-miasma-malaria
  •       black cloud/dust storms
  •       wind burn and injury


  • buffalo gnats
  • “black galinippers”
  • mosquitoes
  • ticks
  • snakes

  Maimings and killings

            (Personal notes, and notes taken from Mattes, p.            90-91)

less so:

  •       sharp object penetration
  •       falling object injury
  •       rattlesnake bites
  •       buffalo hunts
  •       poor selection of edible and medicinal plants

  Maimings and killings (continued)

much so:

      Shootings (from rifles, shotguns and revolvers)

  •             –blasts, powder burns, annihilation.
  •             –self-affliction was very common
  •                   [see Eastin, 1849; McBride, 1850; John                Wood, 1850]
  •             –nosebleed [Earnshaw]
  •             –thumb laceration [Guill]
  •             –rib gunshot injury [Staples]
  •             –gun burst [Reading]
  •             –shoulder injury [Tate]
  •             –foot or leg injury [Delano; Gould]
  •             –accidental discharge [Gelwicks, 1849]
  •             –burning clothes [Brown]
  •             –target holder death [Sedgeley, 1849]
  •             –hunting injury of Smith Dunlap                            [Elizabeth Geer, 1847]
  •             –prankster in buffalo robe [Breyfogle, 1849]


         (Blue, Kansas, South Platte and Laramie Rivers)

  •             –turned over wagons in the River Crossing
  •             –Ferries tipping over
  •             –over-powered by currents
  •             –snarled in a harness
  •             –fatigue
  •             –hypothermia onset and fatigue

      Poor Wagon Handling

  •             –Crushing Injuries by Wagons
  •             –Wagoneers fallen between the seat and wagon
  •             –turned over wagons in a river crossing
  •             –amputated ankle, broken hand, etc.

      Domestic Animal-management injuries

      The burning clothes of Lafayette Dwitty

            [J.E. Brown, 1849]

      Hatchet Injury [Keller]

      “lame breast from hard lifting at the wheel”          [Stephen Gage]

      strained back from wrestling match [Gould]

      collapsing tent pole, scalp injury [Athearn]

            imbibing of too much alcohol by the Captain [Mary                 Hayden]


  • Flour of Sulphur, p. 908
  • Compound Tincture of Senna, p. 909
  • Mustard, p. 909
  • Gum Guaiacum, Lignum Vitae