Water Cure and Overland Trail history have a unique relationship in American medical history. Both became a popular part of American culture about the same time. Water cure as it is referred to in trail diaries became a very popular alternative health profession during the late 1830s, and took about 5 or 6 years to establish itself as a stable medical profession. During these years, the Pacific Northwest Territory began opening up for settlement. It had just developed several secure fort settlements since the mid 1820s, and was by now becoming a major site for the development of new missionary settlements. By 1840, the Pacific Northwest had established and held onto its first missions, a number of homesteads and large boarding houses were being built to accomodate carpenters and other skilled laborers making their way to the new territory. By 1842, the earliest groups of settlers on horseback and with wagons began the journey to Oregon Territory.
About this time, the practice of water cure or hydropathy as it was also then called began promoting itself through the publication of pamphlets and books, and the opening of small schools devoted to this form of medical practice. For the most part, water cure catered more to the women unable to actively pursue any sort of career in medicine. These women on occasions attended classes devoted to this profession, which were offered for the most part in the New York City area about this time. But most of the followers of hydropathy who were women came into this profession due to its very domestic nature. The focus of hydropathy training tended to be focused on such domestic topics as healthy diets and foods, engaging in proper sanitation practices in the living space, and the use of cold water and water-related treatment protocals to prevent disease and maintain health.
The notion of the “germ” as a cause for disease was pretty much present during these years. The methods of preventing infection by “germs” were well documented, although this germ concept was never really fully explained or udnerstood in much the same fashion as we might refer to it today. There was little to no understanding of bacteria, a term not even born yet in medical history. Instead, there had been a number of synonyms for this more modern medical term. The common term related to “germ” was “animalcule”, small organisms that thrived in water-based settings. These organisms were often inspiring to their onlookers. Women who had the opportunity to gaze upon these small living beings typically marvelled at the miracle of life they represented. This natural philosophy take on animalcules was one of the prime reasons women came to a better understanding of their own bodies, enough to take on their own responsibilities for attending to their personal health and well-being. During the mid-1840s in medical history, this made hydropathy primarily a woman’s profession in medicine, with classes offered on this medical skill, instructed by women, provided as part of the early feminist movements now underway.
Oregon Trail migrations began to increase in numbers around 1845, with the largest number of families and wagon trains involved in these migrations between 1852 and 1856. This migration of East coast and midwest trained individuals to the Far West included famileis with matrons trained in hydropathy. The conditions of the Overland Trains, their ecology, weather, and limited sanitation practices, made the trails important places for people trained in hydropathy to apply the skills of their education. Women trained in hydropathy were also fairly skilled in note-taking, and trained in observing the details required to better understand disease onset and develop methods for preventing this from taking place. Thuis we find a number of diaries kept by women detailing their observations made due to their water cure training. This makes the diaries kept by women trained in water cure some of the best dairies out there pertaining to the healthiness of the Overland Trail lifestyle practices.
The attached diaries are examples of these contributions made to Overland Trail medicine by overlanders. The most important document of this type is a diary kept by Charlotte [Stearns] Pengra.