I’ve nearly worn out my DVD box set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman from having watched it so often. Dr. Michaela Quinn had the cure for almost everything and often sought the council of her First Nation Cheyenne friends who taught her about medicinal plants growing in the wilds. Episodes often mentioned people suffering a catarrh or ague. These terms appear in a number of pioneer journals as well and I’ve always been curious about their meaning.
Catarrh is a term used to describe illnesses involving sore throat, coughing, laryngitis and difficulty with breathing. It refers to any excess mucus in the body and could even extend to an upset stomach.
Settler diaries often included entries about ague. People described having flu-like symptoms such as a fever, chills, aches, congestion or coughs. For most of us today, the flu is not life threatening, but for pioneering families living in isolation the outcome could be deadly. If an entire household became ill, the fire would not be lit nor would food be prepared. The family would be chilled and faint with hunger and thirst if neighbouring families didn’t realize their situation and offer support.
It’s possible that many people who thought they had contracted an ague suffered from malaria—especially if they lived near swamps or rotting plant matter. Mosquitos spread the disease which likely travelled to North America in the blood of European soldiers previously stationed in tropical locations. Patients would recover from the fever and chills, but the malaria parasite would still live in their blood and symptoms would continually resurface.
In Backwoods Woman, Catherine Parr Trail (1802-1899) wrote a letter to family in England detailing a bout of ague thought to be caused by standing water in the family’s cellar. When the snow melted, the cellar half filled with water. She believed the heat of the Franklin stove caused a “fermentation” to occur. An unpleasant odour arose from the putrid water and they were forced to remove the stagnant fluid. Shortly thereafter, her family was “flattened” and required two weeks to recover. She reported that for such complaints, the popular treatment included calomel with castor-oil or salts followed by quinine. (Calomel is a secondary mineral to mercury. Doctors stopped prescribing it once studies in the mid 1800s proved its harmful effects on patients.) People without access to a doctor relied on ginger-tea or a strong infusion of tea, pepper, and whisky.
Plenty of “old wives” cures were applied to catarrhs and agues. I came across one passage that recommended simmering a piece of salt pork in vinegar. Allow it to cool, then lay it against the throat and wrap the neck with red flannel. A dirty sock may be substituted for the salt pork.
In the Dr. Quinn series, every manner of patient was offered willow-bark tea to sufferers of headaches, fevers and any number of discomforts. The bark’s medicinal value was discovered by First Nations people who experienced pain relief by chewing the inside of willow bark. They generously shared this knowledge with settlers. Many pioneer families owed their lives to the support of First Nation neighbours who taught them about the healing properties of plants in their environment.
Photo source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Sick child” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1932.
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