Besides cholera and other deadly diseases, emigrants slogging across the country faced an often fatal condition known through the ages as scurvy. Whereas cholera occurred in epidemics and spread furiously, scurvy was slow in onset but just as deadly in time. Scurvy is simply a vitamin C deficiency, and although it had been recognized for hundreds of years, the cause and cure was not completely understood or even believed by many.
Dr. I. S. P. Lord was as knowledgeable as any other physician of his time, but he demonstrated a lack of appreciation of the cause of scurvy in 1850 when he wrote, “scurvy as common as damaged flour….And yet we seem to have pure air, soft crystal water, wholesome food, cooked well and regularly, and comfortable sleep.”
After months on the trail – as well as in gold camps and military barracks – eating a diet of beans, salt pork, boiled beef, pancakes and other staples of the time, people on the frontier developed scurvy. In the early stages, the victim might develop a few blemishes due to hemorrhage under the skin, swelled joints, or loose teeth. Days or weeks later the person would be totally debilitated and coughing blood. An observer described one terminal patient as a darling with some cough, diarrhea and bloated all over, with one leg swelled full.
Scurvy resulted in death unless the sufferer ingested a rich source of vitamin C, such as certain fresh vegetables, fruits and wild plants. Pigweed, watercress, both high in vitamin C, readily grew along many western streams, but sadly most immigrants and even doctors did not realize its power as an antiscorbutic.
“Bleed, Blister, and Purge, A history of Medicine on
the American Frontier,” by Volney Steele, M.D.