So You Wish You Lived When?
Having a life-long fascination with history, I have participated in numerous reenactments that spanned the 1750-1820 time period. From the late 1790's thru 1813, the “Upper Miamis” …where I live, (Miami & Shelby County Ohio) was the edge of civilization.
Often while participating in a reenactment, a site guest would look at my camp and say something goofy…. For example, "Is that a real fire" -or- "Is that fire hot", "Is that a real girl?" (my three year old was also dressed in period clothes) or "Are ya'll Wiccan?“ (still don’t understand where that came from). " All reenactors expect such comments.
What I found more interesting is that inevitably, most visitors looked closely my accouterments, smile, and would tell me that “they wished they had lived back then”. It’s a fun period to study…. but living then? That’s definitely not the case for me. I would like to share a little about the Frontier Health and Wellness Plan. The picture used with this post was found in the National Archives. Let’s look at a couple differences between then and now….
Vital Statistics / Health, Wellness, and Hygiene
The 1810 Census shows 7.2 million people were living in the United States of which 1.1 million were slaves.
The average woman had over seven live births in 1800. All too often, a young wife would die when complications occurred during childbirth.
In 1800, the mean life span was about 25. Diseases such as smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia, influenza, rickets, and fevers caused many deaths in children and adults. Mortality rate for infants was between 43% to 50 %. Before passing on a family name, some people didn’t name their infant children until they knew child would survive.
Families circa 1800 tended to have a larger number of children than today’s families. Midwives, who delivered babies, were extremely important since all babies were born at home.
Most people studying this era hear that death by burning followed childbirth were the leading cause of death among women ...there are some that believe that to be inaccurate... Burning fires likely caused respiratory issues as well.
Wells for drinking water could be contaminated by nearby privies and unpenned animals, causing many illnesses. Early homes had no bathroom, septic system, or running water. Chamber pots and privies performed the function of today’s toilets. People in this period were accustomed to living with smells that we would consider repugnant…. and if one lived in a city or town, there was filth ........no plumbing or sewage control at this time.)
Today most people bathe or shower daily, a practice that adults and children of the colonial period would have considered odd. They did not believe in bathing every day, or even every week. They felt that bathing washed away the layer of dirt that was their protection against germs and disease. Most baths consisted of washing with a cloth dipped into a basin of water. When washing in warm water was desired, water had to be heated in the fireplace. No chemical deodorants or anti-antiperspirants masked body odors; however, since nearly everyone shared the same standard of cleanliness, odors were not as offensive.
Winter meant less bathing –just washing or less cleaning of clothing which leads to germy environments. It was a common practice at this time not to change a wet or soiled infant before the diaper dried.
Most family illnesses were treated at home. Settlers used medicinal herbs and other simple remedies. In addition, bloodletting endured as a common medical practice well into the 19th century. Throughout the ages, bloodletting has been prescribed as a treatment for everything from a sore throat to the plague.
One of the potential atrocities that settlers in this area were exposed to was scalping. The Upper Miami Valley was not exempt from this barbaric activity. The Dilbone Massacre … and other civilian attacks outside of Greenville and Urbana during the War of 1812 include elements of scalping and death.
Scalping wasn’t just a way to claim a trophy from the body of a dead man. Some people were still alive and struggling when a warrior would pull back their head and slice off the skin at the top of their skulls. While victims of the incidents previously mentioned passed away, there were instances where a person was scalped and either was not otherwise wounded or the wound was not mortal.
This brutal activity was practiced by both Native Americans and Frontiersmen. The problem then becomes how to medically treat a patient with a scalped head. Frontier medicine was often harsh at best.
A scalping victim could survive without treatment—but not for long. They would live for a few months with exposed bone at the top of their heads until infection set in. Their skulls would get inflamed, and the bone would become necrotic and start to separate, slowing exposing their bare, unprotected brains.
The first treatments for scalped men had doctors pierce the skull to the bone marrow. Opening up little holes into the bone marrow, the doctors wrote, would make a “flesh projection” grow over the wound. This was achieved by taking an awl and boring numerous holes throughout the damaged area. Again, for the victim, this caused excruciating pain.
Apparently, the success rate for this treatment, called “pegging” was very good. The scalped head, would “cure very slowly” and the average recovery period was two years. Occasionally, some hair would even grow back on the new scalp. The patient would regain feeling once the new skin grew sufficiently to attach to the edge of the uninjured part of the original flesh remaining on the skull. I imagine to some scalping survivors may have thought that the pain from pegging was equal to or worse than the pain of being scalped.
When Ohio first opened for settlement, it was oft said that a squirrel could travel from Cincinnati to Michigan without touching the ground. The original Miami County ran from Montgomery county to the top of the state.
There were just five natural prairies in what is modern Miami County. The rest of this area was dense forest. Shelby County was also largely wooded, being a hunting ground for several Native American tribes.
That having been said, isolation created serious problems. Father Boeke, a St. Marys, OH native, published his grandmother’s diary titled “Liwwit Boeke -An American Pioneer.” The diary discusses women going mad from long term darkness and isolation....The nearest cabins were often several miles apart. Women were often alone while men went on military campaigns, hunts or needed to travel.
So you wish you lived when? Comparing then to now, healthcare alone tips the scales for me...