One of my favorites of the minor characters in His Promise True was Kirby, the loud-mouthed keelboat sailor. Since part of the point of the book was to portray the different types of people in the early American frontier, I certainly wanted to include the keelboatmen, a unique group who were legendary at one time but now are all but forgotten.
Category Archives: 19th century life
In A Permanent Home, John David goes out one morning to find some damage to ears of corn in his field. Because he’s living in the contested area of Lovely’s Purchase, he’s not sure if the damage has been done by animals or humans. Well, I recently found damage in my own corn patch, and the culprit is clear – we’d been visited by raccoons.
This picture was taken in the patch of yellow sweet corn in early July. We had two fairly long rows, and the damage was at the end of both rows. Really, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been; only a few stalks of corn were pulled down, and maybe a dozen ears had been pulled off and gnawed. I got right to work that morning and harvested around 75-100 ears (I didn’t count this year because I used the corn for whole-kernel corn rather than corn on the cob). I got plenty, even with the raccoons having their party.
(Just an observation – the midnight to 1:30 a.m. for chaperone duty on a trip with a high school band is a productive time for writing!)
In the previous post, we discovered that a flatboat was an economical way to move a sizeable load of cargo down a river. As long as the crew intended the trip to be a one-way journey, a flatboat was fine. However, if a captain wanted to make a business of regular trips carrying cargo, a flatboat had serious disadvantages. For one thing, a new boat would have to be built every time a trip was planned. For farmers who took their crops to market one time per year, building a boat before the trip might not be such a big deal. For the man who wanted a regular business of shipping, the expense would have been a deal-breaker – not to mention there would be no way to return products from down-river towns like New Orleans against the river current to the potential customers inland.
A few months ago, I was in a faculty meeting in which another faculty member was recounting the history of our institution. He said something about the founders coming up the river on flatboats, and at that point, I had to restrain myself from saying aloud, “Not flatboats, keelboats!” (Well, OK, I did actually whisper it to the person sitting next to me….)
Flatboats, keelboats – what’s the difference, you ask? Let’s take a little journey into the history of transportation in this country.
So far, we’ve had an unusually cold winter. Normally, we will have a couple of days when the temperatures dip into the low teens, but the warmth will rebound quickly into the 50s. This year, I believe we’ve had more than a dozen days with highs in the teens or 20s, and temperatures for the past week have been above freezing only a few times.
Of course, I find myself thinking about how people in the early 19th century would have coped with weather like this, when there were no central heat/air units and thermostats to keep a home at or near 70 degrees. Especially on the frontier, the fireplace would be the only source of heat, so knowing how to build and tend a good fire would be an indispensable life skill. I thought it might be fun to look at what’s involved in building a fire–my method of building a fire, anyway. My husband swears I do it all wrong.
A recent post discussed Rush’s Pills, a commonly-prescribed remedy for just about any disease in the early nineteenth century. Being able to use Rush’s pills to treat ailments depended, of course, on having the money to buy them. I was curious as to how much the pills would cost and whether a normal person would be able to afford them. According to the invoice for the Lewis and Clark expedition, 50 dozen of Rush’s Bilious Pills cost $5.00, or 10 cents per dozen. That’s not so much, until we remember that a dollar in 1803 was not the same as a dollar in 2014. I put the cost through an inflation calculator and found that what cost $5 in 1803 would cost $75.32 in 2012. Considering that is the price for 50 dozen of the pills, I suppose that is still not out of reach; it would put the price at $1.50 per dozen, a little more than today’s cost for Equate Maximum-Strength Laxative Tablets at Walmart.com ($4.18 for 4 dozen). Continue reading
To our 21st-century ears, that phrase probably sounds like the opposite of anything we would ever think (just ask anyone who has prepped for a colonoscopy!). Yet, one might actually hear someone say such a thing–and sincerely mean it–in the 19th century, another sign of how much life has changed in only 200 years.
A reader asked about the “Rush’s Thunderbolts” that play a role in His Promise True, so although the topic is a little gross, here is some information about one of the popular medical remedies at the beginning of the 19th century.
First, it’s important to understand that people in the early 19th century had a very different understanding of how the human body works than we have today. In many ways, medical understanding hadn’t progressed very far past that of the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates developed the theory of “humours,” which said the body had four fluids that corresponded to the basic elements of the earth–blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile (it was also thought these corresponded to certain personality types). The goal of health was to keep these four humours in balance; an imbalance resulted in various kinds of illness, depending on the exact nature of the imbalance. I don’t want to get too deeply into the theory, but each humour had certain characteristics, so by observing the symptoms of the illness, a doctor could determine (the theory goes) the type of imbalance and apply a treatment that would bring the body back into balance. So, for example, if a person had a fever (hot, dry symptoms, indicating an excess of hot, dry, yellow bile), the treatment would be to apply the opposite–a cold bath. If a person had digestive problems, it was an indication of an excess of black bile, which had to be eliminated, often by purging. A good, thorough explanation of the way this theory informed medical practice through the first part of the 19th century is in the book The Health of the Country by Conevery Valencius.
One of the best-known proponents of purging (although he didn’t subscribe to the theory of humours) was Benjamin Rush, who was probably the most famous medical practitioner in the new United States. It is a sign of Rush’s prominence that Meriwether Lewis consulted with Rush when preparing for the Corps of Discovery’s exploration of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Rush advised Lewis that “gently opening the bowels by means of one, two, or more of the purging pills” was an excellent measure to prevent “indisposition” (Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, p. 89). Lewis ordered fifty dozen of the pills, sold as “Rush’s pills,” but popularly known as “Thunderclappers” or “Rush’s Thunderbolts,” no doubt a testament to the violent power of the purgative!
Rush had patented the formula for the pills, which included two potent laxative agents, jalap and calomel. According to one source, these pills were large, about four times the size of today’s aspirin tablets. Jalap was made from the dried tuber of a Mexican plant, while calomel is another name for mercurous chloride, a mercury compound. Although people realized mercury was poisonous, they believed calomel was different, and it was used to treat all kinds of complaints, including syphllis. While calomel was extremely popular as a treatment, it was also, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, responsible for horrific death by mercury poisoning for thousands of Americans. Despite growing concern about calomel by the middle of the 19th century, it continued to be used as a drug in the United States until the late 1960s.
Fortunately, for the character in His Promise True, only one dose of Rush’s pills was given. Yet the consequences of that dose are meant to remind us modern readers that the medical treatment we take so much for granted today has come a long, long way in the past 200 years.
Ambrose, S. E. (1996). Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Higby, G.J. (2006). Rush’s Bilious Pills. In Discovering Lewis and Clark [online]. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2014, from http://lewis-clark.org/content/content-article.asp?ArticleID=2564
Schmid, J. (2009). Beautiful Black Poison. For the Weston A. Price Foundation website. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2014, from http://www.westonaprice.org/environmental-toxins/beatiful-black-poison
University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center. (2013). Penn Biographies: Benjamin Rush. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2014, from http://www.archives.upenn.edu/people/1700s/rush_benj.html
Valencius, C. (2004). The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land. New York: Basic Books.
The weather here was perfect today–mostly sunny and about 70 degrees. However, if the weather forecasters can be believed, we are in for major changes. Starting sometime tonight, very cold air from Canada will start pushing into our area. It will interact with the moisture in our atmosphere, resulting in some kind of frozen precipitation. The forecast is leaning toward freezing rain for the place where I live. I’m really hoping we don’t lose power.
Everyone is preparing for the worst. Several of my friends on Facebook have posted pictures of empty bread shelves at their local Walmart stores (one friend posted a picture of empty potato bins in the produce area). I stopped by the farm/ranch supply store today to get a heat lamp for my hens, and I saw a guy with a space heater in his cart and stood in line behind another guy who was buying straw to put in his dog’s house. Several schools have already cancelled classes for tomorrow, and it’s still 50 degrees outside.
I can’t help thinking how this would have played out in the lives of people in the nineteenth century. They didn’t have a weather forecast at 5, 6, and 10 with “Accu-Radar.” There were no email alerts, no Facebook posts with images of the seven-day forecast. How would they know to prepare for such a cold snap? I didn’t really notice any of the usual indicators of a future weather change in the sky, like mackeral clouds. So it very well might be that someone might go to bed and let the fire go out, only to wake the next morning to find the house is really cold. What could a person do but take it in stride?
Sometimes I think we really over-react to impending bad weather, but then again, it is nice to be able to prepare for it–mentally as well as physically.
Recently, a woman who has read His Promise True was talking to me about the book, and she asked, “What is corn pone? Why are the characters always eating corn pone?” (In her defense, she’s a transplanted Yankee.)
I looked at that as a perfect opportunity to do some hands-on research into 19th-century life. I knew already that corn pone is a type of simple cornbread, made with only a few ingredients, which would have made it something people who were traveling would have been able to cook easily on the road. But I’d never actually seen or eaten corn pone, so I decided to make this my opportunity to do so. Continue reading
Earlier this week was the 194th anniversary of the first issue of the Arkansas Gazette, published by William Woodruff in Arkansas Post in 1819. I wanted to take a moment to mark the anniversary, since the Gazette has been such a bountiful source of information as I’ve worked on His Promise True. Continue reading