Pioneers sought ‘healthy’ places to live, writings reveal

As the 200th anniversary of Lewis & Clark’s expedition to explore the uncharted West nears, the University’s Conevery Bolton Valencius is saying that, until now, she and other historians had missed something important in researching the writings of America’s early 19th-century settlers and travelers.

And what she realized was overlooked for so long could provide an example for us today.

Conevery Bolton Valencius
Conevery Bolton Valencius

Poring over stacks of yellowed, aging letters and other documents from the 19th century while researching American western expansion, Valencius, Ph.D., assistant professor of history in Arts & Sciences, noted a common theme. Assessments of the “sickliness” or “health” of land pervade settlers’ letters, journals, newspapers and literature from that time.

Valencius said that the numerous references throughout 19th-century writings to “healthy country,” “sickly” countryside or “salubrious” valleys reveal the importance settlers placed on the connections between their bodies and their land.

One of the main criteria for choosing where to farm and where to raise a family for the early settlers was whether the area would be a healthy place to live.

“Land was believed to have intrinsic health characteristics, and the human body was understood to be linked in intimate and intricate ways with similar balances in the surrounding world,” Valencius said.

In her recent book The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land, Valencius wrote, “Good or bad, harmful or improving, terrain possessed health in the same language and for the same reasons that human beings did.”

Valencius won the 2003 George Perkins Marsh Prize for best book in environmental history for Health of the Country from the American Society for Environmental History. Her doctoral thesis, upon which the book is based, won the prestigious Allan Nevins Prize in 1999, awarded by the Society of American Historians for the best-written dissertation in American history.

Settling questions

“Lewis and Clark and Americans of their time moving westward brought with them a whole set of ways of understanding their environments that I think are utterly foreign to us today,” Valencius said. “They asked of every place they encountered or considered settling, ‘How is this land going to affect my body?’ ‘What will this new environment do to my health?’

“I don’t think — given the growth of Denver and Los Angeles as examples — that people today facing a move to another city or state consider the physical environment as much as a factor in their decision to move as they do the social environment. ‘Is it a big city or a Podunk town? Is it near people I know? Is there a job for me there? Does it offer the cultural institutions and activities that I want?'”

Few of us, she argued, would think about air, water or soil quality before deciding on where to buy a house. But for early settlers — in the days before germ theory and antibiotics, before air conditioning, before chlorinated water — a primary concern was to save themselves from painful, disabling or fatal ailments. And that meant carefully choosing where to establish their homesteads.

“People would try to go to places that were reputed to be healthy, and those were usually high on a hill, away from swampy land, places with fresh breezes and good sources of water — not stagnant water,” Valencius said.

“We would now say, ‘Yup. Those people were onto something.’ Anopheles mosquitoes in the 19th century carried malaria. Those mosquitoes tend to stay within about a mile of where they hatch. So if you get more than about a mile from stagnant water, you have much less chance of getting malaria. It was not at all conceptualized in that way, but people experienced the fact that going to high ground was much safer for them than low ground by rivers.

“Of course, anyone who has farmed knows that river bottomland is the most fertile stuff around,” Valencius continued. “So there was this tension between where a free family would want to be healthy versus where they would want to work. Many free people resolved this tension by settling their families upwind and sending their slaves to work in the unhealthy river bottoms.”

Through their own words

Valencius focused research for her book on the Arkansas and Missouri territories from the time of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and Lewis & Clark’s exploration of America’s new land to the start of the Civil War in 1861.

Through the words of the settlers themselves, gleaned from private letters and diaries, newspapers, physician reports, adventure stories, ex-slave testimonies and travel guides, she addressed their central fear.

Describing a “shared geography of well-being” among the diverse settlers, Valencius recounted in her book: “One Virginia farmer, Thomas Humphreys, who moved to St. Louis in 1835, recorded in his diary that he had decided not to offer a bid on one available plot ‘owing to the bad health of the place.’

“The Irish immigrant Anthony Doyle, writing in 1819 to his brother in Carrick, expressed similar concerns, commenting, ‘I will in the course of this season go out to enter 320 acres of land in some healthy place where there is good land.’

“The very terseness of many such brief references to ‘sickly’ or ‘salubrious’ land speaks for a shared set of assumptions and beliefs. Women also contributed to this geography of health: Cynthia Thrall, a missionary to the Cherokees in the 1820s, approved of a proposed mission site because it was ‘said to be healthy.'”

Frontier people blamed ailments and diseases from boils and constipation to malaria and tuberculosis on a number of environmental factors, including “sickly and variable” temperature changes, “bad waters,” foul odor, “unhealthy fog,” “sickly wind,” “sluggish stream,” flooding and uncultivated soil.

Doctors and healers used techniques and tools dating to the medieval era to try to stabilize patients’ bodies, including lancets to “let” blood, alcohol and other stimulants, botanical and chemical compounds, hot baths and poultices, and caustic substances to disrupt the skin.

Americans who moved into the Mississippi Valley, particularly those from the New England states, felt that this part of the country had incredibly abrupt seasonal shifts that they believed to be “violently unhealthy,” according to Valencius.

“They felt they had to bleed themselves much more,” Valencius said. “They would bleed the body because of the changing forces within the human form brought about by the miserable heat and humidity in the summers.”

Valencius says that she is interested in looking at medicine of the past “to help us see different things about medicine today.”

“Medical orthodoxy today is that we focus on organisms and on cellular systems, on microbial interactions, on molecular interactions, on genetics,” she said. “It runs all very much internal to the body, and only in a few ways does modern medicine really address environment.

“We have regulations about occupational safety and health, for instance, and we know about the dangers of radiation and toxic chemicals. We are starting to understand how even factors like chronic noise can make a difference in people’s health.

“I think people of the 19th century, for all that their medicine was bizarre and foreign to us — using lancets and leeches to ‘let’ blood and strapping onions to their feet — I think that they were onto something. I think they were saying that how people feel and how their bodies work are intimately connected to the surroundings that they are in, and that’s an insight some in modern medicine are just now coming back to.

She cited sick-building syndrome as an example: “You have office workers saying, ‘I come home every day from work with a headache. This is not me; this is my job. It is somehow making me unhealthy.’

“The health of office workplaces is not a safely settled dispute,” Valencius continued. “It is very much up for debate right now. ‘What is going on, if anything? How do we trace it? How do we diagnose it? What is worker dissatisfaction, and what is pathology?’

“And for people who suffer from allergies and chemical sensitivity, how much can be attributed to polluted air or water? If there’s a paper plant nearby and stinky winds blow from that direction, that does profoundly affect our day. Do you live near a dead creek or do you live near a pretty babbling brook in some subdivision, never mind the fact that a bunch of people’s septic tanks have outlets that empty directly into that creek?

“I think that paying attention to the way people in the past asked very similar questions of their environment and understood their bodies and their land can help prompt us to see that yes, these are in fact useful ways of examining all interactions with our environments.”

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