Trail Medicine

Fighting infection and contagious diseases

The state of frontier medicine was not highly developed and, as a result, infection and contagious diseases were very difficult to combat. The low levels or absence of anesthetics to control shock, together with the threat of infection, made amputation as a treatment only modestly preferable to outright execution!

Of course, a number survived frontier surgery or amputation, primitive though it may have been. After all, Marcus Whitman successfully removed a Blackfeet arrowhead from Jim Bridger’s back at the Rendezvous of 1835. Although his diseased leg eventually caused his death, Milton Sublette also underwent several successive amputations of portions of his leg.

In the process of stabilizing the ruins of the Fort Laramie Post Hospital, excavation was undertaken, resulting in the discovery of an older post cemetery on the same site. The juxtaposition of the cemetery and the hospital led, in the ensuing years, to numerous comments about the relative effectiveness of frontier medicine!

Not only whites are buried at Fort Laramie. In 1866, a cross-cultural funeral service of a type most unusual for the time was held. The Brule band of the Teton Dakota frequented the area around Fort Laramie, and the teen-aged daughter of their chief, Spotted Tail, was reportedly entranced with the pageantry and pomp of the military. She was a familiar sight as she watched the soldiers drill on the parade ground; some have subsequently suggested that she became enamored of a soldier. Be that as it may, when she went with her father and her people to their traditional wintering ground in the Powder River country, the extremes of climate proved too much for her frail constitution. Her dying wish, expressed to her father, was that she be buried at the soldier place on the banks of the Laramie.

Spotted Tail sent such a request to the post commander, Colonel Henry Maynadier. The Colonel not only responded affirmatively, he also arranged for a Christian burial presided over by the post chaplain.

At sunset the girl’s body was borne to its final resting place – a scaffold constructed perhaps half a mile north of the parade ground. A lengthy prayer by the chaplain had a pronounced effect on the many officers and soldiers present; its impact was noted a second time upon the large gathering from Spotted Tail’s band when the prayer was translated into Lakota.

And so it came about that white and red warriors alike paid a formal and final tribute to a young girl who had loved the ways of both.