Scurvy at Bidwell’s Bar


Painting of Bidwell’s Bar around 1854, painting attributed to Henry Rust Mighels. California State Library.

After Edward McIlhany got back to camp at Bidwell’s Bar at the end of that rainy November in 1849, he came down with a case of scurvy.


The doctor said it was caused from eating so much salt bacon on the Plains and getting wet that brought the disease out on me.

A diet consisting primarily of salt bacon, along with beans and biscuit, certainly would conduce to a case of scurvy. Doctors didn’t know that scurvy was caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, but they did know that a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables could bring it on.

McIlhany spent the winter months lying weakly in his tent. His companions “were making money all the time” digging gold, and they shared with Ed just as if he were working. The doctor, who charged an ounce of gold ($16) per visit, advised him to eat provisions such as “stewed dried apples, pickles, and acids” but the boys had run out of those commodities.

One pretty morning I felt better, got a stick, and I walked down the bank of the river not far from where all the stores were, and went to a stand kept by an old woman. I asked her if she had any dried apples to sell. She said no. She put her dried apples into pies to sell. I asked her the price of her pies and she told me two dollars. I stood there and ate the apples out and threw the crust away.

I then walked down to another store and looked up on the shelves and saw some bottles of pickles. They looked good so I selected a small bottle of cucumbers. They handed me the bottle. I examined it, asked them the price, they said $8.00. It was a half pint [one cup]. The pie and the half pint of pickles cost me $10.00. I returned to camp and when the boys came in from work I told them of my experience in going down to the store. They were delighted to see me out and were amused at my experience of buying fruit and pickles.

Ed McIlhany does not say any more about the scurvy or his recovery, but if he and his friends were smart, they would have gone looking for miner’s lettuce to add to their diet in the spring. It is an early and delicious green, something like spinach in texture. It certainly must have been a welcome addition to the miners’ limited diet.


About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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