Gold Rush Medicine

Say you’re a young miner, come to Bidwell’s Bar to dig for gold in 1849. You are generally a strong and healthy young man, but the work is hard and your meals are not exactly mom’s home cooking. Beef and beans and biscuits are your daily fare; sometimes you have rice with molasses, or rancid butter or cheese. You drink tea or coffee, when you can get it, with a little sugar. Dried apples, stewed up into applesauce, make a treat.

Alonzo J. Doolittle. Courtesy of Bancroft Library

What’s missing from this diet? Fresh fruits and vegetables. Potatoes, onions, cabbage, and carrots are expensive and rarely seen. You have managed to ward off scurvy though, because you bought a jar of pickles at Bidwell’s Store.

What if you get sick or injured? Is there a doctor in the camp? There may well be, although his training and credentials might be sketchy. But he can bandage a wound or set a broken bone, so you are glad to know that he is on hand in case of accident.

If you are sick, the available treatments are limited. If you came to California on the Panama route, you might have picked up a case of malaria. A dose of quinine will help. Quinine was available and used to treat all kinds of chills and fevers in addition to malaria.

Other medicines you could buy at Bidwell’s Store were:

Seidlitz powders. This was a best-selling digestive treatment. The packet contained tartaric acid, potassium sodium tartrate, and bicarbonate of soda, which fizzed when mixed together in a glass of water. It was good for evacuating the bowels.

Brandreth pills. A purgative that was said to cure many ills. It contained sarsaparilla and other herbs, and would do a powerful job of cleaning out your digestive tract.

Bitters. A herbal remedy that was supposed to aid digestion. Ingredients varied; quinine, which has a strongly bitter flavor, was often included.

Ipecacuanha. An emetic. It would make you throw up. If you are old enough, you may have kept syrup of ipecac in the medicine chest in case your child ingested something they should not have.

Laudanum. An alcoholic tincture of opium, the favorite medicine of the Victorian era. It doesn’t show up in the Bidwell Store ledger, but on a shopping trip to Sacramento on 6 July 1849, Bidwell bought a vial of laudanum for $1.00 from Dr. A.J. Ward.

He also stocked up on Seidlitz powders, Brandreth’s pills, bicarbonate of soda, spirits nitre, castor oil, olive oil, lime juice, and a half-pound licorice ball. According to Bancroft’s Pioneer Register, Dr. Ward was a physician at Sutter’s Fort in 1847-48.

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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3 Responses to Gold Rush Medicine

  1. Charles Smay says:

    Great to know what was available at Bidwell’s Store and what medicine was to cure. I recall reading that during this time it took more formal schooling to become a Preacher than to declare yourself a Doctor, after perhaps working with someone else that had about the same level of training. Good thing most of the miners were young and strong. If the poor food didn’t kill you there were plenaty of mining related injuries to require a visit to or by the local Doctor.

  2. John Gallardo says:

    WOW! So glad to live in this day and age of good medical care!

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