Editor’s Note: This is the first of three columns.
When you hear people talking about the good old days you might just wonder how good were the old days. What was it like in the old days on the frontier?
Life on the frontier was difficult in so many ways. Not only was there the danger of wild animals and Indians, but most people seldom had a proper diet, they lived in a primitive cold dwelling in the winter and hot stuffy rooms in the summer. Then there were always the dust storms that could send clouds of dust into the home.
One of the biggest problems was hygiene. People went for long periods without bathing, which resulted in a variety of skin diseases due to the accumulation of sweat and dust.
Many of the settlers, both men and women, went for months without proper bathing. The Western movies often depicted men and women in white shirts and lace. This was not the true picture. Men going on long cattle drives might go for months with little opportunity to bathe and many had no change of clothes.
On the cattle drives, the chuck wagon cook’s normal day started before the cowhands climbed out of their bedrolls. Getting up about three in the morning, he started by grinding roasted coffee beans to make coffee in a three gallon coffee pot. He would make biscuits, fry some bacon and make flapjacks. All accomplished without washing his hands because of the scarcity of water. The dishes were scrubbed with dirt and grass, then put away for the next meal.
The cowboy often smelled like his horse due to the animal’s sweat soaking into the man’s clothing. They seldom changed their socks, if they owned any, which led to foot rot, the fungal infection today known as athlete’s foot disease. They slept in dusty, dirty, sometimes wet blankets, which provided a perfect environment for bacteria, fleas, lice, fungus and other parasites infecting the head and body.
It may be surprising, but the American Indians were “flabbergasted” to see the hygiene of the new immigrants. The Indian camps were always near a water source and in many ways they were cleaner than the settlers and most washed regularly.
When the wagon trains were moving west, they traveled for months across the plains, creating massive clouds of dust that turned into a nightmare for those following in the trail. Then they had to go to sleep after walking 10 or 12 miles each day in the dust. When they stopped for the night, the settler’s faces were completely covered with dust, so much that the only thing that could be seen was their eyes, nose and mouth. Precious water could not be used for bathing or even washing their faces. Finding water was not always easy and sometimes the water was contaminated. Stagnant water attracted flies and other insects that would leave waste and excrement in the water.
Fleas were the carrier of the Bubonic plague, also called the Black Death, which was a form of pneumonia that swept Europe and Asia. The plague would often kill within 24 hours and killed more than 200 million people. On the frontier, bands of Indian tribes were wiped out and thousands of Mormons died in Utah from the highly contagious cholera, which was spread through contaminated food and water.
Because of these circumstances, the cowboy was at risk for a number of medical problems. In arid areas, to preserve water, the people would not wash dishes and would often use the bathwater for washing clothes. Some collected water in cisterns, which collected dust, mosquitoes and mosquito excretion.
Often entire families would use the same tub of water to bathe, which was sometimes only a weekly occurrence. Bathing in the winter also presented the risk of hypothermia and pneumonia. There was also the idea that body odor was considered a natural part of life and some believed too much cleanliness opened the pores of the skin to germs.
To be continued ...
Floyd McKee is a native of Seguin. He is a retired Air Force Colonel and eight of his ancestors were among the 33 Rangers that organized and developed Walnut Springs and Seguin.