Gold Rush Medical Practices, Part 1: A Hazardous Journey to a Perilous Place

By Guest Contributor March 15, 2017 19:48

This is the first in a two-part series about medical care during the California Gold Rush, adapted by historian Sharon Marovich from the writings of longtime Tuolumne County Historian Carlo M. De Ferrari. Click here to read Part 2, “Doctors and Treatments of Every Description,” from our Summer 2017 issue.

In this 1855 work by artist and author Frank Marryat, Panamanian natives row canoes, called bungos, full of argonauts up the Chagres River portion of the Isthmus crossing. Many a fatal mosquito bite occurred on this 45-mile section.

Those lured by California’s gold fields in the mid-1850s faced en route a host of deadly hazards, including yellow fever, malaria, cholera, spotted fever, scurvy and dysentery. Once the travelers arrived, harsh conditions, violence and disease took a further toll in a place where medical care was primitive and sometimes subject to creative license.

By Carlo M. De Ferrari

The arrival of gold seekers in a few short months transformed California from a wilderness into a state verging on anarchy.

The practice of medicine was no exception.

Ninety-five percent of the ’49ers were men and 75 percent were under 30. Few women came to California before 1850.

The health of many of these adventurers began to deteriorate long before they reached California. Many left home in good shape but were desperately ill with such diseases as malaria, scurvy and cholera by the time they reached the gold fields.

The journey to California was very dangerous, and each of the three main routes had its own hazards. Some who followed the main overland trail across the continent suffered from cholera by the time they reached the Rockies. From that point on, many fell prey to Rocky Mountain spotted fever and scurvy.

Argonauts making the long voyage around Cape Horn often arrived with scurvy and were debilitated from the long months of inactivity and poor food while at sea.

The Panama route was the deadliest, plaguing gold seekers with yellow fever and malaria. Many were unaware they had contracted fevers until they were struck down aboard their ships to San Francisco. Not a few arrived at the Golden Gate just in time to be buried.

Those who survived the voyage often found little relief in the Mother Lode. They lived in brush shelters or canvas tents and commonly slept on the ground. They spent long hours in the hot sun up to their knees in cold water. This, combined with a monotonous diet of salt pork or beef and hard bread, as well as an almost complete lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, led to scurvy – almost an epidemic in the winter of 1849.

When the gold diggers did secure fresh beef or wild game to eat, it often brought on potentially fatal cases of dysentery.

Many men simply drank themselves to death. No matter how scarce food was, there was always a plentiful supply of cheap alcohol.

Additionally, insanity became such a severe problem that the state established an asylum at Stockton. So many foothill men were sent there that in 1854, Tuolumne County citizens petitioned the Legislature to establish a branch asylum here. This would be cheaper, they claimed, than transporting patients to Stockton.

From Miners and Business Men’s Directory, 1856

In 1848, when gold was discovered, there were only about 10 physicians in California. By 1850, with the Rush in full swing, an estimated 1,500 physicians – or those claiming to be – had swarmed in. Fewer than 200, however, held any proof of a formal medical education. Many had learned their profession by “reading medicine” with an established doctor, then striking out on their own.

The term “physician” then covered a wide variety of medical practitioners whose education ranged from absolutely none to several degrees from medical schools. Four general types of doctors were prevalent during the Gold Rush:

“Regulars” were trained in the standard medical and surgical procedures taught in recognized American and European institutions. They usually could provide diplomas as proof of training.

“Homeopaths” specialized in internal medicine and believed in small doses of medicine. If they didn’t cure their patients, some claimed, they at least caused them no harm.

“Eclectics” refused to conform to the teachings of any single medical school, but borrowed freely from each whatever procedures they believed would prove beneficial to their patients.

“Hydropaths” believed that all cures were based on the internal or external application of copious amounts of cold water. Their patients were often submerged in mountain streams and forced to drink huge amounts of water to flush out their systems. The famed Grizzly Adams was a firm believer in this type of treatment, which he used to clean wounds he sometimes suffered on hunting trips.

Little is known of the early physicians who practiced in Tuolumne County in 1848 and 1849, but among them was Dr. Richard Somerset Den, who was probably the most highly trained. He established his practice at Sullivan’s Diggins, about two miles south of Sonora, but his fees were so high that he alienated many miners. A poor reputation followed him for the remainder of his life.

His brother, Nicholas Den, was not a trained physician but had attended some medical classes in his native Ireland and on that basis maintained a lively practice among miners along the Stanislaus River.

A third man who called himself “Dr. Russell” had no training. He came to California on an American warship which he deserted in San Francisco – but not before stealing a large supply of medicine from its infirmary.

From Miners and Business Men’s Directory, 1856

A well-publicized incident in the annals of Gold Rush medicine involved a man who was severely injured in a mining accident that fractured his skull so severely that a portion of his brain was exposed. After examining the patient, one doctor told two colleagues to prepare a solution of hot vinegar and pepper to pour upon the exposed brain. When questioned, the doctor replied that his mother had always cured meat with such a solution and he thus thought it would preserve the patient’s brain as well.

Fortunately for that patient, the procedure was not carried out. Instead he was taken by wagon to San Francisco and by boat around Cape Horn to the East Coast. There a silver plate was implanted and he survived.

Treatment of bullet holes, knife wounds and mining injuries was part of every Gold Rush doctor’s repertoire, as was treating disease. Dysentery was a continuing problem. Other complaints were of a rheumatic nature, caused by sleeping on the cold ground and from constant exposure to the elements, especially cold water, while mining. Typhoid fever, smallpox and tuberculosis were also common.

Venereal diseases were widespread because of the large number of prostitutes who plied their trade throughout the mining camps. There was little that doctors could do except treat symptoms. Popular therapy included avoiding spicy food and alcohol. Often local physicians had their patients take steam baths.

Malarial fevers brought from the Panama route to the goldfields or fevers contracted during the overland journey were common. The only remedy that brought relief was quinine, which sometimes sold in the mines for as much as $100 per ounce. One writer from Murphys Camp reported “that one could hardly get through a fever for under one thousand dollars.”

Read Part 2 of De Ferrari’s article on Gold Rush medical practices in our Summer 2017 issue, available starting in mid-June at these locations.

Carlo M. De Ferrari

“Gold Rush Medical Practices” was adapted by local historian Sharon Marovich from never-before-published writings of longtime Tuolumne County Historian Carlo M. De Ferrari, who died in April 2017 at the age of 93. His life’s research is on file at the Sonora archive that bears his name.

This material is published with permission of Tuolumne Heritage Publications, Inc., a nonprofit that publishes history books to raise funds for the archive, which houses Tuolumne County’s official records dating back to 1849.

The Archive is at 490 Greenley Rd., behind the Tuolumne County Library, and is open to the public 8am-4:30pm each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Appointments are encouraged. Contact Andy Mattos, archive and records manager (209-536-1163,


By Guest Contributor March 15, 2017 19:48
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