A Number One Killer When Times Get Tough

July 14, 2015

Infectious Diseases

A Number One Killer When Times Get Tough

There is so much we can learn from our pioneer ancestors. I’m a history nut, I tend to say I was born a century too late and Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of my favorite people and era’s.

No matter what era we’re from, one of the most important things to our survival is water. We can go a lot longer than we think without food, but water is something we must have. However, not all water is life saving, in fact, sometimes it can be just the opposite.

The Oregon Trail was one of the largest immigration periods in the United States, especially from 1846 to 1869. Truth be told, as a child I romanticized the trip, but now with a bit more wisdom and age, I marvel at how many folks did survive that journey.

During the westward expansion, those traveling the Oregon Trail were hard hit with cholera, specifically the years of 1849 and 1850. It’s estimated that 20,000 people died on the 2,000 mile trip with cholera being one of the main killers.

A Number One Killer When Times Get Tough

Cholera is a bacterial disease of the intestines (specifically the bacteria Vibrio cholera). It results most commonly in extreme watery diarrhea, but other symptoms also include vomiting.

The diarrhea is usually large quantities of watery stool and has small pieces of white in it that resemble rice and has a distinct odor, sometimes described as fishy.  It causes extreme dehydration that many times led to shock and death, especially during the pioneer days when people were already weary from long months of hard travel, ill health, and often times, limited food. It was especially prevalent during the spring and early summer months.

Many accounts say if the person didn’t die within twenty four hours of showing symptoms, they usually recovered. Unfortunately, the only treatment option they had available was laudanum. Laudanum was used to treat a variety of things on the trail, including cholera, dysentery, and diarrhea. Laudanum was actually straight opium in liquid form and given to children and adults alike. It was freely acquired and at times, highly abused.

Cholera is usually picked up from a contaminated water source, but it can also be contracted by eating raw food, specifically raw shellfish. (This is an excellent article on cholera facts for heavier reading)

Once exposed to cholera, most people show symptoms anywhere from a few hours up to 5 days. It especially hit infants and small children hard. According to some accounts, some people would be fine in the morning and dead by evening or sooner, others would linger for weeks. The Oregon Trail was littered with graves and many of these were from cholera.

A Number One Killer When Times Get Tough

Watering holes and sources were used by thousands of people and animals on the trail. This made the disease spread rapidly and also infected the water and other watering sources by those traveling on ahead who had contracted the bacteria and didn’t know it yet. As you can imagine, when an entire wagon train of horses, oxen, cattle, and people camped near a water source, it would become sullied quite quickly and wash down stream. Because people didn’t know about bacteria and as much about proper sanitation, they would drink straight from rivers, creeks, and ponds without a thought or safety measures we now take today.

If you have livestock and pets, make sure you don’t keep them penned or tied near your drinking water so their feces don’t contaminate it. Same goes for yourself. A hole in the ground will work if you don’t have any other bathrooms. Keep it covered as flies landing on poo can then carry it to other sources.

Though cholera isn’t something we worry about here in the States and developed countries, it still rears its head in third world countries. The earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 resulted in a cholera outbreak that infected over 470,000 people with a reported 6,631 deaths (facts from the CDC and full article here)

There are several scenarios that could result in cholera outbreaks. The most obvious scenario would be a natural disaster. Like the above account with the earthquake, there’s also hurricanes, tsunami, and flooding. Flood waters are known to carry a ton of bacteria and if severe, can take out roads, parts of town, and homes.

We’ve had two mudslides in our area, one resulted in no power for almost two weeks, the other and more recent one from last year, took out close to 40 homes, deaths, and took out the main highway for a couple of weeks. Our water wasn’t effected during these, but it easily could have been.

Another scenario would be a power grid down situation. Without power private wells won’t run (like ours) and many city water systems will fail. Also, sewage facilities not working properly can have a huge effect on the sanitation of dwellings and water supplies.

The power grid collapse could come from a natural disaster or other means. Either way, if it does go down, we’d need to make sure we have safe drinkable water in order to avoid diseases like cholera.

If you develop cholera today, treatment is fluids, often by IV for severe cases, electrolytes, and sometimes antibiotic treatment for more serious bouts as well.

Of course, prevention is the best treatment, especially in a grid-down or natural disaster situation.

Water can be made safe to drink by pasteurization or boiling the water at a full boil for 1 minute. You can also treat water with household bleach by adding 8 drops to to a gallon of water and letting it sit for a half hour before drinking. However, if you don’t have any electricity, you might have a hard time pasteurizing or boiling your water. Also remember that household chlorine bleach has a shelf life of only about 9 months from the time of purchase.

A Number One Killer When Times Get Tough

You can pasteurize water with a water filter. You’ll want to make sure the filter specifies how much bacteria it filters and how often it needs to be replaced or how many gallons of water it can safely filter.

You can also purify your water without a filter using distillation.

Another option is to pasteurize your water with a solar oven. This is dependent upon your weather being clear and sunny, so I would have this as my back up method.

Make sure you use clean water not just for drinking, but for all your food preparation. This means using treated water and soap for cleaning up areas and not cross-contaminating food prep areas. You also need to make sure your food is cleaned with safe water and a mild detergent for items you’ll be eating raw like vegetables or fruit that could have been tainted. Or better yet, clean and then cook the items.

You also want to make sure you’re using clean or treated water for brushing your teeth, washing your face and hands, and any eating utensils.

Even if our modern systems fail, we can still have safe drinking water and avoid water born bacteria, like cholera, by knowing proper water sanitizing techniques and protocol.

The second most important thing after safe drinking water is a good food supply. Using the techniques the pioneers used is how we restock our pantry ever year and you can, too! Learn how to use dehydrating, canning, salt curing, root cellar, fermenting, and alcohol to preserve food at home in this FREE Ultimate Home Food Preservation Guide. 


About Melissa

Melissa inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her Pioneering Today column and podcast. She shares old-fashioned traditions and skills with preserving the harvest, heirloom gardening, raising livestock, and from scratch cooking. Grab her FREE Ultimate Home Food Preservation Guide at http://melissaknorris.com/freebies

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