A Hot Bed of Disease and Death, Anson G. Henry Physician at Grand Ronde

In 1857, Doctor Anson G. Henry wrote a report on the health conditions at Grand Ronde. A few days before he had written another report, a table of the disease and death counts for the reservation for the past three months, (October-December 1856). His account is perhaps the most detailed of the health reports of the early reservations in Oregon.

Henry was a great long-term personal friend to President Lincoln who helped him gain appointments in the Washington Territory. In 1852 Henry came on the Oregon Trail with his wife and five children to settle in Lafayette Oregon. Henry set up his physician’s business but was disappointed when he was unsuccessful. He signed onto the Oregon Volunteer militia and served in the Commissary during the Rogue River Indian Wars. He reportedly favored the extermination of the Indians. Then in 1856, he gained an appointment as a physician at the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation which paid $2,000 a year, better than he could make as a farmer.

This first year had to be extremely stressful as he had to set up the Hospital and attend to some 2500 Indians who were extremely ill, many with wartime injuries, and many others with issues of exposure and newly introduced diseases. Henry arrived at the reservation in August and presents additional information from May 1856, about disease conditions of the Umpqua tribe, a few months after they arrive. This is the image Henry presents in his illustrative letter of January 1857.

Grand Ronde Agency Hospital

January 5, 1857

On taking charge of this department the latter part of August last, I found that very little preparation had been made for the comfort or successful treatment of the large number of naked diseased Indians, who had been collected together suddenly from all parts of the territory. I found them sick & dying under circumstances which appealed most strongly to the sympathies of the human heart. I was instructed by you to make requisitions upon your office for such things as I deemed necessary for the proper, organization of the Hospital Department. I made those requisitions with as much regard to economy as was consistent with objects contemplated; and I think your own personal observation has satisfied you that I could not have done with less.

The great proportion of the sick remain in camp, where it is extremely difficult to treat them successfully. We find them most generally destitute of every necessity often suffering extremely for want of sufficient covering, and in such cases we could not refrain from loaning them a blanket. Some have been returned, others have been buried with their dead.

We have also been in the habit of distributing to the sick in camp sugar, tea, rice, crackers, and in extreme cases chicken. The quantity consumed of those articles, will not, I think, be regarded as unreasonable.

As a sanitary measure aside from the influence cleanliness has upon civilization; I have used every effort to induce them to use soap; and my only regret is, that I have not expended double the quantity I have. If we can’t teach them cleanliness, we can do but little towards their moral and physical improvement.

The most of the patients came into Hospital naked or, “clothed in filthy rags.” We are obliged to clean them and cover their nakedness. The latter we have done by making shirts of common domestic; and sacks of calico or lintsy. To send them out naked after curing them of Pneumonia or other lung disease, would either cost them their lives, or return them to the Hospital worse than at first.

It is not to be disguised that the Southern Indians are suffering very severely from change of climate, food, etc. and let the Government do every thing possible for their health and comfort; from present indications, there will be but few adults left at the end of three or four years.

The Indians from the Willamette Valley enjoy comparatively good health, their principal disease being venereal & its consequences; and so long as they are allowed unconstrained intercourse with licentious and unprincipled whites; the disease cannot be eradicated, and all effort to improve their moral & physical condition, will prove unavailing.

In my opinion the Indians of Oregon are as susceptible of a high degree of civilization as were the Cherokees & Chickisaws. It is known that there were comparatively few whites living in their vicinity to counteract the influence of the benevolent Brainard & his associates.

In my judgement there is but little to be hoped for in the moral and physical improvement of the great mass of the Indians on the reservation under existing circumstances; but much can be done, more especially with the rising generation, provided they are cut off from vicious associations, and brought under proper moral education.

The Indians generally have strong prejudice against the “Sick House” (Hospital), and their own doctors use every effort to excite prejudice against the “Boston Doctors”, and keep them away from Hospital. This involves a large amount of extra labour upon the Resident Physician which would have been impossible for me to have properly discharged, without the assistance of Mr. Samuel Howard, who has performed the duty of Assistant Physician, in addition to that of Hospital Steward. He is a very safe and judicious practitioner, a good interpreter, and competent to discharge the double duty of Assistant Physician and Steward. I would urge the propriety of allowing him a reasonable salary per anum, for the service performed.

I learned from an Army Officer, that the “Regulation of the Hospital Department of the Regular Army,” allows to a Hospital where five or more companies are stationed- one steward & ward master, one cook, two matrons and four nurses. It will not be questioned that a Hospital for the accommodation of an encampment of two thousand destitute sickly Indians would necessarily involve a much larger amount of labor and expenditures and yet it will be seen that we have but one steward, one cook, one matron, and two nurses- Three less than are allowed for four or five hundred strong healthy men. I anticipate that we will not to regarded as extravagant in our Hospital Employment.

Indians are worth comparatively nothing as nurses and cooks; hence the necessity of employing whites with the one exception (and he is mainly employee in keeping up fires.)

The prices paid are less than paid on the agency for common white labor. I would suggest the propriety of applying the regulations of the “Medical Department of the United States Army” as far as they are applicable in regulating this Hospital. If this course is adopted, I shall expect to be furnished with a copy of regulations. If I receive no instructions, I shall continue the course adopted for the last quarter.

I called your attention my monthly report for December to the importance of adopting sanitary measures for guarding against an epidemic Camp Distemper (Bloody Flux) such as prevailed here last spring among the Umpquas, and which proved so destructive to life. The same causes which produced it them exists now in greater power, and if not counteracted by a timely resort to proper sanitary measures, I anticipate the most disastrous consequences.

It must be born in mind that the entire subsistence of the Indians heretofore has been made up of a variety of wild game, fish, fruits and vegetables. Their mode of living has been suddenly and radically changed together with climate, habits & associations. They have already felt the effect of this change very sensibly, especially the Southern Indians. It was not in their power to provide themselves with wild meats, berries and with vegetables in the shape of roots, which are found in abundance south, The few berries and nuts they were able to gather were consumed during the season of them; consequently from October until the opening of Spring, they will subsist entirely upon fish, beef and flour. Some few of the more provident and enterprising among them secured more or less fruit, vegetables, etc, but the great mass of them live exclusively on the ration of flour and beef furnished them by Government.

The long rainy season in this part of Oregon, compared with the Rogue River country, provides their accustomed exercise, and performing their usual ablations. Living on grass and to their unnatural food; becoming filthy in their persons, and in and about their houses; the first few warm days of Spring will be likely to convert the entire reservation into a hot bed of disease and death.

The large number of cases of Typhoid Disease in their quarters, as shown by my report for December fully justifies my apprehensions of the future, unless the appropriate remedies are applied speedily.

In a letter transmitted with my report for October, I called your attention to my apparently large expenditure of Spirits. I then said , and now repeat, that a large number who apply for medicine are suffering mainly from mental depression. In such cases we give them a little Gentian or other bitters to be taken for three, or four days, and all is well. We also prepare our Tinctures of Laudanam, Camphor, Paragoric, Capsicum, Gentian, Rhubarb, etc, of which we use a large quantity, avoiding the use of Mercurial preparations as much as possible.

As written in the report

After the intimations given on your letter of the 10th ultimo, I shall not feel at liberty to incur a single dollars expenditure, over and above what is required for the use of the sick in Hospital, and the necessary expenditure of Medicines or the sick in camp, without specific instructions from you, or the agent in charge.

Very Respectfully, Your Obedt. Sevt.

A.G. Henry M.D., Resident Physician

(To A. F. Hedges, Sup. Ind. Affairs)

This remarkable report suggests a number of new understandings of the health of the tribes. The Federal government was completely unprepared to adequately care for the health of the tribes. The tribes were completely traumatized and the medications and care they were given were bandages to their actual illnesses. Care for mental health was completely inadequate and at this time there really was not a good understanding of mental health, so its likely they could not be helped at all, but since their nutrition and constitutions were compromised so completely, there would be much difficulty of the Native peoples getting through their mental health issues on their own.

Henry is surprisingly aware of the nutrition and environmental issues and how these may play a part in the overall health of the people he is serving. He describes well that the Rogue River peoples are having a tougher time because of the change in their environment, then notes that the extreme change in their diets are a favor as well. He does not go into specifics about many disease issues, but I suspect, that the Rogue River peoples were sicker because of new exposure to diseases, and being in a new wetter environment, and being in close association with new peoples, much more densely packed on the reservation than in their traditional lands. The Willamette valley tribes had been exposed for a few decades to many of the illnesses, so for them, this was not as much a factor. Then, as I suspected previously, illnesses of the lungs were a serious factor, flus and pneumonias, primary and secondary illnesses that would kill older people, and those already compromised from other illnesses.

The following is the report from January 1, 1957, of the illnesses of the previous month. The last two columns are death counts, with 57 died in the last reporting period (probably the last month. The highest counts are the sickness rates and death rates in the Camp, the others are in the Hospital for the reasons reported by Henry, that the tribes distrusted the hospital and American medicine. This means that with over 1500 sick in camp and at the hospital, more than half of the 2500 natives were sick at Grand Ronde, a startling number. Then in the right column there is reported 1950 treated in the camp and 215 in the Hospital, this suggests at least two thirds 2/3 of the whole population was sick, truly an emergency situation for anyone looking at it. And, there is only one doctor, and with the hospital under-manned, the lack of care, and attention, to this problem is nothing short of criminal.

2 thoughts on “A Hot Bed of Disease and Death, Anson G. Henry Physician at Grand Ronde

  1. Thank you for posting this, David. I am struck by his comment on mental health. The horrors and demoralization of this period is something I ask my students to imagine, but I haven’t seen anyone articulate it like this.

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