TRAVELING THROUGH America’s frontier regions and on her waters was an experience some living during the era wrote about. Sometimes the most beautiful places, like a swamp, were also the most the dangerous. River travel, too, was perilous and oftentimes strangers traveled together, a situation that could be both uncomfortable and unsettling. (Concordia Sentinel photo)  

 Travel by river or on horseback in frontier America was always challenging, but one of the most hazardous modes was on a flatboat. Oftentimes strangers would journey together to share the workload and for companionship.  

The leaders of the Ouachita River Expedition of 1804-05 were no strangers to frontier challenges. Each had previously survived long journeys into the wilderness regions of America and often depended on river travel.  

In 1771 at the age of 21, William Dunbar had left his native Scotland for a two-month voyage to Philadelphia. On arrival, he looked up merchant and land speculator John Ross, a fellow Scotsman, and his son, Alexander, and soon developed a lifelong business relationship with them.  

Dunbar spent two years in the hinterlands west of Pittsburgh where he traded with Indians. When he emerged back into civilization he collected enough money with his furs to move to Louisiana and later Natchez where he operated plantations. He became so familiar with Indian sign language that he later wrote about it in a letter to President Jefferson who had it published in “Transactions of the Philosophical Society of America in 1804,” the year of the Ouachita exploration.  

His co-leader on the exploration of the Ouachita River following the Louisiana Purchase had much wilderness experience too. He had first arrived in Natchez in 1804 after a long journey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.  

Fortunately, George Hunter, also a native of Scotland, kept a journal of his travels.  

Hunter’s biographer, John Francis McDermott, wrote that Hunter’s journal accounts address the difficulties of frontier travel: “The building of a flatboat to carry one down the western rivers for a thousand or two thousand miles, the rough experience of riding across the Indiana-Illinois prairies over an unmarked road through grass that often waved two or three feet above one’s head, the difficulties of navigating a shallow stream like the Ouachita, the reports on inns and innkeepers, the views of the towns add to our knowledge of life on the road at the beginning of the nineteenth century.”  


During a trip through Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois during the summer of 1796, Hunter, traveling with others, wrote in detail about the hardships and dangers of wilderness survival.  

In mid-August, while moving on horseback along the Blue River in Indiana, the men came upon an abandoned Indian encampment where they made cradles out of large pieces of bark, covered themselves with their blankets during a thunderstorm and slept until midnight when the rain stopped. Then they kindled a fire and cooked a wild turkey and raccoon killed earlier in the day, which made, Hunter wrote, “an excellent supper.”  

The next morning “Horse Flies as large as the biggest bumble bees were so thick biting our Horses that they could not eat.” Later, traveling at night and out of drinking water, the men lost their way in high weeds and brush. Exhausted, they unsaddled the horses and attempted to sleep. Hunter complained that despite the heat he had to wrap up in a blanket to insulate himself from swarming mosquitoes. When he finally dosed off, he dreamed of cool water.  

Four hours before dawn he arose, but couldn’t see the horses even in the light of a full moon. He called for his – Dobbins – but she didn’t respond as usual. Hunter began to search, plucking grass as he walked and sucking the dew off the blades until the “roughness cut the skin off my lips.”  An hour later he saw one of the missing horses feeding and “Dobbin laying down by him asleep.”  

Traveling 10 miles after daylight, the men quenched their thirsts from a stagnant puddle before filling their canteens. From then on, they didn’t pass any body of water – even the filthiest mud hole -- without drinking “largely … the dread of wanting water had left such an impression on our minds.”  

Near the Indiana settlement of Vincennes, they visited with an Indian sitting with his wife and child before his kitchen fire. Hunter wrote that the woman “has a piece of her nose about ¾ inch long cut off by this very husband now sitting peaceably by her side.”  

The husband had committed the assault in a fit of jealousy: She had cheated on him for a second time. Afterward, the woman shaped a piece “of tar” to “make out the nose.” In the first case of her infidelity, the husband had given her “a sound drubbing.” If a third offense occurred, she would either be killed or thrown out of the house.  

The chief of the settlement, an old man, had three wives. When two got into an argument, one stabbed the other to death. The husband “took no notice of it.” A few years later, the deceased wife’s daughter stabbed her mother’s killer in revenge. Yet, Hunter wrote, the daughter continued to live in her father’s house as if nothing had happened.  


In early September, traveling through Illinois country on the opposite side of the Mississippi from St. Louis, an armed man came upon Hunter’s party. He “appeared to be by colour half French, half Indian; his language was a french Jargon scarcely intelligible. As soon as he saw us he turned from us & gave a loud Yell, which he repeated several times … as it seemed strange behavior, we immediately collected our horses” and set off.  

The man set “out after us, now & then giving a Yell so shrill that it might be heard a mile thro the woods … we soon lost sight of him; we afterwards heard that there was a gang of horse thieves that … infested that part … to avoid being followed & overtaken we rode on always for three hours after night before we went to sleep.”  

The defensive action may have saved the lives of Hunter and his fellow travelers. At that time in the American west, violent thieves and murderers like the Harpe brothers and Sam Mason were terrorizing travelers along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and along the Natchez Trace.  


In addition to his business and land interests, Hunter – who served as a surgeon on the American side during the Revolutionary War – also took on the responsibility of doctoring the crew on the Ouachita journey.  

Two of the most common treatments of the day involved bloodletting and laxatives. Bloodletting was a practice in which a doctor withdrew blood from the patient to treat an illness or to cure it. William Dunbar often received the treatment.  

Basically, the technique involved cutting a vein with certain medical tools of the day.  

According to the British Columbia Medical Journal, “Bloodletting was divided into a generalized method done by venesection and arteriotomy, and a localized method done by scarification with cupping and leeches. Venesection was the most common procedure and usually involved the median cubital vein at the elbow, but many different veins could be used. The main instruments for this technique were called lancets and fleams.”  

The journal also notes: “The practice of bloodletting began around 3000 years ago with the Egyptians, then continued with the Greeks and Romans, the Arabs and Asians, then spread through Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It reached its peak in Europe in the 19th century but subsequently declined and today in Western medicine is used only for a few select conditions.”  

Another common treatment of the day was the use of Glauber’s salt, a strong laxative. Doctors seemed to feel that the sure way to health was to drain the bowels and drain the blood. Miraculously, many people survived these treatments, but some died.  


On the trip down the Mississippi to Natchez in 1804 aboard the newly built keelboat Hunter had commissioned in Pittsburgh for the Ouachita River expedition, a Swiss shoemaker became seriously ill. The man, along with Hunter and his 13-year-old son George Jr., were the only three aboard the vessel. Hunter wrote in his journal (The Western Journals of Dr. George Hunter 1796-1804 by John Francis McDermott) that “our crew being now reduced to three, one of whom the Swiss being sick, & all of us much fatigued with rowing, want of rest & want of regular & good meals, & above all continually pestered by Mosquetoes.”  

On July 18, Hunter gave the man “a dose of salts,” but the following day his fever increased so the man “consented to be bled.” Hunter drew “thick dark colored” blood from the man’s arm, and fed him gruel and vegetables.  

With the Swiss now so ill he couldn’t assist with the boat duties, Hunter and his son had to do it all and as they neared the Walnut Hills (Vicksburg, Miss.), father and son were studying a river map when they observed the Swiss’ breathing became “very hard” and that he periodically groaned.  

“Shortly afterwards,” Hunter wrote, the man “got up & without saying anything went forward, as we were perusing the Map {we} did not turn round until we heard a noise in the water of a person falling into it. We rushed forward & saw his hat afloat; but nothing of him, he never came up, made no exertion to save himself, must have gone feet formost, as the upper part of his hat was dry when we picked it up, neither did he utter a sillable as he went over.”  

Arriving in Natchez on July 24, Hunter and his son visited Dunbar at his plantation, the Forest. Seven days later, the Hunters headed downriver for New Orleans to collect the military crew, which would take part in the Ouachita River exploration.  

During an era when there was little understanding and no real treatment for yellow fever, cholera and a host of other diseases, humans also suffered untold agony from drinking contaminated water. When a man was stricken with any of these ailments, it was sometimes simply known as a Bilious fever in which the patient suffered from high fever, nausea, vomiting and excessive diarrhea.  

Before arriving in New Orleans, Hunter wrote that his son George Jr. “was violently attacked with an Ardent Bilous fever commonly called the seasoning of the Country … which abated its force in consequence of repeated Bleeding and purging, in seven days, but his weakness and debility continued more than 15.”  

(This story was revised from 2017)  

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