Local historian Ben Truwe made an amazing discovery at the Oregon State Archives last fall.
On Sept. 9, while he was poking through George Law Curry’s 1860 correspondence as Oregon territorial governor, he found something that didn’t quite belong in the slim folders. It was a leather-bound ledger documenting patient care in 1855-56 at a military hospital in Jacksonville.
“'What’s this?'” Truwe recalls saying to himself. “'Oh, my God, Jacksonville!'”
That ledger, dated from the Rogue River Indian Wars, contains the medical records of 27 men hospitalized between October 1855 and May 1856. In fine, cursive handwriting, physicians G.W. Greer and Jason Jarvis Braman detailed the wounds, injuries and chronic conditions of the 2nd Regiment of the Oregon Mounted Volunteers.
One of the last skirmishes of the Southern Oregon conflict between American Indians and early settlers was the Battle of Hungry Hill on Oct. 31, 1855, near Grave Creek. Southern Oregon University archaeologist Mark Tveskov located the battleground in 2013 and documented the site after the Douglas Complex fires cleared underbrush. Tveskov’s team discovered musket balls and other artifacts as they worked the landscape and traced the lines of battle.
As Truwe’s discovery points out, history is not all underground — bones, bullets and shards of porcelain.
“The difference between work digging in the archives and digging in your backyard is that you don’t get as dirty and you’re much more likely to find something,” he says.
The ledger begins with a list of 45 men noted as hospital inpatients and 28 as hospital outpatients. Each entry has the patient’s name, military rank, company, age, complaint, date admitted and date discharged. There were lengthy observations of the presenting conditions for 27 men, remarkable for the detailed, day-by-day records of treatment, diet and healing. The names are familiar: Harris, Wilkinson, Alcorn, Rice, Sexton.
Charles C. Goodwin was a 22-year-old private serving under Capt. James Bruce at the time of his Nov. 4, 1855, admission to Jacksonville Hospital.
Goodwin’s entry reads: “This patient was wounded October 30th, 1855. Commenced treatment on the 13th of Nov. He was young and healthy — a very strong physical constitution. He was wounded by a rifle ball, entering the inner and superior edge of the right Gluteal Maximus muscle and passing over the Os Coccygis and was extracted from under the Cutis at the inferior margin of the left Gluteus Maximus. The wounds were in a good condition, having passed the inflammatory stage and suppuration was fully established. Dressed the wounds with Simple Cerate. The bowels were regular, and general health good — diet generous.”
Goodwin experienced some constipation that delayed his release, but by Feb. 1, 1856, his bowels moved freely and he was discharged Feb. 20.
The records reflect bullet wounds and broken bones, but fevers, dysentery, rheumatism and neuralgia are also noted. Syphilis and gonorrhea are common diagnoses and are also underlying conditions of other illnesses.
William Parrish, a private serving under Capt. William Wilkinson, was admitted Dec. 8, 1855, with a primary diagnosis of gonorrhea, “having been treated before and thought himself well.” By Jan. 12, 1856, Parrish was better, bowels regular, less gleet (discharge) but complaining that the injections burned. He was dismissed as cured Jan. 15.
Using Truwe’s photographed ledger pages, Rogue Valley historian Mary Tsai transcribed the 90-page manuscript and found the physicians’ handwriting easier to understand than she expected.
“The reading and the transcription went very fast,” says Tsai. “What was hard was making certain I understood all the drugs and getting the terminology correct. It was tough.”
Medicines, dosages and conditions were spelled and abbreviated inconsistently, Tsai says, so she had a lot of additional research to verify and correctly transcribe the notes.
Pustules, chancres, swelling and necrosis are described with clinical, dispassionate detail, as are derangement and torpidity of the bowels. Diets are noted, usually tea, toast and chicken soup, until the bowels could be stabilized. The pharmacopeia used for treatment is specific and features many of the substances we’re familiar with today, quinine and opium, for example. While there were many plant-based remedies administered to the suffering soldiers, cabbage leaves to dress a wound, blue pills and black wash, mercury, Cook’s Pills and Dover Powder are less likely to be found in today’s pharmacy.
The register of patients, case reports and details of drugs exchanged with other area military hospitals now lives on Truwe’s website, "Southern Oregon History, Revised," hosted by the Southern Oregon Historical Society.
“The ledger doesn’t tell you that much about a person's life,” Truwe says. “It’s talismanic as much as anything else — this guy was here, this is what was done to him, this guy had a life.”
— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is affiliate faculty member at Southern Oregon University and is an architect of the Stories of Southern Oregon. She can be reached at email@example.com.