Settlers in the West had to combat serious illnesses which they hadn’t encountered before. These maladies are now for the most part controlled or at least understood, but in those days they were surrounded by prejudices which hampered any possibility of understanding how to avoid them. The negative effect of the illnesses was that much the greater because small family units were often isolated, away from medical help and even neighbours. If the primary breadwinner fell ill or died the economic effect could be disastrous.
One illness of this type was known at the time as fever ‘n’ ague or simply ague. It was particularly prevalent around standing water and we know it now as malaria. It’s a particularly unpleasant illness to suffer from and is often fatal. People at the time described the symptoms as consisting of teeth-chattering chills making them shake like miniature earthquakes and feel like harps with a thousand strings, followed by raging heat, copious sweating and racking headaches. At the height of the illness, people were unable to stand up or even leave their bed. They sometimes wanted to die and they certainly weren’t able to look after themselves.
The cause most usually attributed to contracting the disease in those days was breathing ‘bad air’ which gives us the name ‘malaria’. Sometimes, as in Little House on the Prairie, another cause is found – in this case eating watermelons. No-one knew or had any way of knowing that mosquitoes are responsible for the spread of the disease.
Laura Ingalls’ family is very fortunate to have survived. They are all struck down at once and no-one is available to seek help. In the end a doctor who works with the Indians happens to be passing and their dog begs him to come in. He doses them all with a bitter powder by way of medicine (presumably quinine) and their neighbour comes to the house to look after them till they can get up again.
The same doctor finds a large proportion of the other settlers in a similar condition and ministers to them all. They aren’t necessarily all out of the woods, however. Malaria can recur throughout a person’s lifetime in a phenomenon known as ‘recrudescence’ which may have meant that some settlers were permanently weakened.