Medicine on Texas Plantations
By Eilzabeth Silverthorne
he Texas plantation system
began after 1821 with Mexico's
offer of free land to settlers. The eastern
planters who responded to the offer
encountered many hardships: hostile Indians,
wild animals, food shortages, brutal
weather-and illness. Among illnesses
faced by these settlers were malaria, dysentery,
cholera, yellow fever, pneumonia,
whooping cough, and smallpox. Some
doctors of the day had received formal
training, others had had apprenticeships,
and some simply labeled themselves "doctor"
without the benefit of training.
Whatever a doctor's background, the
remedy he offered often was worse than
the disease. The unfortunate patient was
faced with any of an assortment of treatments:
harsh emetics, purgatives, and
bloodlettings; foul-tasting home remedies;
and patent medicines. The Civil
War ended the plantation system and increased
the settlers' reliance on home
The plantation system began in Texas
after Mexico won its independence from
Spain in 1821 and offered free land to
settlers who would come and live in its
northern colony. Empresarios, or agents,
placed advertisements in U.S. papers,
promising a planter's paradise of virgin
soil with abundant timber and water. In
the United States, planters struggling to
raise crops on worn-out, eroded farm land
and unwilling to pay the high price for
new land in the states, packed up their
families and their slaves, their tools and
their seeds, and made their way by covered
wagon or slow boat to the promised
land. In a wide crescent, from the Gulf of
Mexico to the Red River, they established
their cotton and sugar plantations. The
system flourished and increased until the
time of the Civil War.
The problems of these pioneering
planters were many. Indian raids were a
danger; wild animals lurked in wooded
areas; food was often scarce in the first
months before crops could be raised; and
fires and storms could wreak havoc. But
the most constant fear was of illness.
Their courage and their adventurous spir
Illustrations for the article were taken from
Plantation Life In Texas, by Elizabeth Silverthorne.
Drawings by Charles Shaw, with reprint
permission from Texas A&M University Press.
its could not ward off sickness, nor could
their strength help them when they were
in the grip of the chills and fever that the
newcomers to Texas were apt to suffer.
Nobody associated the tiresome mosquitoes
of the low country with these ailments,
but it was generally believed that
those living in higher and drier locations
suffered less. Sickly slaves cut into their
owner's income, and advertisements often
mentioned that a group of slaves offered
for sale were "acclimated," meaning they
were less likely to get malaria.
Malaria went by different names: intermittent
fever, remittent fever, ague, and
bilious fever. In whatever form and by
whatever name, it caused excruciating
pain in muscles, bones, and joints; severe
headaches; uncontrollable shivering;
burning fever; drenching sweats; and in
severe cases emaciation, anemia, great
weakness, depression, and disorientation.
Quinine was the most widely used medicine
for malaria. But when it was not
available, boneset, a common herb, was
nearly as good to break the chills and
fever of mild cases. Patients regarded
either remedy, quinine or boneset, as
equally evil tasting.
Not surprisingly, in those days of bad
sanitation and poor hygiene, dysentery
(also called summer complaint or bloody
flux) was another common ailment.
Home remedies included rice water (water
in which rice had been boiled), blackjack
oak bark tea, broth made from pulverized
Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 04, Number 03, Winter 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45440/. Accessed March 29, 2015.