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Discover Mid-America — November 2005

For 19th century Missouri and Arkansas settlers, the land and body were intertwined

The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land, by Conevery Bolton Valencius (New York: Basic Books, 2002) 400 pages; b&w illus., paperback, $20.

Whether imagining the lives of whites, natives or slaves, one thing Midwesterners can agree on is that life on the edge of American settlement was extraordinarily difficult.

Most think of these hardships in terms of what people did to get their lives started. We know, for instance, that cutting sod with horse or ox and plow was hard work. Or that chopping, splitting and stacking twelve or more cords of wood for winter heat was time consuming and backbreaking. Or that disease and death haunted the settler at every turn.

But rarely do we think of settlement as a process of cultural absorption and environmental change. A person (and a culture) takes in new circumstances, finds intellectual and intuitive mechanisms to explain difficulties, and then locates him or herself within a constellation of seemingly random vagaries, joys and surprises.

Meanwhile, they change the land. In turn, the land changes them by being both the setting for the settler’s new cultural understandings and what seems to serve up surprise and hardship.

Conevery Bolton Valencius successfully attempts to put the reader into this process. She finds is that language and rhetoric are powerful shapers of culture, personal invention and understanding of place. She shows that nineteenth century Missouri and Arkansas settlers thought about themselves and the environment differently from their descendants. In diaries, journals and letters of individual settlers, she discovers “a worldview in which people were influenced by their environments in direct and powerful ways, and the exterior world were not as separate as they are now.”

Using a host of primary documents gathered from the Missouri Historical Society, The University of Arkansas, the Missouri Botanical Garden and a host of other state and local resources, Valencius puts together a convincing document that is environmental history, history of science and history of medicine from the actual language of settlers, thinkers, doctors and boosters. Focusing on the ways in which settlers viewed themselves and the land, she argues that settlers came to understand the land they settled in terms of themselves, their bodies and their health.

In a time before germs were known to cause disease “health” was a descriptive term for both people and land. The nineteenth century language of bodily change became the way to describe the land — a living productive thing. A particular area, topography, riverine, forest or prairie environment, or climate could be healthy, fecund, sickly or pestilent depending on the potential it held for the health of the people who used it or what it promised for their productivity.

Valencius points out that settlers and their back-home counterparts took for granted the “seasoning process” by which settlers to Missouri and Arkansas inevitably became sick with fevers, ague, tremors, and bilious discharges. If they survived, they could either recover their health or, more frequently, live with recurring bouts of physical strain either from the presence of disease or the effects of disease. Either way, once “seasoned” they could make their land healthier, more fertile or more productive, which, in turn, made them the same.

While Americans today rarely deal with yellow or dengue fever, malaria or dysentery from unsanitary water, these were facts of life for Missouri and Arkansas settlers. But in the early- to mid-nineteenth century no one yet understood that organisms caused these illnesses. Rather, miasmas, fogs, algae-covered waters, winds and even certain plants pointed toward the propensity of the land to cause disease or to produce goods.

Balances or imbalances of humors (blood, yellow and black bile, and phlegm) caused health or disease much in the way that air, water, earth and fire worked together to produce a healthy or unhealthy landscape. Settlers knew from personal or local experience, and from cultural and social memories that water, air and land held a number of potentials for both health and disease, and they used this knowledge to navigate both their land and their lives.

Disease influenced the way settlers interacted with the land. It shaped settlement patterns, created myth and fiction about both land and the human body, and it moved into the cultural and scientific realm with theory and practice of medicine.

But most importantly, Valencius shows, disease and the ease or difficulty of dealing with and changing the land, climate and topography shaped the ways humans thought of themselves. Valencius points out that explanations for disease were hard to come by, but most often pointed to character, personal morality or race.

For instance, personal immunities had little to do with the ways white settlers viewed either the survival of slaves or whites. Nineteenth century white Missourians and Arkansans believed blacks could do heavier work than whites, and could work harder and better than whites in swampy and hot conditions. Whites keeping their health under the same conditions were considered “niggrafied” — less white and farther down the social scale. These interpretations of health became teleological justifications for black slavery and social hierarchy.

Health of the Country started in 1988 as Valencius’ senior project in history at Harvard and it shows the polish and readability of a long-considered work. Its analyses are truly interdisciplinary. She interprets a wide range of sources in light of economic, social and cultural history, history of science and of medicine, as well as, linguistic close textual analyses and anthropological thick description.

If Valencius fails, it is with repeating points with different texts and analyses. But even here, each fact reveals much about Missouri and Arkansas, not merely views of human and environmental change from afar, but from within.

Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at patrickdobson@earthlink.net.


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