Exactly what it says on the tin: a breakdown of how to get to California if you’re a pioneer in 1859, written by a US Army captain who draws heavily on his own experience. Lively, readable, a fascinating insight into the attitudes and the often-wrong science of the time, and an excellent resource if you’re thinking of writing something set in the Old West or in a world with similar geography and technology. He covers everything: what kind of food won’t spoil, what to wear, how to get mules across a river, how to prevent your horses from stampeding, how to ride a cow, and what sort of gun will stop a grizzly bear.

Note that this is written by a white man in 1859 America, and he has typical white man in 1859 America attitudes. He calls Indians bloodthirsty, stupid, possibly not even human… and then swings right into an anecdote about an Indian he knows, one of the bravest men he’s ever met and generally awesome all-round. People have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize.

I was especially interested by the chapter on medicine, and the bits where he goes into great detail on theories of how disease is caused and spreads, and how to avoid it, often getting the right idea for the wrong reasons. Yes, it’s a bad idea to have a lot of people camping for ages in the same area, but not because of “exhalations” or the noxious effects of moisture in the air.

A little blue mass, quinine, opium, and some cathartic medicine, put up in doses for adults, will suffice for the medicine chest. Blue mass is mostly mercury. YIKES.

The Prairie Traveler: The 1859 Handbook for Westbound Pioneers (Dover Value Editions) (The free Kindle edition lacks maps and illustrations.)


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