The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land

The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land

by Conevery Bolton Valencius

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In this vivid history of American western expansion, Conevery Bolton Valencius captures the excitement, romanticism, confusion, and terror of the frontier experience. In a time when good health was thought to involve perfectly balanced "humors," settlers thought that the wild extremes of the borderlands disrupted the delicate equilibrium of their bodies. Valencius is…  See more details below


In this vivid history of American western expansion, Conevery Bolton Valencius captures the excitement, romanticism, confusion, and terror of the frontier experience. In a time when good health was thought to involve perfectly balanced "humors," settlers thought that the wild extremes of the borderlands disrupted the delicate equilibrium of their bodies. Valencius is the first historian to show that the settlers' primary criterion for uncharted land was its perceived health or sickliness. The Health of the Country is a beautifully written, fresh account of the gritty details of American expansion, animated by the voices of the settlers themselves.

Editorial Reviews

Weekly Standard
Fascinating...Valencius's refreshingly original account contains a real admiration for the sensitivity that our ancestors displayed for the landscape.
Carol Berkin
Valencius is one of the brightest young historians on the horizon today.
You will find yourself hooked as you read this fascinating revival of past times.
Library Journal
This book is based on the author's Harvard dissertation, which won the 1999 Allan Nevins Prize. (Valencius is currently on the history faculty of Washington University in Saint Louis.) While Jacqueline Corn's Environment and Health in Nineteenth Century America focuses on Pennsylvania, this work looks at antebellum westward migration, with particular emphasis on Arkansas and Missouri. Settlers of both European and African extraction assessed the environment in a variety of ways, including its effect on their health. Letters, newspapers, journals, and literature all reveal sentiments ranging from "this is a healthy country," as one satisfied newcomer put it, to "I think it is a sickly place," as a more tremulous settler wrote in a letter home. Valencius suggests that the ideas and practices linking human well-being and locale were fundamentally identical processes with those thought to operate in the natural world. For example, in the release of foul miasmas from soil disturbed by cultivation, settlers perceived the same cycle of imbalance and reequilibrium that they experienced in the release of "bad humors" from their own ill bodies. A particularly fascinating chapter in this intriguing work examines issues of race in this environment. An excellent choice for academic and large public libraries.-Daniel Liestman, Florida Gulf Coast Univ. Lib., Ft. Meyers
Using the letters and journals of 19th century settlers in the Arkansas and Missouri territories, newspapers and other historical materials, Valencius (history, Washington U., St. Louis) focuses on the relationship between the pioneers and the lands they settled. Her book reveals their concerns for the healthfulness of their environments, their sense of connection between the health of the land and their own health, and connections between the history of medicine and science, environmental history, and the history of American westward expansion in the 19th century. Academic but accessible to the general reader. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
Kirkus Reviews
An abstract, arid dissertation on the "imaginative geographies" of 19th-century Americans. Valencius (History/Washington Univ.) credits the footloose, land-seeking homesteaders who migrated west of the Appalachians with a wealth of ideas and philosophical positions that went largely unreported at the time-perhaps because the pioneers were too busy carving out a living to have much free time for theorizing. That the territory they entered was "new" to the Anglo-American experience was, she writes, "not a reality but a construction," whatever that means. This construction required settlers to find new ways of envisioning the land and themselves, with words such as "organization" and "constitution" being applied both to plowed fields and the humans who worked them. Such shared metaphors had obvious origins: the new lands on the frontier were astoundingly fertile but easily subject to exhaustion, just like the yeomen who tilled them; civilizing a hostile Indian nation or an unruly teenager was much like the business of changing new land to "ordered terrain"; and sickly places were likely to breed sickly beings. Valencius turns over a library of diaries, letters, and contemporary journals to seek out evidence for her unexceptionable thesis that acclimation to heat, swamps, and oceanic prairies transformed the lives and perceptions of the settlers. These primary materials are almost always more lively than her discussion, couched in careful scholarly prose occasionally punctuated by strained bursts of lyricism ("Here was a world . . . where French perfumes still scented the air of sultry New Orleans, and Creole gumbo steamed the rooms of river villages during cold winter nights along theMissouri"). Of some value to academic collections, but much too dense for general readers.

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In the fall of 1815, Justus and Eliza Post and their young children arrived in St. Louis after a long, arduous journey from New York. They had spent months gathering supplies, and months on the actual trip. They traveled over corduroy roads in Pennsylvania, took a flatboat for long, weary days down the Ohio, then turned north at its mouth to make their way up the Mississippi to the small but growing river port of St. Louis. The Post family came to establish themselves in the Missouri Territory, early movers in a westward tide of American emigration that would by mid-century stretch to the Pacific Ocean.

All along their journey, and for their first few years in Missouri, Justus Post wrote letters back to his older brother, John, in their home state of Vermont. In letter after letter, Justus described his hopes for his family's "remove." He sought farmland on which to establish his own and his extended family, and he also planned to profit from volatile land prices by purchasing tracts for later resale to other emigrants and investors. Speculator and farmer, Post looked to the bottomland of the Missouri with a calculating and hopeful eye.

His impressions are telling. Immediately after arriving in St. Louis, Justus Post reported back to John that "I see nothing to hinder its being an extremely healthy country." A year later, in August 1816, he wrote that he had found an attractive area near the city, "& as it is such a healthy section of the country I think probable I shall establish myself there." Again and again, urging his brother to emigrate, Justus emphasized that "this is a healthy country and you may with confidence say it is to all such as may enquire of you concerning it." His letters finally succeeded: after much urging, John and Elizabeth Post and their family moved to the region in 1821.

I first read Justus Post's letters not far from where he and Eliza (and Elizabeth and John) disembarked, in what had become the modern city of St. Louis. Reading through the delicate, slightly yellowed sheets under the beautiful, vaulted ceiling of the Missouri Historical Society reading room, I could find much that was familiar and unsurprising about this family correspondence. As a historian of the nineteenth century, I knew that letters were the means through which literate American families kept in touch, especially families pulled apart by emigration. I knew that interlinked family emigration was a frequent pattern in American social history. I knew that the description of farmland and community prospects that Justus wrote John were very similar to those I could find in many other collections-in fact, I knew that the stories traced through this carefully preserved stack of aging letters were common to many free families of the early United States.

I did not know what Justus Post meant, though, by his forthright and repeated insistence that Missouri was "healthy country." Family members were sometimes sick, and sometimes in good health, Justus was clear enough about that. But-like the writers of many other letters and documents I had read from this same era-Justus Post persisted in describing his very surroundings as also being "healthy," "unhealthy," or, in the language of his time, "salubrious" or "insalubrious."

How could land possess "health"? Why did nineteenth-century writers constantly describe places as being healthy or sickly? These characterizations mattered a great deal: people like Justus Post, heading to "new" territories beyond the Mississippi, often decided where to settle, where to buy land, or even whether to stay in a place based on how they evaluated its salubrity. Yet to me and to other historians-and to the common sense of the twenty-first century-this understanding of the environment was a mystery.

Though many scholars have written about American western expansion, and many people like me study it, I realized that we have not fully understood these matter-of-fact, plainspoken assessments, even though they filled nineteenth-century writings. We have somehow passed over descriptions of "sickly" countryside or "salubrious" valleys with little in the way of comment or explanation. I have come to see that in doing so, we have missed something important.

Descriptions of "the health of the country" belong to a world we have lost. They come from the common sense of another time, when the human body was understood differently and its functioning was believed to be linked in intricate and intimate ways with the similar balances of the surrounding world. To comprehend this geography of health is thus to discover a surprising holism in the worldview of the bustling, rapidly industrializing nineteenth century.

In this book, I explain why Justus Post's comments about "healthy country" make sense. To do so, I focus on newcomers to the present-day states of Arkansas and Missouri, what were then borderlands caught up in the continued process of American expansion, on the perceived edges of an American empire. I start when the United States claims areas west of the Mississippi, with lands of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Recognizing the radical effect of changes in medical understanding, in regional perception, and in the character of American self-imagining that would follow the bloody 1860s, I end with the Civil War (these are the antebellum, or prewar, years of U.S. history). Using the experiences of both ambitious and unwilling migrants, I explore the meaning of conversations taking place throughout the United States, wherever American claimants encountered land and peoples new to them.

Both environments and human bodies are extremely messy. So, too, is making sense of them. As I worked out the connections between health and place, I found that I had to figure out how nineteenth-century Americans understood their bodies. Their understanding turns out to be very different from our own modern knowledge and perceptions. I had to learn about plowing, farming, and ditching in order to understand what antebellum westerners did to their surroundings, and what they thought their surroundings did to them. I had to delve into the history of medicine to explain the ancient roots of physicians' assertions, as well as the logic of everyday healing.

What I discovered in the process was a worldview in which people were influenced by their environments in direct and powerful ways, and the exterior world and the human body were not as separate as they are now. Good or bad, harmful or improving, terrain possessed health in the same language and for the same reasons that human beings did. Basic properties applied to self and to surroundings, from the struggle of a volcano to expel foul matter to the strain of a boil to release putrid fluids and the bodily essence called humors.

In Justus Post's universe, processes of transformation, release, and renewal governed equally the physical environs and the human form. Common sense saw in eruptions or oozings, whether from swamp or wound, the same expression of putrescence; in fertility of soil and of family the same often ambivalent blessing; and in radical and challenging changes-in sudden sickness, in the turn of seasons, in the emergence of green shoots from black soil-one single phenomenon, whether enacted through human bodies or through the fields they tilled. It is thus in the everyday places and everyday occupations of nineteenth-century Americans that some of their most profound beliefs and ways of understanding the world came to the fore.

People participating in the American migration into the Mississippi Valley drew on a reassuringly coherent set of beliefs to make sense of potentially bewildering environments. They insisted upon the intelligibility of newly-encountered territory, even as they marveled at hot springs, cursed swarms of mosquitoes, and struggled to conform agricultural patterns to new soils, latitudes, and weather patterns. Their assessments of terrain were rarely unanimous, and they were often self-contradictory, but nineteenth-century newcomers of widely differing backgrounds based their contentions on a shared geography of health that made sense of strange places as well as familiar ones. The people of the growing United States set out to "improve" new territory armed with a deep and abiding sense of union between themselves and the soils they tilled.

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Meet the Author

Conevery Bolton Valencius received her Ph.D. from Harvard. In 2000 she won the prestigious Allan Nevins Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians for best-written dissertation in American history. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri, where she is an assistant professor at Washington University.

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