The Souvenir of Western Women/A Pioneer Country Physician
A Pioneer Country Physician
By DR. ROVIA E. ALEXANDER.
JOSEPH S. NEWMAN, a merchant of Terre Haute, Ind., started in the spring' of 1852 with his family and a train of his own across the plains to Oregon. Mr. Newman was taking a large stock of dry goods to begin a business in the Oregon Territory. When they arrived at the Missouri River they found the stream swollen to many times its normal size. Here our travelers were compelled to await their turn to be ferried over the river. Three weeks elapsed before all of Mr. Newman's train was across. Then the journey in the wilderness began. At long intervals military posts had been established. Hostile Indians roamed about, but Mr. Newman and his men were well armed; so little fear regarding the Indians was felt.
The company journeyed along until a point 250 miles west of Fort Laramie was reached. Here, early one afternoon, they camped on the north bank of the Platte River. The horses and oxen were turned out to feed on the abundant grass. As evening' approached buffalo were seen in the distance. Mr. and Mrs. Newman mounted their fleetest horses and rode in pursuit of the herd. The chase was exciting, and they rode far, but without success. Wearied, they returned to camp. Mr. Newman drank copiously of cold water; that night he was attacked by cholera, and within twenty-four hours was a corpse. Scarcely had his body been laid away when Mrs. Newman became a victim of the dread scourge, but the timely arrival of medical aid saved her life.
Then was enacted one of those events that portray the perfidy of some natures in contrast to the heroic courage of others. While Mrs. Newman was battling for life against the cholera, those miscreants, her hired men, conspired to rob and desert her. Selecting the best teams and taking all the wagons except the one she occupied, they drove away, leaving the prostrated woman and her children by the roadside, hundreds of miles from kindred and friends. But possessed of sublime courage and fully realizing her danger, she was up from her sick bed as soon as strength would permit, and, with the aid of her two stepsons, hastily prepared to return to her friends in Indiana, though roving bands of Indians made this a desperate undertaking. At this juncture an emigrant train came along, which she gladly joined and came on to Oregon. With the aid only of her two boys, 10 and 12 years of age, she managed her teams. Only in places of special difficulty or danger had she to accept assistance from her fellow travelers. Thus the long journey was accomplished. October found her safely housed for the winter in a little log cabin on the banks of the Santiam River. This cabin was the property of that true Virginia gentleman, John Crabtree, who, with his estimable wife, never forgot the widow and the orphan. Through all that first winter in Oregon they made it their concern to know that she and her children were provided with food and fuel. Here we will leave her for the present.
In the fall of 1852 Dr. W. F. Alexander arrived in the western part of Oregon. So charmed was he with this beautiful land that he decided to make a permanent home within its borders. Before starting for the West he had purchased a stock of drugs and medicines, with which to open a practice upon his arrival in Oregon. But scarcely had he passed beyond the limits of civilization when it became necessary to draw upon his precious store. A little party of emigrants encamped on the north bank of the Platte River had fallen victims to the cholera. The owner of the train was first seized and quickly succumbed. Then the widow was stricken. Learning that a physician was in a train near by, a messenger was sent for him. He speedily responded to the call, and by his skill the woman's life was saved.
Through all the long journey the doctor spared neither strength, time nor substance in his efforts to relieve the suffering. He saw his little store of medicine, the representative of all his worldly wealth, grow smaller and smaller till nothing remained; his empty purse was also a mute witness to his kindly generosity. So upon his arrival in Oregon, though rich in youth, he was penniless. Winter was at hand and wants were pressing. He soon found employment as teacher in a country school on French Prairie. At the close of the term he went to the Albany Prairie, where he located a claim and built his cabin, the nucleus of the home he hoped to establish.
The doctor had never lost sight of the woman whom he first met on the banks of the Platte and whom he saved from death. Now that he had a home, humble though it was, to offer her, he sought Mrs. Newman, who accepted his proffered heart and home, and they were married in Linn County, Oregon, February 15, 1853, and settled on the farm the doctor had located. Here he entered upon the practice of medicine, and continued with slight intermissions for more than thirty years.
A country doctor's work is always hard. In those early days it was arduous. Then a trip of thirty or forty miles on horseback to visit a patient was a common occurrence; but this was only one of the difficulties the doctor had to surmount, as the following memorandum A ll show:
Mr. B——, living on a farm twelve miles distant, was taken ill with typhoid fever. Dr. Alexander was called to attend him. Rain had been falling several weeks, and the miry roads were well nigh impassable. Mounted on a strong, spirited horse, the doctor made his way comfortably enough until the Calipooia River was reached, where he found the bridge swept away and the waters overflowing the banks. What was to be done? The thought of the stricken man waiting for him helped him to decide. Touching his horse the animal plunged into the stream, but was soon swept off its feet. Then together horse and rider struggled against the swift current until the opposite bank was reached. Arriving at the bedside of the patient he found him critically ill. Trained nurses were unknown, and it often devolved upon the doctor, as it did in this instance, to assume the post of nurse, sometimes to watch by the side of a patient throughout the night. The journey over the miry roads and swimming the Calipooia was repeated many times, until the hardships, fatigue and exposure to the contagion proved too much for the physician's strength. He, too, was stricken with the fever. After weeks of serious illness, health and strength were restored.
There were no hospitals, but sufferers had to be cared for. The doctor's doors were open to all, and many came; the sick, the lame and the blind sought his skill and found shelter and kindly care under his roof. Often that country home resembled more a hospital than a private residence. In the care of the afflicted his noble wife lent invaluable service. Her sweet and gentle presence made her tender care of these sufferers itself a healing balm. So dearly beloved was she and so highly valued in the community that the whole country about was in mourning over her death, which occurred within a few years. To this day no name is more tenderly revered by those who knew her than that of the good and beautiful Annie Alexander. Her mother was Lady Hastings, wife of Lord Hastings, though a second husband, Colonel Shombre, was the father of Mrs. Alexander.
Time brought many sad changes to Dr. Alexander. The irregular life and incessant toil of a country physician told upon his health, and manhood's later prime found him a physical wreck. Following came financial losses, and he had the sorrow of seeing the home he had carved out of the wilderness pass into other hands.
Surrounded by his children, whose devotion did much to lighten his sorrows and compensate him for his losses, he spent his last years in Santa Clara, Cal. There, in sublime patience, despite his great suffering, he awaited the summons that must come to all, and on Christmas day, 1902, he answered the call, having completed his four score years.
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