By this time we had grown rather
shabby; our clothes has burst into rags and tatters; and what was worse,
we had little means of renovation. Fort Laramie was but seven miles before
us. Being averse to appearing in such a plight among any society that
could boast an approximation to the civilized, we stopped by the river to
make our toilet in the best way we could. We hung small looking glasses
against the trees and shaved, an operation neglected for six weeks; we
performed our ablutions in the Platte, though the utility of such a
preceding was questionable, the water looking exactly like a cup of
chocolate, and the banks consisting of the softest and richest yellow mud…
Toiletries are a subject you don’t
see much written about. I think this for a few reasons. First, not many
individuals have any idea what people did, or have a wrong idea of what it
was and lastly, the subject is one that some might think of as in bad
taste. One of the best journal entries written on this subject is the one
I showed above by Francis Parkman. While on the trail traveling, personal
hygiene was not a big priory for the people in the west. When they came to
places where you sat at tables for dinners, had paintings made of people
or places and where there were people they wanted to impress, things
changed. Another and maybe best reason for not seeing this is expressed by
I find also another difficulty
in writing. After living in the West, where many things which are
peculiar to a wild life are common and uninteresting, one is apt to
hurry over the minutiae of them in laying them before a part of the
public to whom they are strange and new. One can hardly realize that
what is so common to him and every one around him, can be interesting
to any portion of the public; and for fear of being tedious and
prolix, he is, perhaps, brief and unsatisfactory. With this brief
apology, I leave the recital of our adventures in the Western Desert.
And he is right. There are so many
small, common activities that we want and need to know about. Items that
happened every day and for a thousand years. But how did they do it?
Since some might have a wrong idea
of what this subject is, I will give a definition of this before we go any
further: toil-et + ry (1825-35) n. pl. –ries, any article or
preparation used in cleaning or grooming oneself, as soap or deodorant. This
is a good explanation of what toiletries are. I have used this entry
before, but I want to show an outsider’s view of the Americans he
traveled with and what they did or not do in regards to their personal
cleanliness. William Fairholme, an English officer from Canada, was
traveling in the American west to hunt buffalo and all around him are
these disgusting Americans. In his journal, he writes about traveling with
a few in close quarters (a stage coach and on this part of the journey, a
Outside, near the paddle boxes,
are arranged in a row 3 or 4 basins and a bucket, from which, if you
want to wash, you drain water yourself from the stream.
Above them are hung a few (very
few) towels, a hair brush and comb; & perhaps a small mirror.
These constitute the whole dressing apparatus of 19 out of 20
Americans, and they ridicule the idea of carrying about one’s own
brushes, combs, etc.
Whether you call this personal
hygiene or toiletries; today, we have many different attitudes as to what
is clean, proper and what is not. Let me show you a few entries I have
found which might make you stop and think about how things have changed:
The roll has been called, and
each mess is preparing breakfast. I hear Dr. Trask courteously ask:
”Are those plates clean?” and Rhoades’s nonchalant answer: “To
be sure they are, didn’t we eat off them last night?”
We are tired of life in this
dirty fort to the highest degree. Our daily routine is conducted in
such a filthy manner that it nauseated one. Since our Negro cook
Alfred suffers a severe rheumatic disease, we now have a filthy
attendant and cook named Boileau who wears a fur cap, sits down among
us and handle the cups and plates with his disgusting fists, after
cleaning his nose according to the manner of our peasants. This is
also exactly the manner his wife and child scatters these items about
and then cleans his fingers on the first object that comes to hand.
The little boy had a gap in his trousers, both in front and back,
so that the may relieve himself quickly and with out formality on
the floor of the room, which happened frequently during the meals. The
indolence and indifference of [Mr. Kipp] this otherwise commendable
man goes far to eases himself near the fort in full sight of passerby,
having neglected to build an outhouse for this purpose. Prince
The various forts, trading houses
and regular campsites on the trails had an appeal for those who traveled
in the west. These well known sites were where a traveler could get
resupplied, have repairs done, get the most recent news, trade tired
horses for fresh ones, rest and maybe see someone who they had not
traveled with all the way from St. Louis. Along with the useful items
mentioned above, came from these places items that were not too desirable.
Fleas, rats and lice came along when they left. In Francis Chardon’s
journal, he tells us at the end of each month in his journal how many rats
Number of rats killed this month 91.
The five years he kept his journal
(1834-39), he gives the total number eliminated as 3729. Others
Upon some fragments of old clothing
which some of our people picked up, there were some body lice found;
which circumstance confirmed us all in the belief that the camp had
been occupied by Spaniards. We took the precaution to pitch our tents
at a respectful distance from the old camp. The creek having no name,
we now gave it the name of Louse Camp Creek. George
I took with me a handful of
hazel nuts, thought I would divert myself with cracking & and
eating them, had just seated myself in the shade of the rock, ready to
commence work, when feeling something unusual on my neck, put my hand
under my cape & took from thence two insects, which I soon
discovered to be fleas. Immediately I cast my eyes upon my dress
before me, & to my astonishment found it was black with these
creatures making all possible speed to lay siege to my neck and ears.
This sight made me almost frantic. What to do I know not. I climbed up
the rock in pursuit of my husband, who soon saw me & came to me. I
could not tell him but showed him the cause of my distress. On opening
the gathers in my dress around my waist, every plait was lined with
them. Thus they had already laid themselves in ambush against a fresh
attack. We brushed & shook & brushed for an hour, not stopping
to kill for that would have been impossible. By this time they were
reduced considerably & I prepared to go to the boat… [I] found
the confinement of the boat distressing on account of my miserable
companions who would not let me rest for a moment in any one position.
I was not the only sufferer, everyone in the boat was alike in
troubled both crew & passengers. As soon as I was able to make a
change in appearal I found relief. Narcissa
It was also a common observation
that whenever a person left an Indian camp after staying awhile, they
carried a few of these. Lewis Garrard explains:
…One great drawback to
pleasures of an Indian village is that the inhabitants are troubled with a
persecuting little animal- a roamer through the unbroken forests of hair
on children’ heads- now ascending the mountain of self esteem, or
reposing in the secluded vales around about combativeness. These creatures
here, are white, and nearly the size of wheat grains. They do not confine
their penetrating researches to the capote alone, but traverse the immense
surface of the whole body. By being in the same lodge with les savages
continually, it was impossible to keep clear of the insects. Of course, we
cam in for our share; but poor Buchanan, who wore a flannel shirt, was
A good example of how different
things are from today, is a missionary wife’s (Narcissa Whitman)
confession on the number of times she did the washing for her and her
Last night I put my cloths in
water & this morning finished washing before breakfast. I find it
not very agreeable to do such work in the middle of the day when I
have no shelter to protect me from the sun’s scorching rays. This is
the third time I have washed since I left the states or home either.
Once at Fort Williams [Laramie] & at rendezvous.
A common myth is that people during
this time did not take baths. Contrary to this popular belief, baths were
taken. A funny story on bathing includes Jedediah Smith, who came up on
his fellow travelers soaking in a small, shallow pool up to their necks.
He asked how it was and a man said, “Good, come on in!” He dived in
and came up with a head full of mud. The men were sitting down and he
thought it was as deep as their necks, while standing up. Jed wasn’t
very happy about looking foolish and the man stayed out of camp till the
next morning waiting for him to cool off. Another entry that we always
associate with different topic, represents well bathing in the fur trade:
… She [an Indian women at Bent’s
Fort] gave birth to a fine healthy baby, about the same time, and in
half an hour after she went to the River and bathed herself in it, and
this she continued each day since.
For us today, we shouldn’t feel
bad caring for our personal hygiene while in a camp or on a trek. Items
like paper covered looking glasses, pocket razors, ivory and china combs,
scissors and red, blue and white cotton handkerchiefs are found in the
trade records going to rendezvous and were sold by the dozens in the Santa
Fe trade. Bent’s Fort even sold “toilet water” and powder for your
teeth. I am especially careful of how I take care of myself when out
longer than a weekend. A day or two isn’t bad, I won’t even change my
shirt; but when out for a week or longer, I brush my teeth (usually with
the coarse salt I carry for seasoning my meat) daily and either change or
wash my sox and clean my feet. I think that any stay of longer than a week
deserves a bath, which I have done many times in creeks, horse troughs and
rivers. If you want to find a good place to see these items and others on
the inventories and trade rolls, check the Internet site of xmission.com
under archives of records.
Parkman, The Oregon Trail, Doubleday & Company, Garden
City, 1946, p. 82.
- Albert Pike, Prose
Sketches and Poems, David Weber ed., Texas A&M Press, College
- Webster’s New Universal
Unabridged Dictionary, second edition, 1996.
- William Fairholme, Journal
of an Expedition to the Grand Prairies in 1840, Arthur
Clark Company, Spokane, 1996, pps. 45-6.
- John Audubon, Audubon’s
Western Journal, (University of Arizona Press, Tucson), 1984, p.
Zu Wied, People of the First Man, Prince Maximilian Zu Wied’s
Expedition up the Missouri River, 1833-34, David Thomas and Karin
Ronnefeldt, editors, (New York, Promontory Press), 1982, p. 204.
F. A. Chardon,
F. A. Chardon’s Journals at Fort Clark, 1834-9, Annie Abel ed.,
(Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press), 1997, p. 21.
George Sibley, The
Road to Santa Fe, Kate Gregg, ed., (Albuquerque, University of New
Mexico Press), 1952, pp. 97-8.
My Journal, Ye Gallon Press, Fairfield, 2000, pp. 47-8.
Lewis Garrard, Wah
to Yah and the Taos Trail, (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press),
1987, pp. 90-91.
- Whitman, p. 30.
Down the Santa Fe Trail and Into Mexico: Diary of Susan Shelby
Magoffin 1846-47, Stella M. Drumm ed., (New Haven, Yale University
Press), 1962, p. 68.
Picture- 112 mile camp
scene, Journal of an Expedition to the Grand Prairies in 1840,
Arthur Clark Company.