How did the American pioneers obtain their drinking water?

  1. For most of my life I thought that 200 years ago, people who didn't have ready access to a water well or a spring would use a container to scoop water out of lakes and rivers and just drink the river or lake water right out of the container without treating it. I thought that since there was far less pollution 200 years ago, it was safe for people in the early 19th century to drink river water without treating it. It recently occurred to me that though [man-made] water pollution might not have been a problem 200 years ago, river water probably would not be safe for humans to drink because there would still be a lot of germs, microbes, and/or bacteria in it.

    I know that people who lived on farms in America 200 years ago would often have wells and would get their drinking water out of wells. But the American pioneers traveled to places where there were no water wells. I know that the pioneers could have obtained safe drinking water from springs, but I think it would be extremely difficult to find a spring.

    Presumably, the American pioneers could have scooped river/lake water into pots and boiled it over a fire to kill the microbes, but I cannot recall ever reading or hearing about 19th century Americans ever boiling water to kill microbes.

    How would pioneers on the Oregon trail obtain drinking water that was safe to drink?

    Would the pioneers on the Oregon trail just scoop water out of a lake or river and drink it without treating it first?
  2. jcsd
  3. marcusl

    marcusl 2,149
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    They drank from whatever source was handy, based on what I've read. Humans are animals, after all, who evolved powerful immune systems to deal with most bugs. Three things have changed since then. First, we have bred potent and fatal bugs through modern farming methods. E. coli O157, killer salmonella, etc. weren't such big problems before the advent of big farming. The fact that many modern bugs are resistant to antibiotics is another human-engineered idiocy. Second, the US is much more crowded. Lewis and Clark could travel a hundred miles without seeing many (sometimes any) people. Now it's hard to be far from a town or farm. Finally, as a culture and society we have decided that it's not acceptable to lose the occasional person to illness that is now 100% preventable. (And if you don't agree with this philosophy, you have the choice to drink untreated water!)

    Even problems with Giardia in water are a recent phenomenon. As late as the mid-1970's, a good portion of backpackers still didn't bother treating water from streams or lakes, with only very rare ill effects.
  4. That is my impression too. Did the American pioneers generally boil the lake/river water (and let it cool down) before drinking it?

    I would think that the microbes in the rivers/lakes 200 years ago would still make a person sick despite a person's having an immune system to deal with most bugs.

    This is not a change. 200 years ago "as a culture and society" people did not think it acceptable to lose the occasional person to illness. Most people 200 years ago drank water from water wells or springs. That's why I'm only asking specifically about the pioneers, not just anybody 200 years ago.
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2012
  5. turbo

    turbo 7,063
    Gold Member

    When I was a kid (well over 50 years ago) my friends and I had no qualms about dipping into a stream for a drink. Bear in mind that we knew which brooks and streams originated in stagnant ponds and beaver bogs. Still, free-flowing water was a good resource. Most of us didn't have army-surplus canteens, or want to lug them around when brook fishing on warm days. I don't recall any bouts with "beaver fever", but my immune system was really robust as a kid.
  6. A few things. First, well water and spring water is naturally cleaner, but it is not clean. Also boiling water with the intent of purifying it has been around since ancient greece, aproximately 4000 years ago. So we could say that probably some pioneers did boil water, at least some of the time.

    The question becomes how much? Cholera and typhoid fever were very real dangers at this time, most likely due to the drinking of unpurified water. So IMO the answer is probably not a lot.

    Municple purified drinking water I believe didn't come around to the mid 1800s, so most likely people were exposed to many of the bacterias all throughout their lives and had developed some immunity to it, well those that survived anyways.
  7. Ryan_m_b

    Staff: Mentor

    Modern pollution really isnt that big a problem, the biggest has been and remains infection. Whilst our guts have evolved to destroy most harmful pathogens a few (such as cholera) slip through.

    It's worth noting that this isn't something of historical interest, it's a major concern for hundreds of millions of people living today. Access to treated clean water is something we take for granted in the developed world but elsewhere it's nonexistent. People have to drink from what sources they can even though it can contain deadly parasites.
  8. Many of the pioneers died on the trail from dysentery. But that was because of poor sanitation (people crapping upstream). I would think that most of the streams and so forth would be OK. Did they have giardia back then? I don't think it showed up until 1970 or so. And they had much worse things to worry about.
  9. Drakkith

    Staff: Mentor

    Drinking contaminated water does not guarantee that you get an illness. All water is "contaminated" to some degree, as you will never kill everything in it. Fresh water from streams is much better than stagnant water, and people did readily drink it without ill effects all the time. But I'm sure that occasionally someone did get sick. As to whether pioneers or anyone else 200 years ago boiled their water, I don't know.
  10. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

  11. Drakkith

    Staff: Mentor

    That makes sense, as I remember my algaecide for my pool having some kind of copper in it that was the active ingredient.
  12. HallsofIvy

    HallsofIvy 41,264
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    Yes, giardia, as well as cryptosporidium (the two most common "problems" in drinking water) existed thousands of years ago. It was not just people who "pooped" upstream. All animals carry parasites. The simple fact is that early American pioneers (as well as American Aborigines and those who stayed in Europe) spent most of their lives at least slightly ill with parasites and died young.
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