Once the Mormon Battalion was on their way, a common refrain in the diaries is “Deliver us from Doctor Sanderson.” As a social historian, this immediately raised red flags and I started asking questions. Who is Doctor Sanderson? What was he doing? Why did the men think they needed to be delivered?
Further reading of the diaries revealed that Doctor Sanderson was the battalion surgeon and doctor. All men that were too ill to march had to see him and be treated by him. He was from Missouri. If you know anything about Mormon history, it’s a understatement to say that the Mormons and Missourians did not get along. Dr. Sanderson apparently openly boasted that he would send as many Mormons to hell as he could. In this situation, would you want to see him if you were ill?
Many men thought along the same lines I did and tried to hide their illness as long as possible. Many healthy men did what they could to care for their sick comrades and help them avoid going to see Dr. Sanderson.
The diaries mentioned that Dr. Sanderson treated illness with calomel (mercury) and arsenic. Today we automatically assume that is horrible and might agree that Dr. Sanderson was doing his best to send as many Mormons to hell as possible.
However, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions like that. By doing a little digging into medicine of the time period, particularly in the military, I found that calomel and arsenic were standard treatments of the time. So, as horrible as these treatments seems to us today, he was giving the Mormons under his care the best that he knew.
Asking questions during our research can open so many doors to a greater understanding of the period. Which questions have you asked that led you to interesting findings and helped you better understand your ancestors?