I hope this note finds you well.
I don’t know that I have ever explained why I begin my pieces with the phrase, “I hope this note finds you well.” As a child I can remember my mother penning letters to my grandparents who lived in Charlestown, Indiana. She would begin her missives with a similar line or others such as “We are all well, hope all is well with you.” Given the history of our state and especially the river bottomlands of East Arkansas this was a reasonable concern.
The United States purchased Arkansas from the French in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. At the time of the purchase there was almost no one here. Estimates are that there were about three hundred and fifty Europeans, sixty-five African slaves and four thousand Native Americans in the boundaries of what would be Arkansas. There were several good reasons why no one called this place home. The most important of these was wrapped up in a set of words that was in vogue at the time.
The terms salubrious and insalubrious were in common use; salubrious means “healthy or health giving” and insalubrious the opposite. Because of the many rivers, swamps and bottomlands in the state insalubrious was a term commonly used to describe the state of Arkansas. Mosquitos were more than a simple nuisance. The swarms of mosquitos and horse flies along the Mississippi River were legend. There is record of at least one Superior Court Justice arriving at Arkansas Post on the Mississippi River and immediately boarding the next boat out because of the mosquitos.
The illnesses that most often afflicted there early settlers were the Fevers. We now know that most of these fevers were caused by one of three different types of malaria and typhoid. They had yet to make the connection between mosquitos, foul water and the germs they carried. The incidence of these illnesses in our state did not begin to disappear until the late 1940’s.
For a thorough discussion of this issue I would refer you to a book by Conevery Bolton Valencius. The Health of the Country talks about the language of health and disease in early Arkansas and Missouri.
The early settlers were often young couples looking for land yet to be claimed by anyone else. In a day when health care was dicey at best most people depended on their extended families; for the most part these adventurers were on their own. If they were literate they might have access to a medical self-helped book such as Gunn’s Domestic Advisor. Most were afflicted for the first year with some form of Fever and if they survived they were said to have been “seasoned.”
The disease burden fell heaviest on young mothers and their children. Maternal and Infant mortality was high; second and third marriages were common partially to care for orphaned children. In my own family children dying in the first year of life were common at late as my parent’s generation.
It isn’t surprising that life was framed in terms of illness and health. So when I open with “I hope this note finds you well,” and end with, “Have a nice journey” I am following in a strong family tradition.
Have a nice journey.