Aunt Nancy Range doctored backwoods patients in Warren and Erie County, Pennsylvania, while medicine continued to develop into a profession.
In Erie County, Aunt Tamar Thompson and Aunt Nancy Range nursed the sick through cholera, and other epidemics. They sweated colds and starved fevers and delivered Erie county babies. By 1830, male physicians had taken over obstetrics and midwifery, at least for middle class women, but their dominance did not extend to the backwoods of Northwestern Pennsylvania.
Aunt Nancy Range Doctors Through Warren and Erie County
Aunt Nancy Range, born Nancy Myers, was distantly related to Tamar Thompson and she followed the same profession. She was born June 4, 1784 in Clarion County, Pennsylvania, and was raised there. She married John Range Jr., on April 12, 1798, and they had 14 children. When Aunt Nancy wasn’t busy tending her own family, she was doctoring her neighbors and ailing citizens of Warren and Erie counties.
In those days a doctor didn’t need a license to practice medicine. A man might at any time put up a shingle and proclaim himself as a doctor. These untutored doctors made all their own medicine, and sometimes even distilled their own whiskey for medicinal purposes . Aunt Nancy’s skills were as good as or better than her male counterparts and she was in more demand.
Aunt Nancy Doctored from the Cradle to the Grave
In her middle age when she doctored in Warren County, Aunt Nancy rode Warren county bridle paths on her roan mare Mollie. She stretched above medium height with large bones, strong hands, and a strong jaw line. She wore steel rimmed specks with black strings on their bows fastened behind her head to keep the glasses from falling off when Mollie trotted hard or rode at a gallop.
Every pioneer household welcomed a frontier doctor like Aunt Nancy. The householders offered food, shelter and warm hospitality because it was an honor to shelter and entertain the doctor and in return, many householders eagerly awaited the news and gossip that Aunt Nancy carried from cabin to cabin.
When a message came that Aunt Nancy was needed she quickly dropped her herb brewing, spinning or dyeing while one of her sons saddled and bridled Mollie and brought her to the door. She grabbed her saddlebags that always hung behind the door ready for an emergency and climbed on Mollie’s back.
Through wind and rain and snow reaching to Mollie’s belly Aunt Nancy would ride on Mollie’s back to reach her patients. When Aunt Nancy arrived at her patient’s home and found a serious illness, she would stay right there until she nursed the sick person better. If the patient died, Aunt Nancy Range laid out the body, cooked a meal or two and tended matters in general.
Aunt Nancy’s Herb Garden
At her cabin home near the headwaters of the Little Brokenstraw Creek in Warren County, Aunt Nancy had a large herb garden, a hundred yards long and 50 yards wide. In it she grew the herbs essential to her practice, like foxglove, catnip, lobelia, peppermint, smartweed, golden seal, spearmint, spikenard. The forest was also Aunt Nancy’s herb garden and from the forest she gathered bloodroot, myrrh, mandrake or May apple, sassafras, tag alder, slipper elm and many other herbs.
Aunt Nancy knew just where to find blossoms, leaves, bark, or roots that were good for cures in woods or clearings or swamps. Foxglove reduced dropsy, sassafras thinned the blood, yellow dock purified the blood, and golden seal and licorice root acted as a general tonic and cured stomach ailments. Boneset cured colds. Hemlock tea was a standard home remedy. Indians used Queen of the Meadow for colds and Aunt Nancy used the same remedy calling it “a reliable Indian remedy.”
Aunt Nancy Preaches Her Own Funeral Sermon
In the last years of her life Aunt Nancy ministered to souls as well as bodies. She preached on Sundays in a log school house and the good folks came from miles around on foot and horse back to hear her sermons. She preached the old fashioned hell fire and suffering for the damned and eternal bliss for the righteous. She loved that sort of preaching and went from the kindly character of nurse and doctor to the stern, vindictive pulpit personality in one sentence.
When she had reached her seventies and lived in Erie County near the site of present day Union City, Aunt Nancy Range who now had white curls at her temples, had a premonition. She announced that she would preach her funeral sermon on the following Sabbath. A large congregation assembled and listened to her preach. They all agreed that it was a good sermon, preached with power and persuasion. Two weeks later on December 8, 1860, she died and went to her reward which had to be a good one because she relieved so much suffering on earth.
Bates, Samuel, History of Erie County Pennsylvania, Warner Beers & Company Chicago, 1884
Bristow, Arch, Old Time Tales of Warren County, iUniverse, 2010
Conevery, Bolton Valencius, The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land, Basic Books, 2002
Coulter, Harris, Divided Legacy: A History of the Schism in Medical Thought, Vol. 2, North American Books, 1994
Nelson, S.R., Biographical Dictionary and Historical Reference Book of Erie County, Pa., S.R. Nelson Publisher, Erie, Pa., 1896
Rosenberg, Charles, The Care of Strangers: The Rise of America’s Hospital System, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen, World Epidemics: A Cultural Chronology of Disease from Prehistory to the Present, McFarland & Company, 2003
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1775-1812, Vintage Books, 1990
Walker, Captain Augustus, Early Days on the Lakes with an Account of the Cholera Visitation of 1832, The Cornell Library, New York State Historical Literature
Wilson, David, History of the Settlement of Union Township