February 10, 1806 was not a good day for the Corps of Discovery. Captain Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal:
Drewyer visited his traps today but caught no beaver. Collins and Wiser returned had killed no Elk. Willard arrived late in the evening from the Saltworks, had cut his knee very badly with his tommahawk. he had killed four Elk not far from the Salt works the day before yesterday, which he had butched and took a part of the meat to camp, but having cut his knee was unable to be longer ucefull at the works and had returned. he informed us that Bratton was very unwell, and that Gibson was so sick that he could not set up or walk alone and had desired him to ask us to have him brought to the Fort.
Concerned about Bratton and Gibson, Lewis and Clark immediately dispatched a relief party to help the sick men get back to the fort. After an agonizing delay, Bratton finally limped into camp on February 15. Gibson followed behind, borne in a blanket by the relief party. Lewis was relieved to find that Gibson, though “much reduced,” was “by no means as ill as we had expected.”
Though he was ambulatory, the same could not be said of William Bratton. Of all the illnesses and injuries the men suffered on the expedition, Bratton’s was one of the worst. Working at the Salt Camp about 15 miles southwest of Fort Clatsop (present day Seaside, Oregon), Bratton had been struck down by a malady that strikes terror in the heart of anyone who has ever experienced it: severe low back pain.
Bratton’s agony would continue for months. His pain grew so severe that he found it difficult to sit up, let alone walk. The captains tried dosing him with cinchona bark and laxatives, but these did nothing to alleviate his discomfort. When the Corps turned their canoes back up the Columbia River in March 1806, Bratton appeared temporarily to regain some strength, his spirits no doubt buoyed by the prospect of going home. But the constant canoeing in cold, wet, and windy weather did his aching back no good. By April 11, he was worse than ever. Lewis noted the Bratton was weak and “unable to work.”
The pain dragged on. On April 20th, as they were preparing to recross the Bitterroot Mountains, Lewis wrote that “Bratton was compelled to ride as he was yet unable to walk.” Despite the attempts to make him comfortable, one can only imagine the man’s misery riding a horse over rugged mountain terrain, the peaks still buried under winter snow, his back screaming with every step. The invention of chiropractic care was over 90 years in the future.
By mid-May 1806, the Corps was enjoying a rest with the Nez Perce, near present-day Kamiah, Idaho. Still suffering, Bratton was ready to resort to desperate measures. The Corps’ blacksmith, John Shields, had come up with a radical idea. Sergeant John Ordway wrote in his journal: “Wm bratton having been so long better than 3 months nearly helpless with a Severe pain in his back we now undertake Sweeting him nearly in the manner as the Indians do … we expect this opperation will help him.”
Lewis wrote about what happened next:
Sheilds sunk a circular hole of 3 feet diamiter and four feet deep in the earth. he kindled a large fire in the hole and heated well, after which the fire was taken out a seat placed in the center of the hole for the patient with a board at bottom for his feet to rest on; some hopps of willow poles were bent in an arch crossing each other over the hole, on these several blankets were thrown forming a secure and thick orning of about 3 feet high. the patient being striped naked was seated under this orning in the hole and the blankets well secured on every side. the patient was furnished with a vessell of water which he sprinkles on the bottom and sides of the hole and by that means creates as much steam or vapor as he could possibly bear, in this situation he was kept about 20 minutes after which he was taken out and suddonly plunged in cold water twise and was then immediately returned to the sweat hole where he was continued three quarters of an hour longer then taken our covered up in several blankets and suffered to cool gradually. during the time of his being in the sweat hole, he drank copious draughts of a strong tea of horse mint.
Remarkably, Bratton felt an immediate improvement. Clark wrote the day after the sweat bath, “bratten is walking about to day and is much better than he has been.” The effects of the hot sauna-like pit, alternated with the cold river water, acted like a modern-day physical therapy treatment of alternating hot and cold packs. Such treatments relieve pain by reducing inflammation, easing muscle spasms, increasing blood flow to the injured area, and relaxing the connective tissues.
The journals do not report whether Bratton repeated the “Indian treatment,” but at any rate, the hot and cold therapy did the trick. Within a week or so, Lewis reported, “Bratton is much stronger and can walk about with considerable ease.” By June 8, Lewis declared that “we cannot well consider him an invalid any longer.” Bratton’s aching back was cured.