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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Rabies on the Frontier

Updated: May 11, 2023

Terrifying Scourge of the Wild

The dangers Native Americans and pioneers faced on the frontier were many and came in the forms of dangerous weather, disease, starvation, deadly accidents, and dangerous beasts. But one scourge was especially terrifying because it came embodied as both dangerous beast and deadly disease.

Hydrophobia or, more commonly known as rabies, had long been a dreaded epidemic in Europe and was closely associated with the folklore of vampires and werewolves. Immigrants brought that fear with them to North America. Going west into untamed frontier, they faced the strange beasts they’d never seen before and knew that if they were bitten, they themselves would face a horrific and agonizing end. 

One particular account of just how terrifying rabies was on the frontier comes from an account at Fort Larned in Kansas territory in 1868. Captain Albert Barnitz of the 7th US Cavalry recorded in his journal a harrowing rabid wolf rampage on August 5, 1868 inside the fort:

"Quite a serious affair occurred at the Post on the night of the 5th. Colonel [Wynkoop], the Indian Agent, was sitting on his porch, with his wife and children, and Mrs. Nolan and Tappan, I believe, and Lt. Thompson of the 3rd Infantry - and others, when a mad wolf - a very large grey wolf - entered the Post and bit one of the sentinels - ran into the hospital and bit a man lying in bed - passed another tent, and pulled another man out of bed, biting him severely - bit one man's finger nearly off - bit at one woman, I believe and some other persons in bed, but did not bite through the bed clothes - passed through the hall of Captain Nolan's house, and pounced on a large dog which he found there, and whipped him badly in half a minute - and then passed the porch of Col. [Wynkoop] - and springing in upon Lt. Thompson bit him quite severely in several places - he then passed on to where there was a sentinel guarding the haystacks and tried to bite the sentinel, but did not succeed - the sentinel firing and shooting him there on the spot!"

Corporal Michael McGillicuddy of the 3rd Infantry, Company C was in bed in the hospital when he was bitten on the hand and later died an excruciating death from rabies.

Rabies reached epidemic stages in some cities and territories in the country in the 1800s and early 1900s and Americans were hysterical with fear. The press reported incidents with lurid details. A Santa Clara newspaper in the later 1800s of a hotel guest in Saratoga, California, bitten by a rabid dog while dressing for dinner. (See photo # 2.) But, the newspaper reported, she showed great fortitude by cauterizing the wound herself with a hot iron.

A Chicago newspaper reported on July 20, 1900 that John F. Bloom, a rabid Chicago man, “created terror among pedestrians” as he ran from his house “snarling and barking like a vicious dog.” In Pittsburgh in 1906, a rabid Mr. Garrison, “snapping and snarling like a dog while rolling on the ground,” bit a policeman. 

The uncontrollably violent behavior of rabies victims was only one hideous stage of the disease and resulted in chilling personality changes and tortuous death. Not only that, symptoms could appear anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months after a bite, putting the victim and family members in an excruciating state of limbo. Once the stages of rabies began to make themselves known, the gradual disintegration to death was horrific. Aggression, irritability, confusion, convulsions, foaming at the mouth, choking, then weakness, paralysis, coma and death. The whole process could take 10-50 days. 

In American cities, rabies was spread primarily by bats and rats, but dogs also were infected. From 1855 to 1874, New York City recorded 57 human deaths by hydrophobia. As municipalities tried to pass laws muzzling or even exterminating all dogs, a debate raged across the country between officials and dog lovers, who denounced measures they found cruel or onorous. In 1846, a New York delegate at at a temperance convention in Albany argued: “there was more necessity of shutting up the shops of two-legged animals who sold maddening liquors than there was for muzzling the four-legged of the canine race for fear of hydrophobia.”

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in New York in 1866, opposed muzzling as inhumane and torture. They, along with the New York Neurological Society, founded in 1872, endorsed taxing dog owners, requiring licensing, and blunting their dogs' incisors and canines with files and nippers. The Society even published booklets with detailed instructions on the procedure. 

A dog vaccine developed by Louis Pasteur was available as early as 1907, but many feared the vaccine would transmit rabies or cause suffering to their pets. On rare occasions, this could occur, but the vaccine was gradually perfected.

Pasteur developed a human vaccine for rabies much earlier in 1885. Shortly after he successfully treated his first rabies patient in France, four boys from Newark, New Jersey, were bitten by a dog suspected of being rabid. A national campaign grew to send the boys to Pasteur for treatment, and the story became a media sensation. The entire nation following the story about the boys, who went to France for Pasteur's treatment and returned home "heroes," even touring the country later to tout the amazing new cure. 

The vaccine consisted of many doses of the rabies vaccine which came from inoculated rabbits that had died of the rabies 15 days earlier. A series of 13 doses administered over 11 days, each one slightly stronger, so that the body could build up immunity. Vaccines had to be "fresh" to be effective, so had to be provided on demand and could not be stocked by druggists. By the 1920, a vaccination kit had been refined to 21-26 doses of the vaccine.

Rabies on the frontier, however, remained a virtual death sentence. The virus seemed to lurk everywhere and could be contracted by any mammal, wild or domestic. Bats, raccoons, skunks, and coyotes were the most commonly infected. Amputation of a bitten area was sometimes considered a possible cure, but the truth was that rabies was almost always 100% fatal and there was not any treatment until Louis Pasteur developed his 1885 human vaccine. But even then vaccine kits were not widely available, especially on the isolated frontier.

Nowhere was rabies more terrifying than in eastern Oregon around 1910 when a ten-year epidemic swept the region like a surreal plague. Panicked families began reporting coyotes wandering into yards in broad daylight and attacking their pets, of docile pigs turning vicious and chasing farmers up trees, of beloved dogs and cats suddenly becoming vicious demons. 

Doctors and officials poo-poohed the claims until people started dying. Although various types of animals were contracting the disease, coyotes seemed the most affected and quickly became the bain of Oregonians. They were nearly wiped out in an effort to fight the disease. The Klamath Falls Evening Herald bemoaned the sad fate of the animal: “The coyote — the poor, miserable coyote — an animal of such nature and habits that its name and that of coward are almost synonymous, who shuns man as Satan does holy water, under the influence of this infection becomes as fierce, ferocious and venomous as the cornered cougar, the wounded tiger or the bear. The change of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde was never so complete as the change of the slinking, cowardly night prowler into the wildly attacking, fighting animal whose fangs are charged with a poison that means sure death to those inoculated and untreated.”

The U.S. Forest Service and other government bodies hired trappers and bounty hunters to try to reduce populations of coyotes and look for other rabid animals. Everywhere people wore guns in a holster or carried shotguns. Coyotes were poisoned, trapped, lassoed, hacked to death, or tortured with a vengeance. The summer of 1916 was the height of the epidemic, when carcasses of all kinds of animals, all dead of rabies, littered the landscape. Bats were everywhere, flying at mid-day, landing on animals and biting. At night, people could hear the sounds of infected coyotes, cougars and bears stumbling, and panting and dragging their paralyzed high quarters. “One woman near Prineville was forced to flee out of her own kitchen when a crazed mountain lion crashed through the window,” according to Oregon historian David Braly. The year 1916 was called “the summer of madness” when hydrophobia could turn the sweet family dog into a vicious werewolf and a family member into a vampire demon and everyone had a ready finger on the trigger.

PHOTOS: (1) Hydrophobia, commonly known as rabies, had long been a dreaded epidemic in Europe and was closely associated with the folklore of vampires and werewolves. Immigrants brought that fear with them to North America. (2) A woodcut illustration in a Santa Clara newspaper in the later 1800s of a hotel guest in Saratoga, California, bitten by a rabid dog while dressing for dinner. But, the newspaper reported, she showed great fortitude by cauterizing the wound herself with a hot iron. (3) A woodcut image of the rabid wolf attack during an attack on Lt. Thompson at Fort Larned, Kansas, on August 5, 1868. The attack resulted in a death of Corporal Michael McGillicuddy of the 3rd Infantry, Company C, who was in bed in the hospital when he was bitten on the hand. He later died of rabies. From the National Park Service Archives. (4) Municipalities issued bulletins in the 1800s warning citizens of outbreaks of hydrophobia across the nation, as well as Europe. (5) J.R. Carper, a U.S. Forest Service government trapper, posing in front of a log cabin in 1908 with the skins of a number of animals he’s killed. Carper was hired by the U.S. Forest Service for his trapping expertise to help reduce the population of potentially rabid coyotes during a rabies epidemic in Oregon territory in the early 1900s.Image: OSU Archive/U.S. Forest Service. (6) This 1885 image depicts one of Louis Pasteur's early rabies treatments. Photoprint of wood engraving in Harper's Weekly, originally published in the December 1885 issue of L'Illustration. Courtesy: National Library of Medicine. (7) An early rabies kit developed by Louis Pasteur that ultimately contained ampules of rabies vaccine, 26 syringes with needles to be administered over 21 days. From the archives of the national Museum of American History. (8) Any mammal can contract rabies if bitten. Most common were bats, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, and dogs.

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"Rabies on the Frontier" was first posted on Facebook on December 5, 2019

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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