Doctors, especially those attached to frontier Army posts, played a major role in the westward migration of the pioneers. These doctors treated soldiers and civilians. In many cases they were the only doctors available to the frontier population. Among these Army physicians was Dr. John Gale, whose career on the frontier was noteworthy.
The service record of John Gale, as with many important pioneer characters of his time, begins when he enlisted on July 6, 1812, as a surgeon’s mate and assigned to the 23rd Infantry Regiment. His date of birth was listed as October 22, 1790, and his birthplace is given as Kingston, Rockingham County, New Hampshire. His home at the time of enlistment was Andover, Massachusetts. His death is recorded as having occurred at Fort Armstrong, Illinois, July 27, 1830.
The first official record of Gale’s career is in the War of 1812 and appears as special mention in a report of Brigadier General E. W. Ripley, commanding the second brigade of the Northern Army. Reporting on the Siege of Fort Erie August 4 to September 21, 1814, he says: “I close this long report by stating to you in the highest terms of approbation, the skillfulness exhibited by Dr. Fuller, Surgeon of the 23rd, and Doctor Trowbridge, Surgeon of the 21st Infantry, with their mates Doctor Gale of the 23rd, and Doctors Everett and Allen of the 21st; their active, humane, and judicious treatment of the wounded, both of the enemy and of our own, together with their steady and constant attention to the duties of their station, must have attracted your personal observation, and I am confident will receive your approbation.”
General Gaines, in forwarding the report to the then Secretary of War, John Armstrong, endorses General Ripley’s report in the following terms: ‘The surgeons, Doctors Fuller, 23rd, Trowbridge, 21st, with their mates, Doctors Gale of the 23rd and Everett and Allen of the 21st, deserve the warmest approbation for their indefatigable exertions and humane attention to the wounded of our army, as well as to the prisoners who fell into our hands.”
On August 31, 1814, Gale was transferred from the 23rd Infantry to the 34th Infantry and was discharged on June 15, 1815. He made an application for reenlistment in the regular army and was appointed surgeon’s mate on September 13, 1815, and assigned to a detachment of the 3rd Infantry, which at that time was stationed at Fort Selby, near Detroit. Dr. Gale was later transferred to Fort Dearborn on the Chicago River.
Surgeon’s mate Gale remained at Fort Dearborn until April 18, 1818, when he was promoted to the rank of Surgeon and assigned to the Rifle Regiment and ordered to proceed to Fort Bellefontaine where that regiment had been ordered mobilized. The Rifle Regiment was destined to become part of the Yellowstone Expedition under the command of Colonel Henry Atkinson.
In September 1818, the Surgeon-General, Joseph Lovell, issued a general order which contained this paragraph: “The Surgeon-General shall receive from every surgeon and mate performing the duties of surgeon, quarterly reports of sick, with such remarks as may be necessary to explain the diseases of the troops.”
Surgeon-General Lovell wrote to the Secretary of War on November 1, 1818. Surgeon-General Lovell had introduced numerous reforms in the Medical Corps and made every effort to secure prompt and accurate statistical reports from the surgeons attached to the troops. In his report of November 1818, the Surgeon-General says: “The officers of the Corps, not having been heretofore required to make such reports and returns, as will be necessary in future, some time will probably be required to obtain them in a proper form and regular manner; particularly those relating to the nature and treatment of diseases, which can only be described in general terms, while all their usefulness must depend on their respective surgeons. Those, however, of Dr. Gale of the Rifle Corps are notable exceptions to these remarks.”
Surgeon Gale remained at Bellefontaine until June 15, 1819, when the second battalion of the Rifle Regiment left Bellefontaine and proceeded up the Missouri and joined the first battalion at Cow Island. In August, his battalion arrived at Council Bluffs, and on October 2, 1819, the 6th Infantry and Regiment of Riflemen established a winter cantonment named Camp Missouri.
A devastating epidemic of scurvy broke out among the troops stationed at Camp Missouri during the winter of 1819-1820. Dr. Gale was instrumental in curbing the disease and relocating the camp to a more permanent location. The new post was named after Colonel Henry Atkinson. In May 1821 Surgeon Gale became chief medical officer at Fort Atkinson.
In 1823, Surgeon Gale accompanied Colonel Henry Leavenworth on an expedition against the Aricayas (Arikaras), an Indian trading and farming tribe that had killed 14 men attached to General William Ashley’s unit at Ft. Atkinson. The objectives General Ashley was working toward at the post was “…the enlargement and protection of the fur trade, and permanent peace of our North-Western frontier by securing a decided control over the various tribes of Indians in that quarter”. Col. Leavenworth was sent to extend protection to Gen. Ashley. His orders were to “…gain the confidence and affection of all the Indian tribes with whom you may have any intercourse. To prevent hostility on the part of the Indians, they ought to be fully impressed with our capacity to avenge any injury which they offer us; and it is no less important that they should be equally impressed with our justice and humanity.” He was also directed by the President to “…hold treaties of friendship with the tribes within our limits…” and to work with the Indian agent, Major B. O’Fallon.
On this 1823 expedition, Dr. Gale distinguished himself during an unexpected and severe gale on July 8, which broke in an instant the fasts on the largest boat, the Yellowstone keelboat. Although the several men on board dropped anchor, the anchor was dragged and the boat driven with great violence on a sandbar causing the mast and deck to be carried overboard and broken into pieces.
Dr. Gale was the first to help and took charge of a small group of men. Even during the exceedingly severe wind and very high surf swell, they were able to successfully land a large quantity of cargo. If it had not been for Dr. Gale’s exertions, the expedition would have been returned to post.
In October, after their return from the expedition during which a peace treaty was signed with the Arikaras, the Commanding General of the Western Department thanked Colonel Leavenworth, Gen. Ashley and all of their men for their “… promptitude and discretion, skill and gallantry with which the expedition was conducted and executed.” Col. Leavenworth had particularly noted to him several officers, including Dr. Gale.
Surgeon Gale accompanied the peace expedition of 1825 under the command of now General Atkinson to the upper Missouri tribes. The expedition was made necessary by the disastrous outcome of the Ankara War.
Dr. Gale and Assistant Surgeon Richard M. Coleman were the two medical officers attached to the expedition. They would later serve together at Ft. Armstrong, Illinois.
Dr. Gale was married to Nicomi (Voice of the Waters), an Omaha-Ioway-Otoe woman born to the Chief of the Ioway Tribe. They had a daughter in 1827 named Mary. Her Indian name was Wa-Tun-Na, meaning “The One Woman”. At a young age Gale sent his daughter to be educated at St. Louis. When Dr. Gale was transferred and forced to leave his wife and daughter behind, he made provisions for their future by creating a trust, which he placed in the control of his friend Peter Sarpy, a trader with the American Fur Company who operated near Fort Atkinson. Three years later, John Gale died, and Mary was raised by her mother and Peter Sarpy. Peter and Nicomi married in 1831. Sarpy had established his own fur trading post on the east side of the Missouri River, in what became Iowa. Mary later married Joseph LaFlesche and had several children, including Susan LaFlesche Picotte, who became the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree.
No record has been found ordering Surgeon Gale’s transfer to Fort Armstrong where his death is recorded as having occurred on July 27, 1830, at the age of 35. A short paragraph about his death in the Columbia Herald Statesman said that his “medical skill was surpassed by few of his profession.” It also said that his “services during the late war were of the highest description at Bridgewater, Erie, and elsewhere.” It is interesting to note that a change of troops occurred at Fort Armstrong on the exact date of Dr. Gale’s death. He was buried in the Fort cemetery, which was later destroyed during construction of a railroad embankment to the Government Bridge in 1869-1872.
Fort Armstrong marks the burial place of these pioneer surgeons, John Gale, and Richard M. Coleman. The Medical Societies of Rock Island and Moline have erected a marker on the site of Fort Armstrong as a memorial to these two men who died of cholera. It is said that the surgeons tended to their patients until the end.
Dr John Gale was a well know Frontier Surgeon with many references to his skill, dedication to duty, and devotion to his patents. Here is a list of some of these references:
Cutter, Irving S. “Dr. John Gale, a Pioneer Army Surgeon.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984) 23, no. 4 (1931): 630–41. Dr. John Gale, a Pioneer Army Surgeon on JSTOR. Accessed 2/4/2022
United States War Department. Surgeon-General’s Office. Report on the Sickness and Mortality in the Army of the United States. Compiled from the records of the Surgeon-General’s and the Adjutant-General’s Offices, a period of twenty years, from January 1819 to January 1839. Prepared under the direction of Thomas Lawson, Surgeon General. Washington, J. Gideon Jr., vol. IV, 1840. https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/bookviewer?PID=nlm:nlmuid-101523687-bk
Mary C. Gillett, The ARMY MEDICAL DEPARTMENT 1818-1865.
United States Army Center of Military History, The Army Medical Department, 1818-1865
Dr. John Gale, a Pioneer Army Surgeon on JSTOR
Dr. John Gale, a Pioneer Army Surgeon on JSTOR (sau.edu)
Arikara Battle – The Real Story of Hugh Glass
27 Dec 1823, 1 – Edwardsville Spectator at Newspapers.com
18 Oct 1823, 3 – Edwardsville Spectator at Newspapers.com
Microsoft Word – Mary Gale.doc (metismuseum.ca)
Mary “Hinnuagsnun” Gale La Flesche (1827-1909) – Find a Grave Memorial
Fontenelle’s Post – Wikipedia
Women in History–Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte: American Physician and Heroine (unl.edu)
14 Aug 1830, 3 – Columbia Herald-Statesman at Newspapers.com
Dr John Gale (1790-1830) – Find a Grave Memorial
27 Dec 1823, 1 - Edwardsville Spectator at Newspapers.com
Dr John Gale (1790-1830) – Find a Grave Memorial
Fort Armstrong Rock Island –
Source: Alice C. Walker Copyright: Creative Commons 3.0 https://www.routeyou.com/en-us/location/view/47976317/fort-armstrong