George A. Tann: The Black Man Who Saved the Ingalls Family

This historical account about a consequential black pioneer doctor takes place during the summer of 1870 in the Osage Diminished Indian Reserve in Kansas, near modern day Independence. Many pioneer groups trekked through this uncharted frontier either heading West to Oregon or California, or stopping to start a new life. That year, homesteaders from all walks of life and races, many former Civil War soldiers, and members of the Osage Indian tribe lived side by side. 

Charles Ingalls Family

Caroline and Charles Ingalls

Among the recent arrivals was the Ingalls family, who had traveled by covered wagon to Kansas from Wisconsin— Charles, Caroline, Mary, Laura, and their dog Jack. You may be familiar with these names because they are all featured in the popular books Pioneer Girl and Little House on the Prairie written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

In 1869, when the Ingalls left Wisconsin, Laura Ingalls (born Feb. 7, 1867) was just two years old. Her younger sister, Carrie, was born in Independence, Kansas, in August 1870. 

The Ingalls, along with other pioneer families, had traveled to this part of Kansas because they had been told the area was open to settlement under the Homestead Act. Unfortunately, they had been misled and would later learn they were not legally entitled to own land on what was part of an Indian reservation.

Tann Family

Living just north of the Ingalls was the Tann family. The elder member of that family was Bennett Tann (1802-1894). Bennett was born in Pennsylvania as a free black man. He was a successful farmer who owned and operated several farms in that state. He and his first wife, Dinah, had at least five children, George, Morris, Louise, Washington, and Martha. 

In 1869, at age 67, Bennett sold his farm in Washington Township, Lycoming county, Pennsylvania. Then he, along with his second wife, Mary, and son George A. Tann, age 33, moved to Rutland, Montgomery county, Kansas, also taking advantage of the Homestead Act. 

George A. Tann was born Nov. 27, 1825, in Whitemarsh, Montgomery county, Pennsylvania. He had served as a private in the Civil War, representing the Union and State of Pennsylvania, 99th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry.   

The Deadly Summer

The summer of 1870 was particularly tropical, hot and humid. The Ingalls, as well as several other homesteader families and some of the Osage, lived in the “bottoms,” an area near a creek bordered by marshy lowlands with plenty of stagnant water. The conditions in the bottoms were a perfect breeding ground for a major infestation of mosquitoes and disease.

The Plasmodium parasite hosted by female mosquitoes.

In 1870, people weren’t aware of the parasite known as Plasmodium, which causes malaria. The parasite’s favorite host is a female mosquito, who tends to bite at dusk and night. When an infected mosquito bites a human, it passes the parasites into the bloodstream. 

Malaria has afflicted and killed humans for thousands of years. In 1870, the disease was known as “fever ‘n’ ague.” It was widely believed to be caused by something in the air rising from swamplands, and that contact with these fumes put you at risk for contracting the sickness. In fact, “bad air” is what Charles Ingalls attributed to the outbreak. On the other hand, some settlers believed it had been caused by bad melons grown in the area. 

Malaria is a serious disease and can get worse very quickly. If it isn’t diagnosed and treated promptly, it can be fatal. It can also cause serious complications, such as seizures, brain damage and coma. 

Ingalls Family Near Death

One morning Laura awoke with a face speckled with mosquito bites. She was the first one in the family to report symptoms. She said she “felt cold in the hot sunshine and could not get warm by the fire. She was tired and ached.” Then it was Mary, followed by Pa, and ultimately, Ma. Laura does not mention in her book if baby Carrie was sick. 

The entire Ingalls family became extremely sick, suffering from chills, fever, sweating, vomiting, and were barely conscious. They were literally on their deathbeds. But then, as fate would have it, their dog Jack spotted a man walking nearby. The dog persisted in drawing the man’s attention to the Ingalls home, suggesting something was wrong. 

That man was George A. Tann. He was on his way back home after days treating the Osage Indians, who were also sick and dying from malaria. George entered the Ingalls home and knew quickly they were in dire straits. He administered medicine to the family and stayed the day and night caring for them.  

Mrs. Scott, a neighbor lady, was the next person to arrive at the Ingalls’ home. She said all the settlers, up and down the creek, had fever ‘n’ ague. There weren’t enough healthy people to care for the sick, so she had been stopping by each homestead to offer assistance. She stayed with the Ingalls family for a brief period until they started to regain some strength. The entire family ultimately recovered.  

Mrs. Scott is quoted as saying, “It’s a wonder you ever lived through. All of you down at once. And here you all were, more dead than alive.” What might have happened if Dr. Tann hadn’t found them, she didn’t know. 

What cured the Ingalls?

What type of “medicine” George Tann gave the Ingalls is not known, as medicine had not been developed yet to treat malaria. In her book, Laura said: “An arm lifted under her shoulders, and a black hand held a cup to her mouth. Laura swallowed a bitter swallow and tried to turn her head away, but the cup followed her mouth. The mellow, deep voice said again, ‘Drink it. It will make you well.’ So Laura swallowed the whole bitter dose.” The next morning Laura felt so much better.

Laura also said in her book Mrs. Scott dispensed the same medicine to each of the family members. She opened her mouth, and Mrs. Scott poured a dreadful bitterness out of a small folded paper onto Laura’s tongue.

It’s plausible Dr. Tann treated the Ingalls with an herbal medicine, something he had known to be effective based on his prior experience as a peddler of herbal remedies in Pennsylvania. 

Historical records indicate George did not attend medical school. His level of elementary and secondary education was most likely limited because he grew up laboring on his father’s farm. It is possible he acquired his medical skills as an apprentice to a trained physician, maybe while in the Civil War or living in Pennsylvania. 

He may have also acquired his knowledge about herbal medicine from information passed down to him from an elder family member. We know George was an avid gardener and had been exposed to the sanitary movement during the Civil War in which enlisted men were educated about sanitation and the need for personal hygiene.  

Life of George A. Tann

George A. Tann was a free black man. He worked beside his father on their Pennsylvania farm growing up. After leaving the farm, George made a living as a peddler, while supporting his wife, mother-in-law, and infant son. He sold herbal remedies as part of his peddling business.

He married Cathrine Thompson, and from this union was born William Gilbert Tann. George’s second wife was Eliza Harris. They had two daughters, Naomi and Estella. 

Dr. Tann was known as a doctor of  “eclectic” medicine, a medical practice of combining botanical remedies with physical therapy. He was said to be particularly skilled in setting bones and had helped deliver countless babies in the territory. 

According to genealogical research, Dr. Tann established practices in Independence, Kansas, and the Oklahoma Cherokee Nation. George was well respected among the Indians and dedicated much of his career to caring from them. In 1890 he was listed on the Oklahoma and Indian Territory, U.S., Indian Censuses and Rolls, as living in Cooweescoowee, and a member of the Cherokee tribe. 

During his lifetime, George acquired hundreds of acres of land with gardens, fruit trees, and a hen house, hog pen, and stable. Laborers, farmers, and housekeepers worked on his properties. 

Dr. George A. Tann, Mount Hope Cemetery, Independence, Kansas

Dr. Tann retired in 1902. He died March 31, 1909, at age 67, at Wayside, Montgomery county, Kansas. He suffered a heart attack following a horse and buggy accident. 

Residents of Independence held high regard for Dr. Tann. He was laid to rest in a prominent spot in the Mount Hope Cemetery in Independence in gratitude for his life-long, selfless service to the community.

References

  • The history of malaria in the United States: how it spread, how it was treated, and public responses, author Anuraag Bukkuri, April 28, 2016.
  • Little House on the Prairie, article by Katherine Stein
  • George A. Tann and Black History in the West, SDHSPress
  • U.S., Find A Grave Index
  • A Doctor Fetched by the Family Dog: The Story of Dr. George A. Tann, Pioneer Black Physician, author Eileen Charbo

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