Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Water has always been an essential element for human survival – something that we can only go for a few days without before death becomes inevitable. Today, fresh drinking water is not a concern for the vast majority of Americans. However, there were plenty of points in history where finding drinking water wasn’t nearly as simple as turning on the faucet.
As the pioneers first set about colonizing an unknown world, there were plenty of times when drinking water was in short supply. In order to find enough water for themselves and their families to stay alive, pioneers had to resort to finding and purifying water in any way that they were able.
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In this article, we’ll take a detailed look at the methods that pioneers used to get their drinking water as well as how these methods can be applied today in an emergency situation.
Where Did Pioneers Find Their Water?
When pioneers settled on a particular plot of land and planned on staying there for a long time, they would typically dig wells in order to collect fresh, purified water from deep beneath the ground. The underground aquifers and springs that these wells tapped into contained water that was purified through natural processes, meaning that the risk of contamination was low.
Digging a well, however, was a major project back in the pioneer days, meaning that it was only practical to dig a well if the pioneers planned on staying at that location for an extended period of time. Given that the early pioneers were a very nomadic group, there were plenty of instances during their travels where stopping to dig a well was simply not an option.
For pioneers that had not yet settled in a single spot, water was gathered from lakes, springs, rivers, and anywhere else that fresh water can be found.
What About Water Pollution?
Today, we tend to think of water pollution as a very modern problem. When we envision the days of the pioneers, we think of crystal blue lakes and streams that are flowing with fresh, pure water that is completely safe to drink. The reality is that water pollution was just as much of a problem in the days of the pioneers as it is today.
In the 1700s and 1800s, there weren’t many large factories dumping waste into the rivers like there is today. However, most contaminants that you have to worry about when you drink water from an unknown source are not man-made. Rather, they are biological.
Contaminants such as bacteria and viruses have been found in lakes and rivers for as long as man has been alive. These contaminants can come from a wide range of sources, such as dead animals, feces, microorganisms that have lived and evolved in the water for millennia, and many other sources that were very prevalent during the days of the pioneers.
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In other words, the risk of water from a river, lake, or some other natural source being contaminated was just as much of a concern for the pioneers as it is for us today. In most cases, though, the pioneers were not in a position to worry about whether or not the water they found was contaminated.
There’s a common misconception that water is always easy to find in the wilderness. However, there were plenty of instances where groups of pioneers died because they were unable to find a source of drinking water during a certain stretch of their journey.
This lack of sources for fresh water meant that when the pioneers did find a river or lake that they could draw water from, avoiding death by dehydration was typically a much bigger concern than avoiding contaminated water.
How Did They Purify Water?
That’s not to say the pioneers didn’t take steps to purify the water they found. In many cases, the pioneers would boil their water first if they were able to do so. However, knowledge about contaminants was minimal during these times, and many people did not understand the necessity of boiling water that is taken from an unknown source.
Since boiling water is a task that takes both time and resources, it’s a task that many pioneers skipped as they went about their grueling journeys. As a result, there was plenty of sickness and death during the pioneer days that resulted from drinking contaminated water.
Cholera, for example, was one especially dangerous water-borne disease that killed many pioneers. Even those who understood the risks of drinking contaminated water, though, were often left with no other choice but to roll the dice and hope for the best.
It’s important to understand that drinking water from a river or a lake that you find out in the wilderness is far from a death sentence. It’s certainly a risk, but it’s not as high of a risk as dehydration when you’ve been traveling for a day or more without water.
In most cases, pioneers who drank water from a river or lake had no ill effects. In some cases, they became very ill but eventually recovered, and in some cases, they died. This was simply the risk that most pioneers were forced to take if they wanted to stay hydrated on their travels.
Lessons We Can Learn From The Pioneers
Water contamination might not be an exclusively modern concern, but in many ways, it is a very modern idea. Purifying drinking water simply wasn’t as high on the list of priorities for the pioneers. Even those who had some understanding of the risks were often left with no other options but to accept those risks or die of dehydration.
With that said, however, there are still important lessons that we can learn from how the pioneers found their drinking water.
The first important lesson is that survival sometimes requires risk. Today, with our vast understanding of the contaminants that can be found in water and the wide range of water purification methods that we have available, there is no reason to drink water from an unknown source without purifying it first. In an emergency situation, though, survival sometimes outweighs the risk.
If you are in desperate need of water and have no way to purify the water that you find, drinking unpurified water is still a better option than dying of dehydration. Of course, this advice only applies to the most extreme of circumstances. Unpurified water from an unknown source should never be drunk unless you have no other choice.
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While survival does sometimes require risk, the second important lesson that we can learn from pioneers is the necessity of water purification. Water-borne diseases are not pleasant, and an unfortunate number of pioneers learned first-hand just how deadly these diseases can be. At the time, they didn’t have many options for dealing with these risks.
Today, though, a little preparation is all that is needed to ensure you never have to drink unpurified water. From water purification tablets to mini water purifiers to the tried and true method of boiling water, there are plenty of ways to purify water. If you want to avoid falling prey to the same fate that many pioneers suffered, it is essential to take water purification very seriously.
Finally, the pioneers’ ability to find drinking water on their travels shows us that a complete reliance on complex plumbing systems and water treatment facilities is not necessary for survival. Even without the water purification methods that we have available today, most pioneers were able to survive their journeys.
This shows that, armed with even the most basic supplies such as a simple water filter, it is possible to journey out into the unknown and find sources of drinking water wherever you go. While you may have to search a little to find a stream, lake, or another body of water, fresh water is not an uncommon occurrence in the natural world.
So long as you are able to properly purify the water that you find, finding water (in most areas of the country) isn’t an impossible challenge.
Times were difficult in the days of the pioneers, and we’ve learned a lot since then. Today, we understand the risks of water contamination and have developed technologies that allow us to eliminate these risks. When you combine modern water purification technologies with the methods of old, you have the optimum recipe for ensuring that you never die of dehydration or diseases that arise from drinking contaminated water.
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