Hard as it is to believe now, Scott County, Iowa, bordering the Mississippi River on the state’s eastern edge, was once America’s frontier. Before 1833, when the United States Congress opened what was then known as the Blackhawk Purchase to free settlement, nearly that entire region was as wild and untamed as anything the cowboys would roam nearly fifty years later.
In his later years, Captain Warner Lewis Clark would remember that time fondly. He had watched Scott County grow over the years and bore witness to several early events that took place there.
More importantly to our tale, Warner also remembered some individuals that had long since passed out of the living memory of most. These folks may not have made the history books in a big way, but the peculiarities of their personalities and character made them very memorable.
In other words, some people were just so weird that you couldn’t forget them.
One of these men was John Shook.
Warner moved into the region with his father, Benjamin, when he was a still a boy in the early part of the 19th century. At that time, the only other white children to play with were the sons of Colonel George Davenport, a fur trapper and Indian trader.
Warner and the Davenport boys not only played with one another but were also very good friends with the Sauk and Meskwaki children that lived there, too. One of Warner’s friends would later become Chief Keokuk, one of the most notable leaders of the Meskwaki tribe.
Later, after the natives were forced from the region after the Blackhawk War, the United States Congress opened several thousand acres of land west of the Mississippi River to white settlement in 1833.
Warner’s father, Benjamin Clark, bought land downriver from Rock Island, Illinois on the opposite side of the river, and quickly set about building a ferry.
Clark choose his location well. There was plenty of good water to drink and solid timber to make lumber. The low hills surrounding his claim contained plenty of limestone for building, and even had seams of coal ready for mining.
In these early days, there were no bridges across the Mississippi in the area. The only way to get across was by taking a ferry, making it a sound and practical business venture. Soon, as more and more settlers pushed into the area, Clark’s Ferry began to prosper.
Benjamin invested his money and efforts into building up his claim and the surrounding area, which by now had others living there. Houses, barns, and a blacksmith shop were built. Some even started mining coal out of the nearby hills.
Soon, Clark decided to lay out roads to the north and south of his ferry. In 1834, he hired John Shook to go north to the Wapsipinicon River and establish a ferry there.
John Shook was a hunter and a trapper, at home in the woods and on the prairie. He wore clothing made from animal skins and had a hat that was made from a pelican’s lower bill. Why he had such a hat or how it became such an integral part of his wardrobe has been lost to time, but I’m going to choose to believe that he had a good reason.
All joking aside, Shook may have been a little odd, but he was trustworthy and dependable. He and young Warner, who was about twelve at the time John was running the Wapsi ferry, were good friends. Warner would even travel with him on occasion.
Walking in a Winter Wonderland
One winter, Benjamin sent Shook out on a task. It was a nasty winter, complete with blinding snows, driving winds, and bitterly cold temperatures. It was vicious weather, the kind that could easily kill a man.
About a month later, Shook stumbled back into the Clark home.
His feet seemed to give him trouble, like he was in pain. But Shook was a tough man, long accustomed to the rigors of life on the frontier. He didn’t complain, but rather talked and joked with everyone present like nothing was wrong.
Instead of travelling through the frigid winter night, Shook decided to stay with the Clarks. As he went to remove his boots before bed, he found that he couldn’t. With probably more than a few well-intentioned jokes, Warner and Benjamin came over to help. To their surprise, they couldn’t take off the boots, either.
After examining them for a few moments, one of them realized what was wrong -the boots were literally frozen to John’s feet.
With growing concern, they took a knife and cut the boots off. It was immediately apparent that the boots weren’t the only things that were frozen. John Shook was suffering from severe frostbite.
Acting quickly, they began to apply what small medical knowledge that they had to help heal the poor man’s feet. On the frontier, there was no 911; no paramedics to call for help. Even in the direst medical situation, you were often forced to fend for yourself with what you had.
The Clarks did whatever they could for Shook, using herbs and poultices, but it did no good. Shook began to worsen.
Luckily for the Clark homestead, there was a resident doctor upriver at Fort Armstrong, on what is now Arsenal Island, Illinois. Shook was loaded into a sleigh and quickly taken there. Unfortunately, the doctor had gone to St. Louis, and there were no others for over 100 miles.
With a heavy heart, they took John back to the Clark home.
A spare cabin was prepared for him, and for the next several weeks Shook laid in pain on a makeshift bed.
The Clark’s and other locals continued to apply poultices to his feet. Eventually, Shook’s left foot was completely healed. The right one was a different story.
The toes, severely frostbitten, were essentially dead. Soon, the frozen flesh began to rot away and fall off, leaving only the ivory-hued bones. Something had to be done.
As is the case today, the only recourse in a case of frostbite this bad is amputation. Everyone probably knew that, but no one really wanted to undertake the grim task. Finally, someone stepped forward to volunteer.
One of Benjamin’s hired men, Smith Mounts, spoke with Shook and assured the injured man that he could sever the toes. Probably knowing that he had no other choice, Shook agreed, and Mounts began to make preparations.
Mounts went to his tool chest and took out a carpenter’s chisel. He carefully and deliberately sharpened it, honing its edge to a razor’s edge. Once he was satisfied, Mounts took his chisel, grabbed a mallet, and returned to Shook. Others, including Warner, came to help.
First, they moved John so that he could rest his injured foot against the end of a log near the fireplace. Then they grabbed hold of his leg and held him fast, so that he couldn’t jerk his foot away during the “surgery” that was about to take place.
Mounts took the chisel and placed it carefully at the first of the five rotten toes. With a slow, steadying breath, he raised his mallet, paused, then swung it hard at the chisel.
The tool passed easily through flesh and bone and into the log. The toe, sailing end over end through the air, landed on the cabin floor with a faint thud.
The grisly deed was repeated four more times, until all the toes had been removed.
Afterward, John made a steady recovery, although he had a noticeable limp for the rest of his life. Warner Clark would later claim that this was the first “surgery” in the county, and possibly even the entire state of Iowa.
While there will probably never be a way to definitively prove Clark’s statement, it’s ultimately unimportant. Instead, what we should walk from this story with is a better understanding of the indomitable spirit of the pioneer in the face of potentially deadly circumstances, when a community of people came together to help heal a friend and neighbor.
Downer, Harry E. “History of Davenport and Scott County, Iowa, Volume 1.” Chicago; The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1910.
Wolfe, P.B. “Wolfe’s History of Clinton County, Iowa, Volume 1.” Indianapolis; B.F. Bowen and Company, 1911
2 thoughts on “John Shook’s Toes: Surgery on the Iowa Frontier”
Discussing the blizzard in your last post inspired me to re-read that depressing book on the Children’s Blizzard, so stories of frostbite and amputation are fresh in my mind. The chisel and the mallet is an even more vivid story though – I don’t know that it would have occurred to me to use a chisel if a sharp knife or saw was handy, but clearly it worked, and was probably faster than a knife would have been! Poor John Shook. I wonder if he saved the toes – I for sure would have preserved them in a jar or something!
You know, I decided to write some things about blizzards in Iowa these past few months, and you start coming across more than one death or amputation from the cold. There was one account I read of a storm in the (I think) 1930’s where two hunters got caught in the storm and froze to death. Some gruesome individual went out and got a picture for the newspaper. It’s one thing reading about it, but seeing it is another. It’s like stories from the rainbow valley on Mt. Everest. It’s incredibly sad, and yet captures the imagination in such a vivid way.
As for John Shook, that guy was weird enough that I wouldn’t have been surprised if he kept them around. Maybe he could have worn them as a necklace to match his pelican bill hat!