Cholera is one such disease. There have been a series of pandemics/epidemics over the centuries. The third wave of cholera in the 19th century was ongoing during 1849-1850 when members of my extended family succumbed to it.
Ingeborg Eriksdatter Elton was my third great grandaunt on my father's side, younger sister to my 3X great grandfather Andris Erikson Elton. She was born on the Elton farm in the Vang, Valdres area of Oppland, Norway and baptised 2 March 1794 in the Vang Church.
|Vang Kirke Photo by John Erling Blad|
When Ingeborg grew up she married Ole Knudson Stende on 18 October 1818 in the Vang Kirke and went to live with him on his nearby farm. The couple would have 3 children: Ingeborg Olsdatter Stende, Gunvor Olsdatter Stende and Knut (or Newton Andrew) Olson Stende. (There seems to have been a huge unexplained gap between the birth of first child in December of 1818 and the next apparently not until fourteen years later in 1832.)
By the middle of the 19th century, hordes of Norwegians were emigrating to America. Ingeborg and Ole were among them. The Vang church record for out-migrations shows the couple, each age 55 and the two younger children, Gunvor 17 and Knut 14 1/2 leaving for America in 1849.
|Udflyttede record for 1849 (9 March) from the Vang church records|
The passenger list for the newly constructed Norwegian Brig Concordia shows Ole and Ingeborg and the two children making the voyage in steerage, leaving Bergen, Norway on 12 May 1849 and arriving in New York City almost two months later on 10 July. No doubt their experience was a far cry from the comforts experienced by ocean-going passengers today. After arriving in New York, they proceeded (again largely by boat) to Wisconsin, the most popular area for Norwegian settlers at that time.
Then tragedy struck! Both parents fell victim to the cholera epidemic sweeping the country. Within two days (24-26 July 1849) the two teen-aged children were left orphaned in a new land. Fortunately they were taken in by extended family members who had already immigrated to the area.
Peter Harstad (see Resource List below) discusses the history of the cholera epidemics in Wisconsin in the 1830s and in 1849-50. At the time, it was thought that impure air ("miasma") was the cause of the disease. Sometimes, more fatalistically, it was simply blamed on "Providence". Because of this lack of scientific understanding, it was mistakenly believed for awhile that the disease was not contagious. Treatments included bleeding or administering medicines such as mercury, laudanum (opium), morphine, turpentine and sulphur. Quarantines were sometimes attempted.
Although not necessarily fatal, the disease was very fast-acting with terrible symptoms of dehydration and diarrhea that often resulted in a quick death, seemingly within hours of the onset of any symptoms. Terrified of catching cholera, people often fled from one area to another, carrying the disease with them and making matters worse through close proximity on boats, trains and stage coaches and often sharing a common contaminated source of water or food. The middle of the 19th century was also the time of mass migrations during the Crimean War, the California Gold Rush and the Irish potato famine. People were on the move; cholera moved right along with them.
Business owners were terrified of potential economic damage caused by fear of the plague. The Milwaukee media shamed doctors and the Board of Health for trying to provide honest information to the public. Eventually the Board of Health doctors were replaced by lay citizens, generally businessmen who greatly underestimated the severity of the disease. This makes it difficult to get accurate statistics on the number who died in the epidemic.
Then, as now, immigrants were often made scapegoats. Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine were frequently blamed for importing the disease into America. (Given the timing, it is probable that our family did not bring cholera with them from Norway and instead contracted the disease once they were in America.)
Matters were made worse just a week or two after the deaths of Ingeborg and her husband. President Taylor set aside the first Friday of August as a day for prayer, humiliation and fasting. Thousands flocked to congregate at church services, thereby spreading the disease even further. It was difficult to keep up with all the burials required. In some cases, if a whole family died, their house was simply burned to the ground with their bodies still inside. Presumably this didn't happen to Ingeborg and her husband since they had not been in the country long enough to establish a home.
Another of my relatives, John Bullen, my third great granduncle on my mother's side, also died of cholera in Wisconsin during this same epidemic. Born in 1783, he had been instrumental in starting the new settlement of Kenosha north of Chicago on Lake Michigan. He died there of cholera on 15 August 1850. No one else in his family seems to have succumbed, but he had been a particularly active man and would have been out and about in the community making him perhaps more vulnerable.
|John Bullen (1783-1850)|
Four years later, a physician in London, England named John Snow discovered that cholera was being spread through contaminated drinking water. After this, improvements were made in hygiene and in water and sewage systems around the world such that cholera has largely been eliminated in developed countries.
Cholera continues to be a problem in war-torn, poor or devastated areas such as occurred in Haiti after the earthquake there resulted in contamination of their water supply. It is estimated by Phelps et al. (see Resource List below) that there are still 2-3 million cases worldwide resulting in over 100,000 deaths each year. Let us hope that medical practitioners, scientists, politicians and the public at large can successfully work together to contain COVID-19 so that it does not exact such an ongoing toll.
- Harstad, Peter T., "Disease and Sickness on the Wisconsin Frontier: Cholera." The Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol, 43, no. 3, 1960, pp.203-220. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4633516. Accessed 16 Feb.2020.
- "Cholera's Seven Pandemics" CBC article accessed 17 Feb. 2020 at https://web.archive.org/web/20081216071746/http://www.cbc.ca/health/story/2008/05/09/f-cholera-outbreaks.html.
- "Asiatic Cholera Pandemics during the Life of John Snow" accessed 17 Feb. 2020 at http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/pancholera3.html
- Phelps, M. et al, "Cholera Epidemics of the Past Offer New Insights into an Old Enemy." The Journal of Infectious Diseases, Vol. 217, Issue 4, 15 Feb. 2018, pp. 641-649. https://doi.org/10.1093/infdis/jix 602. Accessed 17 Feb. 2020.
- Parish Registers (kirkebøker) for Vang, Oppland, Norway from the Norwegian Digital archives accessed online at the website https://media.digitalarkivet.no/en/kb/browse
- Valdres Samband genealogical database (membership required) located through the website http://www.valdresgenealogy.com/