by Terry Hogan

Part of doing genealogy is doing the history. That is, knowing what was going on in the lives of your ancestors. In my more terse moments, I am tempted to say to folks who only do names, dates, and places, that they might as well pull names from the phone book. Ancestors are a lot like animals, if you are to understand them, you have to study them in their natural habitat. For ancestors, you need to understand their world to create a context for their behavior.

For many of our early ancestors, death by poorly understood diseases was all too common. Death might sweep into a family at any moment and carry off several children as the contagion spread from child to child. Add into the mix, the need for many hands to work the farm and you will find the motivation for large families. A review of county history’s biographical sections will reveal numerous statements of the number of children born versus the number still alive, or that had reached adulthood. Infrequently, you will find an old family history that remarks the startling event that all children lived to be adults.

Disease was the "handmaiden" of death. It has plagued man as long as he was man. Disease was something to be feared and to be accounted for by superstitions, by witchcraft, by angry gods. We know more about disease, but still not enough. We have antibiotics. Bacteria counter with the development of new strains, resistant to the antibiotics. We develop new antibiotics. The race continues.

A mere 160-170 years ago, disease and death traveled with our ancestors. Disease was in the form of a bacterium that caused a quick but painful death. It was so feared that often the sick were left unattended to die alone. Sometimes newspapers did not print the name of the disease that brought the death, for fear of creating fear and driving business from their communities. It traveled with the immigrants across the oceans. It traveled by wagon, by train, by steamboat, by sail, and even by foot. The cause was not known, which perhaps added to the fear. It struck done the old, the young, the religious and the atheist. It did not respect values, hopes, prayers, or the ones cherished most. It was known as "cholera" or "Asiatic cholera".

Genealogical research will not go back too far in time before cholera pops up in the history. It had rich hunting with the immigrants whose crowded traveling conditions, often-poor nutrition, provided opportunities for both victims and for mobility. It did not respect nationalities or identities, youth or age. Sometimes whole families were struck and all members died and were quickly buried. Often, their names were not even known. At sea, they were promptly dumped overboard, with little ceremony. On the prairie, they were quickly buried, often in shallow, unmarked graves. Although they had no knowledge of the cause of the disease, they knew it was something to be avoided in both the dead and dying.

Cholera in the 1800s struck fast, and death usually occurred within one to three days of the first symptoms. According to an early history of the disease in Illinois, there was only about a seven percent recovery rate. According to this history, the disease appeared in epidemic numbers in India around 1817. It made it to America in 1824, and popped up again in from time to time in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. It reappeared in 1873.

Medical records and death records were pretty scarce in the early 1800s, so a lot is unknown. One of the earliest known Illinois cases was that of Illinois Governor Ninian Edwards (3rd Governor of Illinois), who died at home, near Belleville, Illinois, in 1833. Of course, it seems reasonable to conclude that his cause of death was recorded because of who he was, and that other folks most likely died anonymously with the disease previously. One Lucian Sampson, a merchant, was identified as being the first cholera mortality in Bloomington, dying on July 17, 1849. It was speculated that he had contracted the disease from an outbreak of the disease in Pekin.

However the story of cholera in Illinois is not about the striking down of the few, but rather, the striking down of the many, and it not only affecting family histories but perhaps even Illinois history. About December 1848, an outbreak of cholera occurred in New Orleans and it apparently traveled the Mississippi River with passengers. Cholera was soon doing its work in St. Louis; Chicago; Louisville; Madison, Wisconsin; and in smaller towns like Peru, Illinois. It reportedly killed over 3,200 people in St. Louis in the first 6 months of 1849. But it was not just a Midwest problem. The disease also afflicted eastern cities, particularly Eastern seaports.

Cholera followed a fairly characteristic and rapid progression of symptoms. Extreme diarrhea was followed by vomiting and then muscular cramping. Total collapse soon followed, with death typically following within one to three days.

Cholera was often a passenger on immigrant ships, taking a toll on the passengers and crew, and then traveling across America with those who had not been struck down on board. The disease appeared to follow lakes and rivers, but it was more a function of it traveling with the travelers who used these water bodies as the 1800s’ versions of interstate highways. But cholera didn’t really need water, it only needed people and traveling people to find new victims. If the 1849 gold rush folks didn’t have enough problems with their greed overtaking good sense and good planning, cholera was often an uninvited guest. Cholera willowed out gold seekers, who instead of gold, found an unmarked grave along the side of the trail.

In the January 13, 1849 "Western Whig", published in Bloomington, Illinois, the following appeared:

"The Cholera"

"The fearful epidemic has made its appearance arrayed in all its wonted terror, at New Orleans. From fifty to sixty persons have died with it daily for some days, the weather being extremely warm at that time. People fled from the city in all directions, and business was nearly suspended. But the rage of the disease has nearly abated, and it is hoped that it will soon disappear as the weather gets cooler. Many deaths have occurred on board of steam boats on their way up the Mississippi and Ohio. Some fatal cases are reported at Cincinnati and also several on board of steamboats at St. Louis, but none in the city, at least accounts. At New York the disease progresses very slowly without much apprehension of its becoming severe or general. We still believe that this disease will be stayed in its progress up the country by the cool weather of the season and by closing of navigation on account of the ice in the river.

"What is the exact nature of the malignant agent in the atmosphere which causes this disease has not been discovered- But it is undoubtedly a miasma arising from the decay of vegetable matter about the mouth of the Ganges in Asia where it takes its periodical rise and spreads on westward through Europe and America.

"It generally follows the course of rivers, lakes and other bodies of water, being more or less violent in its character in proportion to the habits of the people, the warmth of the climate, the season of the year, the abundance or the scarcity of vegetation in the vicinity, the low or high situation of the country, etc. Something of the kind prevails more or less every year in some countries. In this country sickness of somewhat a similar character though much more mild in its effects is common every year, and it is undoubtedly attributable to similar causes."1

In the May 19, 1849 edition of Bloomington’s "Western Whig" it is reported:

"From St. Louis papers we learn that the cholera is increasing in fatality on the Missouri and its branches. It is still progressing in St. Louis, Cincinnati and New York. Reports says that it is raging in Chicago, but many papers have so strangely suppressed the truth on the subject that one is at a loss what to believe. It would be infinitely better on every account to publish the plain facts and then let people act on their own responsibility."1

The July 17th edition of the paper reported more dire events:

"This malady continues to rage with increased violence. At St. Louis the deaths from the disease were for several days from 100 to 127. Owing to delay of the papers for the Southern mail, we have no very recent news from the city. Quarantine regulations have, however, been established and all boats up from New Orleans are obliged to land their passengers below the city. It is hoped that much benefit will result from these arrangements, as the great mortality at that place has been owing principally to the continual rush of Emigrants from Europe, with all the predisposition to the disease acquired on their passage. At Cincinnati, there has been a great increase in the number of cholera cases, and in their fatality. On one day the number of deaths were 134, though 100 was about the average number per day last week. At Louisville, it is mild. Several towns in the southern part of this State have suffered considerably. At Peru, on the Illinois, the mortality has been very alarming, so that the town is mostly deserted by the inhabitants. Several other points on the same river, and on the canal, have been visited. At Chicago the number of deaths have ranged from three to five daily…."1

Of course, in some ways, we haven’t changed too much from our ancestors. In the next weekly addition of the "Western Whig", there appears an ad:

"Cure for Cholera"

"D. Jaynes Carminative Balsam for the cure of cholera which, he writes, never failed in 30 cases of Asiatic Cholera. It ought to be in the hands of every person and in every family."

"For sale by R. O. Warrinner & Co." 1

It wasn’t long before the "Western Whig" had the opportunity to practice what it had preached. Obituaries began to appear of local residents who became victims of cholera. Mr. L. A Sampson was the first, but was followed by others including the wife and son of Mr. Lilly of Mackinawton, Mathew Harbord, Dr. Parker of Stout’s Grove, and Dr. William Bromenjam (who had attended the Lilly household, mentioned above).1

At about the same time that these reports were appearing in Bloomington’s "Western Whig", cholera was also an unwelcome guest at Bishop Hill. Between July and September, 1949, more than 140 of the Bishop Hill colonists died from the disease. The disease appeared shortly after the arrival of a new group of Swedish colonists, who traveled to participate in this new Swedish religious experiment. The first to die of cholera was a baby that died on July 22. Philip Stoneberg wrote:

"Men rose in the morning, strong and well, were indisposed the next and in the throes of death the third."2

The disease became so troublesome at Bishop Hill in the summer of 1849 that the leader, Eric Janson, evacuated some of the colonists to a separate location, in the hopes of sparing them the risk of the disease. It did not work, as cholera either traveled with them, or was waiting for them at their new destination. Numerous deaths occurred in the second group, as well.

Eric Janson moved his family and some women to an island on the Mississippi River, between Rock Island and Davenport, in the hopes of escaping the disease. In retrospect, this seems an odd choice, given that the disease often spread along the rivers with the passage of travelers. But, not surprisingly, this also proved unsuccessful and Janson lost his wife, Maria Kristina Lardsdotter, and their two youngest children. Eric Janson had two remaining children, Eric and Matilda. He quickly remarried. He married the recent widow of Lars Gabrielson who had died of cholera at Bishop Hill.

The icy hand of cholera touched many of our ancestors. Some died, some had parents or brothers or sisters who died. Children were orphaned. Parents were left without a spouse, but with children, requiring a rapid marriage as a practical necessity. Loved ones were buried at sea, along a river, or along a trail, with no records, no documents. They were forced by their situation to move on, no time to grieve, no time for remorse. They had "to do" for themselves, and for those others who were left living. It was a hard life, making hard people. That was their lives. That was their context. And we do them a great disservice if we fail to take the time to know, and to understand.

Cholera shaped much of their lives.


  1. Quote is from secondary source: Milo Custer, 1930. "Asiatic Cholera" in the Journal of Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 23, No. 1 pages 113-162.
  2. Quote is from secondary source: George Swank, undated. "Bishop Hill, Swedish-American Showcase". 72 pages.