Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Follow the Epidemics, Plagues, and Scares

Our Ancestors and Migratory Paths
Fear motivated our ancestors to move. You may never know the particulars of your ancestor abrupt move, but a newspaper search or local history book may reveal what they were moving from and what they were running to. 

Fievre jaune  (yellow fever)  as known by the French, and negro vomito, the Spanish reference, was a true fear of early Mississippi, as early as 1701.  It not only reared its ugly head under French rule of the state, but revisited Mississippi during Spanish rule in 1789. Perhaps your ancestors survived and transplanted their families to Louisiana or Florida. Not necessarily a better prospect. Louisiana was also plagued with yellow fever,  outlined in George Augustin's History of Yellow Fever (New Orleans, 1909). 

There was the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic that practically cleared the city through death and mass exists.  Fever epidemics never stayed at bay. In late 1861 and early 1862 the scarlet fever epidemics of Fredricksburg and Richmond VA (and others) were overshadowed by the war, but the local cemeteries tell a story of their own. In an effort to save young children, families moved to fever-free state.

Poor crops due to reoccurring droughts and even the locust plague helped Midwest farmers make the choice to join wagon trains to travel overland to richer soil. In 1875 there was the locust plague in some Kansas and Missouri counties that resulted in depopulation of whole towns. Many of these ancestral families may be found in Texas or Oklahoma.

Milwaukee (and other cities in the USA) saw mass exits between 1849 and 1854 due to cholera epidemics.  You may find your ancestors moved to Illinois and may have even returned to Wisconsin in later years.  However, Wisconsin was hit again in 1918, this time by the Spanish Flu.  Some families temporary moved south to Nebraska, Iowa (for example) or other rural areas to escape the rapid spread of the disease.

Where to Start
In writing this posts, I stumbled on the website Encyclopedia of Genealogy.  This looks like a good place to begin your area search. But, don't forget local histories, newspapers and even cemetery records.  In searching death records of Coldwater Kansas, I realized there were excessive deaths in the year of 1893. The newspaper shared the town fear of losing its population to what appeared to be consumption, later described as an intestinal epidemic.  Three loses in my ancestral family and they moved to Oklahoma, as did most of the town. Of course, this was a depression era also.

Where Did They Go?
These epidemic and plagues, although devastating to families, were also the impetus of making a move to new opened lands, following the railroad, etc. Often extended families and neighbors from one community can be found side-by-side in the new locale. Be sure to check tax records to pinpoint the year they deserted one community and arrived in another. Voters registration records are good for this also (unless your ancestors name is William Smith or some other unbearable common name.)  However, this is a good chance to cross reference neighbors who may have traveled with them.  Then, of course, go to deeds, wills and probate records to verify that you have the correct William Smith.

Proof from Tara:
Tara, an astute reader of this blog, forwarded the link to The Great Pandemic 1918-1919.  She also provides for us a quick case study:
Kathleen, I am from St Louis, MO. Once my sister and I went to visit our father's grave in Calvary Cemetery. We were very curious about the back portion of the cemetery because it has a lot of old graves. We especially liked looking to see if there were any pictures of the deceased on the headstones. In one section, we kept encountering the graves of numerous people, particularly children, who died in 1918. We thought there must have been some epidemic. When you posted the Encyclopedia of Genealogy: Epidemics, I remembered that day and looked up the year 1918. Sure enough, influenza was worldwide and did effect St. Louis.

Thanks Tara.  I'm sure the a3Genealogy readers will learn from your experience. 
Kathleen Brandt
Professional Genealogist and Genealogy Consultant


  1. There are lists of epidemics in Colonial New England and I've found them to be invaluable. Sometimes several children will die in the same month, and these lists confirm the presence of "throat distemper" (diptheria) or other childhood illnesses. Smallpox epidemics in New England were sometimes very, very local but virilent.

  2. Heather,
    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Your input will add to the reader's experience!