Little Walkers Creek

Diseases and Epidemics




In case you ever wondered why a large number of your ancestors disappeared during a certain period in history, this might help.


Epidemics have always had a great influence on people—and thus influencing, as well, the genealogists trying to trace them. Many cases of people disappearing from records can be traced to dying during an epidemic or moving away from the affected area. Some of the major epidemics in the United States are listed below:



 1759—North America [areas inhabited by white people]—Measles.

 1761—North America and West Indies—Influenza.

 1772—North America—Measles.

 1775-6—Worldwide [one of the worst epidemics]—Influenza.

 1793—Virginia [killed 500 in 5 counties in 4 weeks]—Influenza.

 1820-3—Nationwide [starts-Schuylkill River and spreads]—"Fever".

 1831-2—Nationwide [brought by English emigrants]—Asiatic Cholera .

 1841—Nationwide [especially severe in the south]—Yellow Fever.


 1848-9—North America—Cholera.

 1850—Nationwide—Yellow Fever.

 1850-1—North America—Influenza.

 1852—Nationwide [New Orleans-8,000 die in summer]—Yellow Fever.

 1855—Nationwide [many parts]—Yellow Fever.


 1873-5—North America and Europe—Influenza.

 1918—Worldwide [high point year]—Influenza.


More people were hospitalized in WWI from this epidemic than wounds. US Army training camps became death camps, with 80% death rate in some camps.[1]


The influenza pandemic (epidemic over a wide geographic area and affecting a large proportion of the population) of 1918-1919 killed more people than the Great War, known today as World War I (WWI), at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as "Spanish Flu" or "La Grippe" the influenza of 1918-1919 was a global disaster.


The Spanish Influenza pandemic is the catastrophe against which all modern pandemics are measured. It is estimated that approximately 20 to 40 percent of the worldwide population became ill and that over 20 millionpeople died. Between September 1918 and April 1919, approximately 500,000 deaths from the flu occurred in the U.S. alone. Many people died from this very quickly. Some people who felt well in the morning became sick by noon and were dead by nightfall. Those who did not succumb to the disease within the first few days often died of complications from the flu (such as pneumonia) caused by bacteria.


One of the most unusual aspects of the Spanish flu was its ability to kill young adults. The reasons for this remain uncertain. With the Spanish flu, mortality rates were high among healthy adults as well as the usual high-risk groups. The attack rate and mortality was highest among adults 20 to 50 years old.


Diseases—Early Years


From outbreaks of diarrhea that claimed countless infants to the dreaded cholera that destroyed the flesh, the lives of children and adults were endangered with each new epidemic.


In the nineteenth century more young people succumbed to consumption, or tuberculosis, than all other diseases. A disease that destroyed the lungs, consumption was transmitted by sprays from the respiratory tracts of infected people or from infected cows. Affecting those between ages five and thirty, it often occurred in urban areas after extended contact with an infected person. Symptoms included fever, weight loss, night sweats, and fatigue. Its hallmarks were a persistent cough, chest pain, and, later, coughing up blood. Those in the early stages could be cured with rest, fresh air, and sunshine. Consumption was originally blamed on short sleeves and low-necked clothing.


Another major killer was whooping cough, the most deadly of the infectious diseases. An acute disease that usually affected children, it involved an inflamed respiratory tract and prolonged coughing spasms that end in violent gasping as the victims attempt to catch their breath—hence the whoop.


One of the most hideous diseases was cholera. Usually fatal, cholera resulted in violent diarrhea and vomiting with muscular cramps, chills, pain, fever, and circulatory failure ending in collapse. Striking infants and young children as well as adults, the disease worsened in sultry weather. Victims often died within hours from diarrhea and dehydration. The body would swell and decay so rapidly after death that burial was often immediate. Cholera outbreaks affected America in 1832, 1849, 1866, and 1873, with many smaller outbreaks throughout the century. Asiatic cholera in Boston in 1854 left many dead in a very short period.


Typhoid fever was an acute infectious disease acquired by drinking infected milk or water. Symptoms included high lingering fever and intestinal discomfort, chills, diarrhea, and prostration. At the end of the first week rosy spots appeared on the chest and abdomen. During the Spanish-American War in 1898 one-fifth of American troops developed typhoid fever.


Deadly and highly infectious, diphtheria affected children especially, striking the upper respiratory system. It was spread through saliva and through touch, with bacilli entering the body by the mouth and nose. Bacteria attacked the walls of the nose and throat five days after exposure. Those who survived might be temporarily paralyzed in the eyes, legs, or one side of the body.


Acute and contagious, scarlet fever also attacked through the nose or mouth. It was transmitted by direct contact, through utensils used by an infected person, or by infected milk. Common in children aged two through ten, it occurred in winter or late spring mostly to fair- skinned people. Symptoms included headache, sore throat, and vomiting, followed by a tongue rash and high fever. It subsided after five days, after which the skin peeled.


The hallmark of smallpox was a skin eruption that left permanent scarring. Caused by a virus, smallpox left its victims with severe chills, pain in the back and limbs, intense headache, vomiting, and fever. On the third day a rash began on the face.


Measles was deadly in the nineteenth century. Also caused by a virus, it was characterized by small red spots on the skin, an aversion to light, nasal discharge, coughing, and a high fever.


Yellow fever, also called the black vomit or the miasmas, was spread by mosquitoes. It destroyed the liver and kidneys, its telltale mark being jaundiced skin. An outbreak hit Philadelphia in 1793 and New Orleans in 1853. When 5,000 died in Memphis in 1878, more than half its residents left the city.


For most of these diseases, no cause was discovered or vaccine developed until the 1880s at the earliest. Taking a closer look at your ancestors might help you uncover unexpected causes of death.

[1] The USGenWeb Project. Epidemics. http://www.usgenweb.org/researchers/epidemics.html.