Licorice Root to Leeches: Cholera Stalks Northwestern Pennsylvania
Soldiers discharged from fighting the War of 1812 came home to Northwestern Pennsylvania, bringing cholera with the. Aunt Tamar Thompson nursed the soldiers and her neighbors.
After the War of 1812 soldiers came home to Erie County, Pennsylvania, from Black Rock below Buffalo, where they had wintered in quarters so dirty that according to early Erie County historian David Wilson they contracted a fever “almost as fatal in its effects as the Asiatic cholera.” It was known as the Black Rock fever.
Ordinary Life Goes on, Despite Black Rock Fever and Death When the soldiers returned home to Erie County, they carried cholera with them and many of the Thompsons and their neighbors died, including Andrew Thompson and his wife Martha and Margaret Smith Thompson, the wife of Joel Thompson. In 1816, Jemima Thompson died and Abel arranged for his son Caleb to live with him on the farm where they could both work and carry on their trades.
About 1822, Jeduthan Gray purchased a farm on nearby Oil Creek and his sons, son-in-law and widowed sister Tamar Ames who had married young and had several children, followed him to his farm. Abel saw Tamar during a public gathering and immediately fell in love. His friends realized the depth of his feelings when Abel discarded his slouch hat and bought a bell crown that was then the style.
Aunt Tamar Continues Her Nursing Abel and Tamar were soon married and settled on the old Thompson homestead and Caleb resettled nearby. During the last decade of his life, Tamar faithfully cared for Abel. Even after Abel Thompson died in 1840 at age 84, Tamar continued to nurse her neighbors. She had been the only doctor in the neighborhood for years. Faithful, resolute and kind, she turned out the darkest nights and rode horse back to any place where she was called within a distance of four or five miles, charging only one dollar.
A Cholera Epidemic Rages in 1832 Aunt Tamar probably nursed some of the victims of the 1832 cholera epidemic brought on by English immigrants. New York City, Buffalo, and Utica were all particularly subject to the 1832 cholera epidemic.
The harbor at Erie, Pennsylvania was an important shipping and passenger center for the Lake Erie trade and the docks teemed with sailors and passengers. Often they carried cholera, fever, typhus and other germs along with their valises and trunks.
The farms and homes of Union Township were just a short journey from Erie and many local men occupied seasonal berths on the lake vessels or made short business trips between Erie and Buffalo. Unwittingly, they brought deadly diseases back home to their family and friends.
The Asiatic Cholera Microbe Tours the Great Lakes In 1832, the United States government chartered four vessels to transport troops, provisions and munitions bound for Chicago to help fight the Blackhawk War. Captain Walker was master of the Sheldon Thompson and he chronicled the voyage of his steamer which sailed from Buffalo on July 2, 1832.
The Sheldon Thompson Leaves Buffalo with Asiatic Cholera Aboard
The Sheldon Thompson left Buffalo on the morning of July 2, 1832, with a full contingent of officers, troops, equipment and Asiatic cholera. The vessel most likely made brief stops at Erie and the other harbors along the Lake Erie shore. When Captain Walker arrived at Detroit, he discovered that Detroit authorities had ordered his sister ship, the Henry Clay to anchor near the foot of Hog Island about two miles from the city.
Captain Walker moored at the wharf for a few minutes, taking on fuel and stores for the trip and then got underway. He anchored alongside the Henry Clay andGeneral Scott and about 90 soldiers from the Clay boarded the Sheldon Thompson.
The Sheldon Thompson sailed on to Fort Gratiot (Port Huron) and landed about 50 of the troops. By the next day when the Henry Clay arrived in the St. Clair River cholera had winnowed the sailor’s ranks like a wave sweeping over the decks. As soon as the Henry Clay anchored, the men rushed to shore fleeing the disease. Some ran to the fields, some to the woods, others lay in the streets and sought shelter under the river banks. Most of them died alone.
The Sheldon Thompson Carries the Cholera to Chicago
Captain Walker and the Sheldon Thompson continued their lake voyage, leaving three sick soldiers and two of the ship’s crew on Mackinaw Island. No cholera deaths took place on board until the Thompson passed the Manitou Islands in Lake Michigan. The first person to die onboard did so about four o’clock in the afternoon when the Thompson was about thirty hours outside of Chicago.
All twelve of the burial detail, including Sergeant Davis, sickened and died in a few hours and were also thrown overboard before the rest of the troops were landed at Chicago. The Sheldon Thompson anchored outside of Chicago on the evening of July 8, 1832, still carrying General Scott, his men, and the cholera germs.
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