Mar 29, 2006

Early Travelers in the Great Black Swamp

This an excerpt from a book I am writing about the unhealthy conditions in the earliest years of white settlement in Northwest Ohio.

Moravian missionary David Zeisberger traveled through the Swamp in October 1781, and described the “deep swamps and troublesome marshes” awaiting those who dared to enter the murky morass. He depicted a land that extended for vast distances “where no bit of dry land was to be seen, and the horses at every step [wading] in the marsh up to their knees.” Native Americans used the land, according to Zeisberger, strictly for hunting and fishing “on account of the wet.”

The hostile environment described by Zeisberger was mirrored by the acount of Captain Thomas Morris. This officer was sent by British General Bradstreet on a mission to the French, noted that the dangers faced by travelers extended to non-marshy areas. Camping on the banks of the Maumee July 30, 1764, he reported:

We lay on the ground; and as a distinguished personage, I was honoured by having a few small branches under me, and a sort of basket-work made by bending boughs with their ends fixed in the earth, for me to thrust my head under to avoid the musketoes or large gnats with which that country is infested.
Clearly the occasional outcroppings of dry land and glacial moraines offered little protection from the insect vectors that promulgated parasitic infections among human visitors to the region of the Great Black Swamp.

Lieutenant John Boyer, attached to General Anthony Wayne’s Legion of the United States, kept a journal of his experiences during the 1794 military campaign that culminated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. No stranger to the outdoors, Boyer made the following entry in his journal describing conditions as the Legion entered the Swamp:
Camp Beaver Swamp, eleven miles in advance of Fort Recovery [present day Defiance, OH], 30th July, 1794 - …The road was to cut, as will be the case on every new route we take in this country. The weather is still warm – no water except in ponds, which nothing but excessive thirst would induce us to drink. The mosquitoes are very troublesome, and larger than I ever saw…The most of this country is covered with beech, the land of a wet soil intermixed with rich tracts, but no running water to be found.
Left: Anopheles quadrimaculatus, a mosquito species that acts as a malaria vector

While the size of mosquitoes has no bearing upon their ability to act as malaria vectors – one of the most deadly in the modern era is the relatively small Aedes albopictus, carriers of such diseases as dengue fever, eastern equine encephalitis and West Nile virus - Boyer’s journal entry regarding mosquitoes seems to indicate that the Legion was entering a noticeably different ecological setting. Here were different insects, different flora, and an absence of running water; conditions in the Great Black Swamp were palpably unlike anything else the soldiers had encountered. The Legion would soon find that the Maumee Valley contained dangers other than those posed by the British and their Native American allies.

One of the most authoritative descriptions of the disease environment in the region of the Great Black Swamp comes from the memoirs of Dr. Eli Manville, who arrived in 1834 with quinine and calomel. He wrote of the annual return of malarial illnesses that inhabitants dreaded:
The early settlers of what is called the ' black swamp,' had a great deal of sickness, mostly fever and ague, which was very prevalent in an early day. So much water on the surface of the land caused so much malaria, that biliousness, chills, fever and ague were the results. Whenever a new family made their appearance and settled down, we all would say, 'there is another family with whom we can divide the shakes.'
Manville also described the process of acclimation to the endemic malaria, which is consistent with the current understanding of malarial infection. Victims of malaria do not gain immunity so much as they enter into a sort of mutual tolerance or stasis with malarial parasites, and any “immunity” gained can only be maintained through repeated reinfections with the Plasmodium protozoan or protozoans responsible for the particular type of malaria. Residents of the region around the Swamp, according to Manville, slowly adjusted to the repeated visitations of malarial illness:
It took from three to five years to get acclimated; every year, from about the first of July, until frost and cold made its appearance, the people had the ague, and they looked for it just as much, and it came with the same regularity that the summer and fall came.
As a new arrival to the region, Dr. Manville was in the unique position to compare the illnesses besetting settlers of the Maumee Valley with those found elsewhere. Manville was adamant that the “Maumee fever” was of a decidedly more virulent and severe nature:
It was not of the same kind that we have in this country latterly. It took hold of a person and literally shook him up. I have seen fellows go to bed with the ague, and when the shake came on the very bed and floor would rattle. So violent was the disease that at times their teeth would rattle. Many times, whole families would be down at one time, so that one could not give another a drink of water. The ague usually came on every other day, and when there was not people enough they had to have it every day, for sometimes there appeared to be about two agues for one man; and oftentimes they had to have it twice in one day. The well day, as we used to call the day we missed it, men would be able to do some light work, and it may seem strange, but the day the chill was to come on you could look out from 10 A.M. until 2 P. M., and you could see the boys come in to take their shake, as much so as to take their dinners.
Manville’s observations of the earliest years of white settlement of Northwest Ohio provide a disturbing eyewitness account of the particularly deleterious environment that inhabitants would encounter in and around the Great Black Swamp.


Anonymous said...

Interesting read, Mike. Are you taking a break from the Winkler story?

Timothy said...

Very interesting.. coincidence, recently we found in our archives a map of Wood County circa 1858 (redrawn in 1968). It indicates the remaining swamps, strams, and prairies from that time.

We just scanned it and posted it online at...

..if you'd like to check it out. You might find it useful for your research.

Anonymous said...

I knew Mary a very little bit, enough to say hello in passing. Our children were in school together and I'd like to comment on 2 things. First, all of these pictures - except the family picture - make her out to be dowdy and she wasn't. She was a neat person and always well cared for. So were her girls. Second, postpartum or not she was a reserved woman trying to raise 3 young children. Much of that seemed to be done alone. I never saw him at the school or with the kids. That is hard on a mom and probably contributed more stress to a bad situation. I hope people can try to find kindness in their hearts for her,none of us know what she may have been forced to live with.

Stephanie said...

Wow! That was more descriptive than I would have liked.

*Stephanie shudders*

Very well done, Mike!

Stephanie said...


There are plenty of Winkler posts. Do you have to carry over the discussion to a historical thread about the Great Black Swamp?

historymike said...

Anonymous #1: yes and no. I'll post more if and when there is something new on the Winkler case.

Timothy: Thanks very much for the link. I never cease to be amazed at the ways in which the Internet can link people and research.

Anonymous #2: Thanks for passing that along. Every contribution from people who knew Mary and Matthew helps us piece together this puzzle, since the authorities have decided to sit on the information.

Steph: I think I have cultivated a large community of news addicts craving the latest fix on the Winkler saga. They may be going through the equivalent of withdrawal today, since there is no new Winkler news.

Stephanie said...

Withdrawal? I guess I can see that. I'll just have to be one of those who can remember Historymike's BEFORE Winkler, I guess...

historymike said...

It's beginning to settle down here, Steph.

From a peak of 8,000 hits on Monday this site had "only" 4,112 as of 11:00 tonight.

The self-promotion side of me likes the additional exposure, but the best part of blogging (for me) is the conversation in the comments section. During the Winkler-mania I had trouble just keeping up with deleting the email notices of comments, let alone responding to them.

I felt bad because some people were pouring their hearts out about Mary and Matthew Winkler; some comments were more like essays in their length.

Through the comments section I get insightful feedback, constructive criticism, and the opportunity to pick the brains of some really cool people.

Stephanie said...

For those major posts, I'd suggest you choose not to receive e-mail notification. I personally make that choice all the time, because I usually check my blog at the same time I check my e-mail, so it'd just be redundant.

And, I can see why the hits would be welcome, but I agree that the discussion is the best part of blogging.

Anonymous said...


Can you define in modern terms what Ague was?

they had names for diseases back then that we don't use today such as:

Consumption = Tuberculosis

LaGrippe = Influenza.

Just trying to understand what these early settlers confronted.

Me, Myself, and I

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
historymike said...

Go away, filthy spammers!

historymike said...

"Fever and ague" refers to the alternating sweating and chills that malaria sufferers experienced.

Buzz Lightyear said...

Thanks for this outstanding blog and this very interesting post, Mike. I started my first-ever blog a few days ago (not even searchable yet). In it, among other things, I will attempt is to tie-in photos of and commentary about U.S. coins from a specific year pre-1845 with year-matched contemporary NW Ohio and Great Black Swamp history. For example, photos and a short discussion about a large cent from 1794, tied in with a concise overview the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

On a slightly different topic, I am trying to find more details -- although I doubt they exist, about an incident in rural Seneca county east of Fostoria, Ohio circa early 1930's. My father's uncles discovered in their farm field a human skeleton with the remains of a flintlock rifle or musket, surrounded by the skeletons of several (I believe 3) wolves. I am really intrigued by this. I believe the county sheriff was contacted and a report written up at the time, but I am going to attempt to find more details. If ever this rings a bell with you from any of your previous research within certain county records, please let me know. I am assuming this occurred on the very fringes of the Black Swamp back in the day, although I don't know if small tributaries of Wolf Creek, which leads into the Sandusky, were considered part of the southernmost-extent of the swamp. I know from some written ancestral accounts from the 1830's in Huron County that nighttime could be very dangerous due to wolf packs, so one could imagine how this person and the wolves met their demise.