Another excerpt in an ongoing research project on the Great Black Swamp's disease history in which I am engulfed
As the military campaigns against Native Americans and their sometime British cohorts ended, white settlers staked land claims in and around the Great Black Swamp; this process was hastened with the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Contemporaneous with the arrival of such settlement was the documentation of the presence of certain “intermittent” and “remittent” fevers in humans who lived in and around the Swamp.
The Reverend Joseph Badger, a Connecticut Missionary Society preacher, made his first journey through the Swamp en route to Detroit beginning September 9, 1801. His journal notes on September 23 that he “began to feel unwell” as he returned to the rapids of the Maumee. On September 27, he recorded the following entry in his journal:
This morning I shook with the ague, followed by a high fever; Saturday took calomel; Sabbath took an emetic before the fit came on. I shook, however, at a fearful rate. Took calomel and jalap on Monday. Having medicine with me, I continued to take an emetic before the shake came on, and calomel the next day, for four or five days in succession. The ague and fever left me in a feeble state...The fever and ague continued to plague Badger as he wound his way eastward through the Swamp and into northeastern Ohio. He suffered a serious relapse in late October:
This morning I was very unwell; had considerable fever; and was able to sit up but little...[h]ad this morning [November 1, 1801] a return of fever; was unable to sit up or entertain any hope of going for some time...[h]ere I was confined eleven days, the most of the time to my bed...By November 12, Badger’s condition deteriorated at a rapid pace:
I was so reduced as not to be able to mount my horse without help…On the 15th, just before I arrived at Esquire Hopkins’, the whole of my left side was struck with a paralytic shock, so that it was difficult for me to walk or use my left hand; my left eye, and the muscles of my face, were so affected that the eyelash had lost its power; my mouth was drawn out of shape, and my tongue so affected that I could not speak freely, or take food without difficulty.Badger’s description of his symptoms is entirely consistent with those associated with cerebral malaria, in which the untreated P. falciparum parasites attack the tissues of the brain and the rest of the central nervous system. Seizures, altered consciousness, and paralysis can be manifestations of cerebral malaria.
Left: A portion of the remaining Swamp
The journal of William C. Holgate documented the perception held by those outside the region that the Great Black Swamp was an area of ill health. Holgate captured his thoughts as he sailed up the Maumee River from Lake Erie in the following passage:
The rich growth of trees on either side of the river, here and there the log cabin surrounded by pleasant beautiful fields and blooming orchards tended to rouse within me feelings, that almost obscured the deep dre[a]d and antipathy which had previously imbibed against it on acct. of the tremendous sickliness of the region.James Bowland moved to the area of Lower Sandusky with his parents in 1835 while he was still a child. He saw the Swamp in a near-pristine state, and described conditions in the region in the following passage from his memoirs:
Among the early pests about the home were swarms of house flies, gad flies, blue bottle flies, and millions of mosquitos. The swales and marshes and other pools of stagnant water afforded a great breeding place for them, as well as for fever and ague...It was a great relief when cold weather put an end to these pests.Caleb Atwater was a writer and politician who arrived in Ohio in 1815. Though rife with errors and dodged by accusations of plagiarism, his A History of the State of Ohio (1838) contains numerous references to the unhealthy reputation of Northwest Ohio. In the following passage the author references the toll that the Swamp took on soldiers passing through:
The black swamp has already cost the nation a million of dollars, besides many brave men who perished from the sickness which they caught wading through it. Pittsburgh and Greensburgh in Pennsylvania, and Petersburgh in Virginia, will long remember those who thus perished and were buried in this black swamp. Ohio lost in the same way, and in the same swamp, not a few of her best soldiers.Daniel and Experience Parsons lived in Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan for several decades, arriving in Chesterfield Township (near modern-day Morenci, MI) in 1834. Experience maintained correspondence with her brother, who lived in Maine. In an 1837 letter Experience described the improvement in health as compared to the time the family spent in the Swamp west of Sandusky:
As for health I believe it [Chesterfield Township] to be healthy. My family has enjoyed good health since we came to this country, much better than we ever did in Ohio.At least one member of the Parsons family remained in the Sandusky area; Experience recounted the health travails of her son William in 1839; the sudden turn in fortunes for William – who believed he was suffering from a typical bout with ague – suggests either the onset of cerebral malaria, or the confluence of an opportunistic infection that ravaged the weakened immune system of the young man:
My husband went to Sandusky the fore part of May where our son William died. He was unwell several days and his friends advised him to send for the doctor, but he said no. He was in the habit of having a sick spell every fall. It was nothing, he said, but the ague and he should be well in a few days. One of the neighbors gave him some medicine to brake [sic] the fever but, alas, it was no fever and ague. He grew worse and was not sensible…he lived but five days after he was taken and remained insensible. He died October 12, 1838.Daniel Drake visited the region in the thousands of miles he traveled during the production of his medical opus. He described the endemic presence of “intermittent and remittent fevers” in Northwest Ohio:
I learned that, from the commencement of settlement down to the time of my visit, in 1842, the whole locality had been infested with these fevers; cases of which sometimes assumed a malignant and fatal character.Father Alexis Campion sought to build an orphanage in Toledo, and traveled to Montreal in an attempt to persuade the Sisters of Charity to open a facility in the region. He painted for the Grey Nuns a rather grim picture of the disease environment of the young community at the time of his 1855 trip:
The inducements he offered were far from attractive. He drew a graphic picture of the dreary locality; the prevalence of malarial disease, resulting from stagnant pools and swamps found everywhere in the then unhealthy City, giving it the name of "Grave of the United States."Waggoner also documented a tale in this morbid vein; the account revolved around a raconteur’s experience with a traveler. Asking for directions, the visitor was told to follow the “main traveled road.” The journey down this road, according to the story, brought the traveler to the local graveyard.
Recognizing the reputation of insalubrity associated with living in the vicinity of the Great Black Swamp, residents of the region considered ways in which they might counteract this ignominious standing. A movement thus arose to rename the river that was most closely linked with this status:
Other poets, too, had written so much on the unhealthy character of the Maumee Valley, that it was resolved, at a meeting held November 7, 1855, to call the river “Grand Rapids River,” and to give the bay and the valley the same name. It is worthy of note that Wood county took the initiative, in carrying out the resolution, by changing the name of the old town of Gilead to Grand Rapids.The typical travails of nineteenth-century white settlers in the American wilderness - such as isolation, dangerous animals, and hostile indigenous peoples - made for a harsh life. In Northwest Ohio, though, the presence of endemic malaria created conditions even less conducive to population growth in the ranks of settlers.