“The Yellow Fever at Port Gibson, Mississippi, first made its appearance there in July, 1853,” wrote H.S. Fulkerson in his 19th century book (Random Recollections: Early Days in Mississippi). “I was then a resident of the place. A shoemaker of the town had gone to New Orleans to purchase leather, and a few days after his return he was attacked, his case being a marked one. The attending physician, Dr. Wharton, invited me to visit the patient with him, and from the symptoms and appearance of the patient, I pronounced it, in the judgment of a nurse, to be a genuine case of yellow fever.
“… The occurrence of this single case, while it occasioned talk, did not create … excitement … But its stately steppings, as it crossed the street and slowly worked its way uptown in the direction of the Court-house, were plainly visible, and the community became alarmed, which alarm was increased by the arrival of a family from New Orleans, and the reported sickness in it of a … female servant, with the disease.”
Steamboats from New Orleans docking at Natchez on the Mississippi and Trinity on the Black (Catahoula Parish) that same summer were filled with sick passengers.
Among them was Mr. Pearsall, whose daughter died of yellow fever in New Orleans in early July. A few days later, Mr. Pearsall stepped off a steamboat at Natchez so ill that he went straight to a hotel to rest. On July 17, he passed away, his death believed the first from yellow fever in Natchez in 1853.
If you were standing on the landings at Rodney, Port Gibson, Natchez, Vidalia or Trinity on the Black and heard the words -- “Yellow Jack” -- it would send chills down your spine. That’s what the yellow fever was often called.
The medical profession didn’t know then that yellow fever was caused by a virus and spread by the mosquito, although doctors suspected that it was a water borne illness. Some also thought the disease stirred from the soil. Many also believed contact with an infected person spread the virus.
Yellow fever caused liver failure and bleeding in the stomach, intestines and elsewhere. Patients threw up black vomit, dark as tar because it contained blood. Hallucinations, coma and death often followed.
Locally, several doctors provided details on the yellow fever epidemic of 1853, one of many recorded in this region throughout the 19th century. They also described the communities of Trinity, Vidalia and Natchez when they answered questions for a survey by the Sanitary Commission of New Orleans.
ST. LOUIS, as depicted in 1853, the year of a Yellow Fever outbreak in the lower Mississippi River Valley that affected News Orleans, Natchez, Rodney as well as towns along the tributaries like Trinity in Catahoula Parish. According to Steamboat Times, St. Louis was founded “in 1764 by French fur traders from New Orleans” and “built on a high bluff just 18 miles south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers -- a perfect site from which to trade with Native Americans in the fur-rich lands to the west.” When after the Louisiana Purchase President Thomas Jefferson sent “explorers Lewis & Clark from St. Louis to chart the new Louisiana Territory in 1804, more than 1,000 people, mostly French, Spanish, Indian and both free and slave blacks, lived in the city which was already the center of the fur trade in America … St. Louis grew from a population of 16,000 in 1840 to over ten times this amount in 1860. Annual steamboat arrivals grew from 3 to over 3,600 in the period from 1817 to 1858.” (Artist Unknown)
CORPSES ON STEAMBOATS
Dr. A.R. Kilpatrick lived in the Lismore area of Concordia Parish from the late 1840s until the Civil War. He traded in the town of Trinity, the small community across Little River from present day Jonesville.
Kilpatrick reported that most families along the Black and Tensas rivers in western Concordia and eastern Catahoula “use cistern water, contained in wooden cisterns; but some use well water, which is quite brackish and unpleasant.” Cisterns were breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
“The region is markedly paludal (marshy), being cut up with sloughs, ponds, lagoons, large lakes, and much stagnant water,” wrote Kilpatrick. Stagnant water, too, is a favorite place for mosquitoes to lay their eggs.
While no locals died from yellow fever in 1853, Kilpatrick said that several outsiders expired at Trinity. His report noted:
“Trinity is a village of 280 inhabitants, at the junction of Black, Ouachita, Tensas and Little Rivers; and steamboats from New Orleans land there at least every week, and in busy seasons every day. Several cases of yellow fever were put off there last July and August, all of which died; and some corpses were put off for burial.
“No particular precautionary measures were used to prevent the spread of the disease; yet no one took it from these cases ... There are low places in town, which hold water till evaporated. Besides this, a large space has been dug by workmen in forming a foundation for a warehouse on the bank, and the dirt (about a thousand cart-loads) is used in filling up low places in the village. Cistern water is mostly used for drinking purposes; many, however, use river water.”
CASES OF BLACK VOMIT
In Natchez, Dr. Davis was one of many doctors who attended the yellow fever victims. He, too, wrote about his experiences. He said hundreds died.
Dr. Davis noticed that the mosquitoes “were very numerous and annoying; and a kind of epidemic prevailed among poultry, particularly among hens and chickens.” He said the population of Natchez prior to the epidemic was about 6,500 but dropped to 3,500. Many fled Natchez and some residents recalled that grass grew in city streets. Those remaining in town stayed indoors. Davis estimated that 300 to 400 died.
“The disease spread by degrees through the city to its extremities,” wrote Davis, “and along the lines of travel into the country ... All classes almost indiscriminately were attacked, but the mortality was greatest among the poor and ignorant; very many, however, of those who had means and friends died. The Jews, Germans and Irish suffered most.
“The symptoms of the disease were pain in the back, head and limbs, injection of the eyes, sometimes accompanied with chill, great weakness, nausea of the stomach, commonly constipation of bowels — duration, about three days or thereabouts, of active sickness, generally; then a change, decidedly for better or worse.
“I cannot tell in what proportion of cases black vomit occurred; it was common, but many died without it. Little or no fever of any other kind prevailed, and it almost invariably ran into the prevailing fever; even a cold with fever was apt to run into the yellow fever.
“ … I do not remember how many cases of black vomit I have seen. Many recovered from black vomit, so called, but no instance within my observation after genuine black vomit. There are said to have been, however, a few cases of the latter kind. I heard two or three persons say that they had it before; I do not know of my own knowledge. I cannot answer with exactness, as to the number of persons attendant on the sick, or otherwise exposed and liable, who entirely escaped.
“Those who were most active and attentive seemed to fare better than others. Death usually occurred from the fourth day, or thereabouts, to the seventh, eighth, and even to the tenth and eleventh. A few died in thirty-six hours. Some in fifty hours. These, however, were not frequent. Several lingered between two and three weeks.”
BLEEDING FROM NOSE & GUMS
Dr. H.B. Shaw, who had been residing in Vidalia since 1839, reported that the population of Vidalia in 1853 was about 60, two-thirds white, mostly adult males: “Above and below the village on the river, and in the rear, are extensive cotton plantations, which have been cleared up and settled a great many years since ... There are marshes near, and there are but few ponds of stagnant water, and those of but small extent. The plantations are very well drained.
“ … The drinking water used is obtained exclusively from underground cisterns; no wells are used. This locality has long been considered to be healthy; more so, indeed, than most of similar places on the river. I have not known any case of yellow fever to originate here ... until this year, and am informed by persons of undoubted veracity who have resided in the immediate vicinity for over 50 years that they have never known of any such.”
Yellow fever claimed the lives of 16 people in Vidalia in 1853, including men, women, and children. Most of the dead were white. Two were black. On nearby plantations, a while male and one child died and several slaves, although Shaw did not know the exact number.
Only four residents escaped the fever, while in the vicinity there “were over 40 cases of yellow fever among the whites, and over 30 among the blacks.”
“The yellow fever evidently become epidemic in Natchez about the middle of August,” reported Shaw, “at which time Vidalia was healthy, though communication between the two places was frequent and uninterrupted for some length of time. On or about the 20th August” a “German woman above mentioned, recently from New Orleans, was sent to Vidalia sick, from the quarantine station at Natchez, where she had been two or three days.
“The attending physicians pronounced her disease to be yellow fever; and in a few days she died, having black vomit, and bleeding from the nose and gums. On the 22d August, a gentleman who had left New Orleans two days previously, arrived at Vidalia, apparently well. On the third day after his arrival he was taken down with yellow fever, from which he recovered.
“On the 23d, a family came over from Natchez; the man sick of what proved to be yellow fever, from which he recovered, after a severe and tedious illness. Up to the 25th, there was no other case of yellow fever in Vidalia.
“In a very few days the yellow fever broke out in a family residing in a house not far from those in which were the sick above named. Of that family, all whites, five died. About this time the disease made its appearance in some members of a family residing half a mile below the village, on a plantation. Those first attacked had been a few days before in Natchez. From that time the disease spread in all directions; new cases occurring every day...”
Dr. Shaw said the disease seemed to run “its course in the fatal cases, in from three to five days. Some of the attacks were violent from the first symptom observed. Every death within my knowledge, except one, was preceded by black vomit; that one was of a child, who passed the black matter by purging. Generally they had bleeding from the nose and gums. I know of no case of recovery after black vomit; though several such were said to have occurred.”
SILENCE OF A
With the disease came a general feeling of gloom.
Presbyterian preacher Joseph Stanton left a haunting description of a Natchez brought to its knees by yellow fever in 1853: “There were few...whom the pestilence did not reach; and many of them it carried to the grave. For nearly four months the places of business were generally closed. The grass literally sprung up in our untrodden streets; and the silence, not of a Sabbath, but of a funeral hour, hung over our usually bustling city...”