The Dread Cholera Strikes the Caravan
(Excerpted from Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon by Clifford M. Drury. Three asterisks,“ * * *”, indicate deleted sections of text.)
Whitman’s journal tells the story. On June 16, he wrote: “My health is improved. Went to see a man for whom I was called last night but was unable to go. Found him in a hopeless collapse of cholera. Another case, the man laying on the bank of the river and in the evening exposed to a severe shower, soon after which he died.” On the 19th Whitman wrote: “There have been several new cases of cholera each day and one death last night. Mr. Fontanelle is sick with cholera.”
On June 21, in a letter to Narcissa, Whitman wrote: “For the last twelve days have been attending upon Mr. Fontanelle’s men; the cholera has raged severely among them; three only have died. Mr. Fontanelle is sick with it himself, but now convalescent. He has P a house and farm half a mile below here, where his men have been, some encamped, and some in his buildings. It is not strange that they should have the cholera because of their intemperance, their sunken and filthy situation.”
Although we have no evidence that Whitman had actually treated a case of cholera while practicing medicine at Wheeler, it is evident that he had been close enough to the Erie Canal and other focal points of infection to become informed about the symptoms of the disease and the best ways to treat it. He had learned that contagion was connected with intemperance and lack of cleanliness. He knew the importance of good clean drinking water, and he knew the most appropriate medication to be used. When Fontenelle called upon Whitman for help, Whitman at once recommended that the men be moved from the low bottom lands bordering the river, where the water supply had evidently become polluted, to “a clean, healthy situation” on higher ground. This stopped the spread of the disease.
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After the death of the three men, all others who had been stricken, including Fontenelle, recovered. A magical change of attitude towards the missionaries took place. There were no more throwing of rotten eggs at them, no more taunts because of their temperance principles, and no more harassments. Dr. Whitman became the most respected man in the caravan. Parker was tolerated for Whitman’s sake. Both Whitman and Parker viewed the cholera epidemic, as far as they were concerned, as being providential. “The medical skill of the Doctor,” wrote Parker, “converted those [who had been hostile] into permanent friends.”
Drury, Clifford M. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.