(Excerpted from Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon by Clifford M. Drury.)
During World War I, Spanish influenza spread from city to city, from nation to nation, and across oceans with terrifying rapidity, leaving in its wake millions of newly made graves. A century earlier, or, to be exact, in 1817, a similar epidemic, Asiatic cholera, originating in Bengal, India, began its deadly march around the world. Transportation was slower then, but the march once begun never stopped even though at times it was delayed. It swept across Russia and Poland and reached Berlin by the summer of 1831. There the epidemic claimed seven thousand lives. By November of that year it had reached Scotland. In February 1832, the dread disease appeared in London and by March was in Liverpool. In June the cholera crossed the Atlantic in a boat from Belfast bound for Quebec and within a week, cholera was found in Montreal. From there it spread southward through the waterways down to New York, and across the state along the Erie Canal to the Great Lakes. Cases were reported in Detroit on July 5, and soldiers going to the Black Hawk War carried the disease to Chicago. Continuing its relentless march, the epidemic moved southward along the Mississippi River and by mid-September was in New Orleans.
The terror of the people was nearly as dreadful as the disease itself. They had reason to be afraid, for the epidemic struck with fearful rapidity. Oftentimes people left their homes in the morning, apparently in the best of health, only to be dead before sundown. From the records of reliable contemporary physicians, we learn that not more than one third of the cases recovered in 1832. In following years, as the doctors learned more about the disease, they were able to save more of their patients.
Drury, Clifford M. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.
Last updated: March 1, 2015