In April 1849, a visitor stepped off a steamer at the Tarbert Plantation on the Mississippi River.
The location was in southern Wilkinson County below Fort Adams along the Mississippi-Louisiana border.
"When we landed," the visitor wrote, "all was quiet as a graveyard." Slaves greeted the man "with quiet and sad voices."
On the porch of the plantation home a short distance inland, the visitor found a curious scene -- the physician "surrounded with tables of bottles of medicine" frantically tending to a number of patients. The doctor "had three large dishes each of Calomel, Camphor and Capsicum and was dishing out of each with a spoon."
In a short period, the visitor was among the sick. In a letter to a friend, he said "it would astonish you to hear the quantity (of medicine) in ten days, we have consumed. Some 12 or 15 debilitated cases were lying in their blankets around the galleries of the house, so as to get aid, if needed, at a moment's warning."
The mood of the plantation resembled that of an Edgar Allan Poe short story.
Said the Tarbert Plantation visitor: "The wretched quarter dogs kept up all night a melancholy howling and have done so nightly; the atmosphere is heavy ... It is impossible to eat; we keep our strength up with brandy, burnt in spices; it is a good preventive to disease, keeps the stomach warm and the brandy does not affect the head."
Dr. John Flavel Carmichael, a former Army surgeon, who arrived in the newly established Mississippi Territory in the late 1790s, had established the plantation. When Carmichael lost his eyesight in the 1830s, his nephew, John Carmichael Jenkins, also a physician, came south from Pennsylvania to run his uncle's medical practice. When Carmichael died in 1837, the plantation became Jenkins'.
The site of Tarbert Plantation was five miles below Fort Adams, an hour’s drive from Natchez. A half-mile to the south of the plantation is the West Feliciana Parish line and Angola Plantation, home to the Louisiana State Penitentiary. To the west across the river is the southern tip of Concordia Parish.
In this general area, the Mighty Mississippi swallowed 25 steamboats from 1826 to 1912 as a result of collisions, fires or snags. The tragedies resulted in the lost of 182 souls – black and white; men, women and children.
What had gripped the Tarbert and other plantations along the Mississippi River was the cholera. In 1846, a widespread epidemic had stricken Europe and in 1848, the disease entered the United States through the port of New Orleans. Soon the epidemic spread up the Mississippi River Valley and extended westward across the continent to California.
The first cases in New Orleans, according to William Dunbar Jenkins (“The Cholera in 1849,”Journal of Mississippi History, 1903), occurred in December 1848. Over the next six weeks, 3,000 people died in the city.
Along the Mississippi at Natchez in 1849, flatboats, appearing to be empty, drifted onshore. Onboard dead bodies were discovered, all victims of cholera.
In the spring of that year, the outbreak took a westward direction, moving across Concordia and Catahoula parishes, following the rivers and traveling the Red into Texas. The U.S. 8th Infantry, marching through Texas to San Antonio, was decimated by cholera. By the time the regiment reached its destination, 139 men out of 400, including the colonel, were dead.
During the outbreak in south Louisiana, Jenkins said the Minor estate lost 200 black men, women and children, 75 died on the Bibbs plantation in the Lafourche region, 54 on Bishop Polk's farm. Many whites died at home and aboard steamboats as the vessels ascended the Mississippi and her tributaries. At Dr. Duncan's plantation on Stack Island, located on the Mississippi near Lake Providence, more than 133 slaves died from the disease.
An outcrop of the human toll was an economic one. With a sick and dying workforce, there was no labor to tend the cotton crop, resulting in a loss of an estimated 3,500 bales on Duncan's Stack Island acreage. "Wherever the disease occurred," wrote Jenkins, "the loss of a great part of the crop was the consequence."
Flooding in both 1849 and 1850 added to the great misery and a sinking sense of fear and doom spread throughout the river country. For the settlers, the rising waters in Catahoula and Concordia and word of the spread of cholera sent many into despair, bringing on a degree of psychological torment. The nightly howling of the dogs at Tarbert’s seemed a manifestation of the epidemic.
"The Tarbert Plantation in Wilkinson County, situated upon the 31st degree north latitude, upon the Mississippi River, was visited the last week of March (1849),” according to Jenkins. “This place had a high front, but back in the swamp, and extending north and south, was a great sheet of water; there had also just been cleared up about two hundred acres of land, in part of which the fallen timber was yet lying.
"In many places water was under the brush and logs. There were also a large number of decaying cane mattresses in the fields near the 'quarters,' all of which, no doubt, generated an impure air which gave nidus (nest) to the poison of cholera. The steamboats which took cord wood at the landing soon brought the disease to the place, and before the close of March there were decided cases among the Negroes."
Cholera, as is known today, is transmitted through contaminated food and water, aided by poor sanitary conditions. This is a dreadful disease, caused by the ingestion of a Vibrio cholera bacterium. It is characterized by acute watery diarrhea and can be deadly, causing severe dehydration and kidney failure.
Wrote William Dunbar Jenkins about the sufferers of the 1849 epidemic, "The patient was first seized with an uneasy feeling about the pit of the stomach, cramps in limbs and headache; he would immediately seek seclusion. In fifteen to twenty minutes, he became collapsed, cold as ice, pulseless and dying. In this state remedies were of little avail, for the patient after lingering a few days died of typhoid fever from excessive debility."
Antibiotics and intravenous fluids are used to treat the disease today. Back in 1849, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, who once lived in Natchez, established the primary treatment. Jenkins described Cartwright’s method as such:
"Twenty grains of calomel, 10 grains of camphor and 10 grains of red pepper. These were rubbed together into a powder. A dose was given with every discharge. If taken at the starting point of the attack, three doses would generally stop the discharges, using at the same time hot mustard foot bath, hot bricks to feet, large plasters of mustard over the abdomen and on the thighs and legs, and rubbing for the cramp; if serious passages stopped and the patient slept and was quiet for eight to ten hours, he generally got up. From then on he was safe and only required brandy in suitable quantity to keep up strength, when recovery was gradual. Numbers, however, remained for a long time in a typhoid condition after getting through. In collapse, if anything would do good, it was calomel."
One patient, Jenkins wrote, was a "stout, athletic man" who was "apparently dying, cold as ice, pulseless and speechless." The man was given calomel in "100 grain doses" and "in half an hour he jumped up and was walking about."
Doctors believed that "the great aim of treatment was to bring on sweating. This effected, the internal hemorrhage at once stopped. It would not do to wait on calomel to act on the liver, as this took four to six hours, and the patient might die in two or three hours."
The first cholera outbreak recorded in this region was in 1833. Jenkins said Dr. Carmichael moved the Tarbert slaves from their cabins on the river to the "high bluffs back of the plantation ... and there did not occur another case." Only three men died, all infected at the first sign of the disease while all were living on the riverbank.
But because the 1849 outbreak came on so rapidly, Jenkins said "no camps or sheds" were in "readiness at the bluffs. In making sheds or camps it was important that there should not be too many crowded together, and above all, that they should not sleep upon the bare grounds. Bunks to sleep upon were erected in their camps two or three feet off the ground, and if a flooring of boards was used they had a layer of sleepers under them to elevate them from the earth. This was Dr. Cartwright's plan."
Good, clean food was also necessary, according to the doctor. Jenkins said bread "made out of sweated or weevil-eaten corn was a prolific cause of malignancy in the disease; pork put up with inferior salt, or where the meat had been killed a good while before packing and salting, as was often the case in the West, was a fruitful cause of malignancy in the disease."
Jenkins also noted: "It is a well ascertained fact that upon every plantation where the cholera was malignant that the drinking water was bad."
According to Rae's "Observations on Cholera," 19th century physicians were coming to the conclusion that the disease was "contagious" moreso than not and "dependent on some telluric or atmospheric influence in its development ... It advances along the great lines of communications that exist between different towns or countries, along the tracks of trade and the highways of commerce and overspreads a country more or less quickly, just in proportion to the facilities of intercourse existing between respective towns."
As the disease spread up the Red, Black, Tensas, Little and Ouachita rivers in Louisiana, doctors (there were several in Catahoula and Concordia parishes in those days) found themselves traveling from plantation to plantation, farm to farm, house to house, in attempts to treat this scourge.
As the floodwaters rose in this region in 1849, the outbreak of cholera almost caused a panic.
At the Tarbert Plantation, where one-third of the black population died, the unidentified visitor who had arrived at the place at the height of the disease's impact was now in the depths of depression.
"My wife and self are perfectly well," he said, "but as you may suppose, we are all worn down, a good deal heart-sick, melancholy and gloomy."