In 1849, an outbreak of cholera, first reported in New Orleans, began to spread up the Mississippi and then along the river's tributaries to the west.
Cholera is a horrible illness, coming on suddenly with diarrhea that can cause the loss of up to a quart of fluid in an hour. Vomiting is persistent for hours and dehydration quickly becomes life threatening.
Although there was an inkling among the medical profession in the 19th century that bad water was partly to blame, it wasn’t understood that the disease was transmitted by eating food or drinking water contaminated by the Vibrio choleraebacterium and most commonly found in places where there is poor sanitation and crowding. Such situations often exist in famines and wars.
So widespread was cholera along the Mighty Miss in 1849 that newspapers such as the Natchez Courier often provided updates. In one article, the paper noted that several families from the same community in Murray County, Georgia, many related by marriage, had just landed under-the-hill on a flatboat. They were "on their way to seek a new home in Texas." Forty-eight people were in the party.
South of Vicksburg, the "cholera developed itself among them." One man died, six were suffering from the disease and an infant was reportedly near death.
The Natchez Free Trader reported later that the outbreak had moved west and was now claiming lives at an alarming rate in Trinity, the bustling little frontier town at the confluence of the Black, Little, Tensas and Ouachita rivers in Catahoula Parish. In a day when the rivers were the interstate highways, Trinity was at the crossroads of western commerce and travel.
John Brown owned the land at the tip of the peninsula that became known as Trinity across Little River from present day Jonesville. In 1836 or 1837, Brown sold the property to James M. Daughters, who had the land laid out in lots and mapped. Daughters soon built the first house in Trinity.
By 1850, Trinity was a "thriving" village, according to the Free Trader, but was now paralyzed by "that awful scourge, the Asiatic cholera," which "descended upon the population with a fatality almost unheard of." The Free Trader reported that a dozen physicians from the village and surrounding communities in Catahoula and Concordia parishes were working round the clock treating patients.
William Snyder, a former resident of Natchez, had a boarding house/tavern in Trinity that the paper reported had 25 to 30 boarders. The paper said Snyder, before fleeing for Natchez, stayed at the boarding house caring for his renters until each died.
While many people passed away, the paper's report on the fatality rate proved to be untrue. Apparently exaggerated stories of the death count spread up and down the rivers but there was no exaggeration of the fact that the disease infected many throughout the river country and made them deathly ill.
OUTBREAK IN TRINITY
Andrew Robert Kilpatrick, a Black River physician and planter, treated many of the cholera patients in Catahoula and Concordia parishes and talked to many of the other doctors about the number of patients they treated and the methods they used for treatment. Kilpatrick wrote extensively about the area in medical journals and agricultural publications.
He owned a plantation at Lismore and was a slave-owner. He also was the census taker in Catahoula and Concordia, a job that required him to travel through the swamps and the hills, along the rivers and bayous and through the deepest forests to knock on doors, count heads and provide a record of those who lived here then.
He jotted down what people did for a living and as a doctor he compiled medical statistics. As a surgeon, he not only operated on patients, he also performed autopsies to learn why people died. Then he filed autopsy reports.
In 1849-50 when the cholera spread through this region, doctors knew that poor sanitary conditions had something to do with the disease and felt that "bad water" gave it life. Kilpatrick wrote that Trinity had "been built up" over a few years. The houses were small and many "situated very low and near the ground."
Kilpatrick's report on the outbreak of cholera was published in Dr. E.D. Fenner's "Southern Medical Reports." In those days, many doctors treated cholera patients based on methods developed by Dr. Samuel A Cartwright, a former resident of Natchez. Cartwright was considered an expert in his day on the treatment of Asiatic cholera and yellow fever.
In vacate low places in Trinity, Kilpatrick found the residents had developed a habit of throwing "all the trash or sweepings, shavings and saw-dust, for the purpose of filling them up." At the site of the steam-powered sawmill "the barks and refuse of the logs and waste timber, together with hundreds of cart loads of saw-dust are piled in these low places, which were all either partially or entirely submerged at the time of the onset of the cholera, in the month of February, and the water at the same time was rising rapidly."
The sawmill, owned by H. Shriver and John M. Philips, included "two saws and a set of mill-stones," The steam engine that powered the mill was first used on Black River in 1839 by R.C. Martin and Henry Shriver before being moved to the more centrally located community of Trinity.
The machinery was set up in a large house in Trinity in 1849 and could cut 30,000 board feet per week and the "stones could grind 250 bushels per day." The mill was probably the largest employer in town with 12 workers, each paid $17 per month.
‘TERRIBLE SCOURGE’ OF CHOLERA
Several cases of cholera in the spring of 1849 proved fatal. A physician, Dr. William Kelly, had recently located on Black River and was one of the first to die of the illness.
During the winter of 1850, the disease "was still hovering around," and "very often the steamboats passing the river would land (at Trinity) to bury the dead, or put off some unfortunate person in the last stages of cholera."
Both "the terrible scourge" of cholera and "the threatening overflow" produced a "gloom ... over the whole country."
Kilpatrick identified the first victim of cholera in Trinity as Mr. P. Hoovey, a 25-year-old man who was attacked suddenly on the night of Feb. 9, 1850. Dr. R. Quail treated him. The patient recovered.
On Feb. 11, a son of John Wiester, age 3, a "delicate child," was in a room adjacent to Mr. Hoovey's, and had suffered "chronic diarrhea" for several months. The little fellow died.
The boy’s sister, age 5, was attacked at midnight on Feb. 12. She was wrapped in blankets, given a cold bath, and appeared to be recovering. After sleeping for an hour, she awoke, "asked for water of which she drank freely," and then "died in five minutes."
John Wiester, the father of the two children, was stricken next. Kilpatrick described Wiester as a man "dissipated in his habits," who had suffered "chronic diarrhea for more than a year." He was "bled about four ounces" and provided other treatment, most of it just as awful but considered outstanding medical treatment then. He, too, died.
Mrs. Cowan, Mrs. S. Barland, and J.A. Tiffee, age 40, were attacked but all recovered.
POOR MR. BARR
One might wonder which was worst, the cholera or the treatment.
On Feb. 23, Alfred S. Barr, well-respected in the community, was attacked at 4 a.m. Kilpatrick wrote that the stout 38-year-old "had long been much troubled with dyspepsia (indigestion) and diarrhea." He lived in William Snyder's boarding house, but Barr had been sleeping in his office in Snyder's back yard. The office adjoined Barr's store.
"He (Barr) was very much alarmed when he was first taken, as there was quite a panic in the place, and he despaired of ever getting well," reported Kilpatrick. "Besides ... the water was fast encroaching on the town, the weather was very changeable at the time, and mostly overcast, with rain on that very day." Dr. D.P. Calhoun and his brother treated Barr at the outset.
The patient "was bled about a pint," and the doctors also employed as treatment "calomel, opium, camphor, tannin, together with other things." At 6 a.m. the next day, Feb. 24, Drs. Quail and J.J. Dearing, who opened the first drug store in Trinity in 1850, were consulted.
As treatment continued, the doctors stripped Mr. Barr and poured "eight buckets of cold water on him," which they claimed "relived him very much, and he was temporarily revived."
By 2 p.m., Dr. J.S. Bradstreet, summoned that morning, "arrived from the country." Later in the day, Dr. Dearing became ill.
As the hours wore on, Barr suffered from "much mental excitement, anxiety and despondency; excessive thirst and irritability of stomach, vomiting, and frequent watery discharges." He had "cramps, colliquative sweat, delirium ... and was fast sinking."
Barr died that evening, less than 48 hours after being diagnosed with cholera.
The five physicians did their best. So many treated Barr because of his importance to Trinity. Barr opened a general store there in 1837 in the house built by James Daughters, who had the town laid out. The house was located opposite the steam-powered sawmill. Barr was in the process of building the village's first brick home when he died.
Kilpatrick said Barr "was one of the best and most useful men in the whole country, and was respected and esteemed by everybody. Every possible effort was made to save him, and all that the best medical advisers could do was most readily and zealously performed; but our friend has gone, and it is feared his place will long remain unoccupied."
DEATH ON RED RIVER
Other cases included James Hagan, an Irishman "of irregular habits, a hard drinker, and for a long time troubled with intestinal derangement." He died.
Reuben T. Toms, 27, who lodged in Mr. Snyder's boarding house/tavern was stricken. His wife got sick, too. Dr. Emerson attended them. Both survived.
On Feb. 24, Ben, an enslaved man in the services of Mr. Snyder, was severely sickened by the cholera. He was cared for by Dr. Bradstreet, then by Dr. Quail, and given "enemata of egg, camphor and quinine ... but they failed." Dr. Quail relieved Dr. Emerson later in the day, but Ben died.
For the next few days only mild cases were reported. At home on March 1, Dr. Quail, who had treated a number of patients, came down with cholera for the second time. But "as the water was so high as to cut off communication, only by boat, he was compelled to prescribe himself," said Kilpatrick.
At daylight Drs. Emerson and Dearing "came to his relief." Dr. Quail recovered.
William Snyder, the owner of the boarding house whose death was reported by the Natchez Free Trader, left town for Natchez on Feb. 24th, but he passed away "soon after reaching that place," wrote Kilpatrick. But the Free Trader reported that Snyder, like others who believed that "flight was the only safety for the well," didn't flee soon enough. The paper said he died of cholera on a steamer at the mouth of Red River, in route to Natchez.
Kilpatrick reported there were “many light cases of the disease in and about Trinity," and at the time "there were exaggerated reports about the cholera here, which spread all over the country, and were extensively published in the newspapers."
He said Trinity's population then was about 200. Of this total, eight people died from cholera there and most "had been previously debilitated by some other disease." Kilpatrick said only a few cases "were difficult to manage where the constitution of the patient was good."