The Star-Herald

What the epidemics of history can tell us

I recently came across a chart of major epidemics in the United States starting in 1794 and ending in 1918.  The author was emphasizing that many people thought to have “disappeared” from records were actually victims of diseases.  

Throughout written history epidemics or pandemics (worldwide epidemics) have cost lives and your ancestor may be among the victims.  Often family members seem to drop permanently out of sight, whether they were new immigrants to this country or people who were moving westward and were never heard of again by their families. No one knows what happened to these folks, whether they were killed or died of starvation.  In other cases the cause of death was incorrectly entered in official records. This was common in World War I, when the great influenza pandemic had an 80 percent death rate in many instances and killed millions worldwide. The government asked doctors to list the cause of death as “pneumonia.”  

When you research death records from the era you’ll find page after page of pneumonia deaths that were almost certainly the result of influenza.  

The names of victims of epidemics weren’t always recorded, as cities and larger population centers struggled to cope with a flood of victims without families or identification.  Often the dead were buried in unmarked mass graves. The chart I have lists some of the more common diseases, including yellow fever, cholera, typhus, smallpox, scarlet fever and influenza.  Other epidemics include measles and other childhood diseases that were commonplace at one time but now have vaccines to prevent them. I can well remember 1954, when I caught every childhood disease:  chickenpox, mumps, both types of measles, whooping cough and scarlet fever, to my mother’s dismay.

Throughout history people have fled from diseases, whether it was the Black Death in the Middle Ages, which depopulated entire villages in Europe, or yellow fever, which was endemic in tropical areas such as the South but also found in the North in areas like Philadelphia or New York.  Cholera was contingent on a polluted water supply. Occasionally, you can find a town or county history which will tell of some type of contagion in a particular part of a town where many people died or were severely ill. If it’s confined to one area it’s probably cholera. Newspapers would sometimes publish death lists, but usually didn’t, as city governments didn’t want to scare away potential business.

As a genealogist, you are facing challenges in identifying what killed an ancestor who left for the Gold Rush, for example, and was never heard of again.  Sometimes there are family stories of relatives who died of something contagious. Often you have to fill in the gaps using records of what was happening in a particular place and time.  Sometimes it’s impossible to figure out what happened to Cousin Charlie. If you know he was in a large city and you also find an epidemic happening at that time, you may never prove anything, but can make an educated guess that he was a victim of disease.  

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