A cholera patient.

A cholera patient experimenting with remedies.

The first record of cholera in the United States is believed to have begun in the summer of 1832, making it’s appearance first in the town of Plattsburg, New York. It would last this first time through 1834, a total of 3 years. The second infestation would last much longer. Starting in the summer of 1848 the disease would last 5 years, until 1852, when it died out for only one year, returning again in 1854 and 1855. The “good news” is that cholera made only two additional incursions into the United States, each lasting just one year, 1866 and 1873. While there are still occasional “outbreaks” of cholera in the United States, they remain very isolated and confined to limited localities.

Cholera is a serious disease found in the intestines. Medical researchers have sectioned cholera into five stages:

  1. Premonitory Diarrhea.
  2. Copious Evacuatis.
  3. Collapse.
  4. Reaction.
  5. Uremia.

In severe cases it is possible for cholera to start with one of the latter stages, especially after an epidemic is fully developed. Conversely, a mild case may be manifested only by diarrhea.

December of 1848 would bring the return of cholera to the United States. It appeared at two locations within days of each other: New York City, first, on 2 Dec 1848, and New Orleans, second, on 11 Dec 1848. It then traversed its way through the United States via the interior waterways and the Atlantic seaboard. Cholera was first recorded in Illinois in March of 1849 when it made its appearance in the town of Quincy.

The people of Illinois would become frightened by the unknowns of this disease. Cholera is caused by drinking water, or eating food contaminated with bacteria – we know that now, however, in 1849, little was known as to what cholera really was, and the mis-information about it could spread quicker then the truth. Towns people would awaken in the morning and the first question asked of others in the village was who had succumbed overnight. The tales of the suffering of the citizens of Illinois may be found within their writings of the time. Diaries and letters are replete with discussion concerning the disease. The evidence of its thoroughness can be found within the graveyards of Illinois, and in its Mortality Census Schedule for 1850, which provides researchers with a snapshot in time of an active epidemic. A mortality census was taken every 10 years, the same year a census was taken, for the purpose of recording the deaths of all the people in America during the preceding year, in this case, June 1849-May 1850. It does not record all of the deaths at the time. That was the intent, but in the end, it only records those deaths with which the census taker, usually the sheriff of county, was told about, or already knew about.

Using the mortality schedule of Randolph County for 1850 as a sample, here are some of the facts I found:

  1. The population of Randolph County in 1850 was 11,079.
  2. There were a total of 167 deaths recorded in Randolph County during 1850.
  3. Of those 167 deaths, cholera was attributed to 59, or 35% of all the deaths.
  4. Only .005 or .5% of the population of Randolph County succumbed to the disease in 1849. It is not known by the record how many may have contacted the disease but survived.

There were at least two doctors in the county who may have helped contribute to the lower death count. We know this, as both are listed as decedents in the census: F. K. Kaufri (surname is difficult to read) and a Dr. Miller. It was possible to treat Cholera, but the treatment had to come swiftly after the disease onset, as some were recorded as dying within only 4 hours of knowingly contracting the disease. It is also possible that there were more deaths in the county that went unrecorded by the Sheriff.

To comprehend the impact the cholera had on the citizens of Illinois, use the following links which take you to the various 1850 mortality schedules found across ILGenWeb:

1850 Mortality Schedules

More Information on the 1849 Cholera Epidemic in Illinois