What a strange feeling looking at this map of the 1832 cholera pandemic. It looks like a blotchy bruise on the country. A little surprised at how restricted the pandemic was in America. As it turns out this map is incomplete, ending in October 1832; cholera eventually traveled down the Mississippi to reach New Orleans and stops along the way. One of my first experiences with the history of medicine discovered in my own research occurred while doing some family genealogy. Cholera is often depicted among the poor in crowded, old cities like London. For me though, cholera is a disease of the American frontier.
My ancestor John Biggs Moore died of cholera on July 4th, 1833. John Moore was the patriarch of a large family in frontier Illinois on the Mississippi River. He came to Kaskaskia Illinois with his parents in 1781 in the last years of the Revolutionary War. His father James Moore had first seen the Illinois country in the militia of George Rogers Clark when they took the area from English control during the Revolution. John Moore was teenager listed among the men on the first census of Americans in the Illinois country in 1787 used in part to prove that Americans were settled as far west as the Mississippi River to Congress. When American territorial boundaries were established, the Mississippi River was set as the western border, putting them on the furthest edge of the American frontier. (The Louisiana Purchase would extend the frontier in 1804.) The Moore family started the American settlement at Bellefontaine (present city of Waterloo), at the site of a big well-known spring, on the trail between Kaskaskia and Cahokia in 1782.
John Moore’s death on July 4th tells us something about its circumstances. July 4th was the biggest community celebration held on the frontier. John Moore was the son, son-in-law, and nephew of Revolutionary War soldiers and a former War of 1812 soldier. There is little doubt that he would have been part of the independence day celebrations. Cholera came to Illinois the previous summer with Gen. Scott’s arrival with federal soldiers to take charge of the Black Hawk War. They arrived at Fort Dearborn (modern Chicago) on the shore of Lake Michigan and the disease traveled with the troops down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers fading out in the fall. When cholera re-emerged the following summer it is recorded in Belleville in July of 1833, claiming the life of former Governor Ninian Edwards on July 20, 1833. John Moore died of it over two weeks earlier 20 miles from Belleville. Most of the men in John Moore’s extended family were in the Illinois militia on campaign under his step-brother Gen. Samuel Whiteside during the Black Hawk War. So the community gathering for independence day celebrations the summer after the war, that could have gone on for days, is the context of his death.
The arrival of the first steamship in Illinois brought with it the double-edged sword of connection with ‘civilization’. Most of the early Illinois pioneers did not come with grand visions of living in an isolated primitive wilderness. They were very focused on land ‘improvements’ and recreating a Virginia-style plantation landscape. Steamships would have been heralded as a sign of progress since river trade was vital to their economy until the railroad arrived. Cholera brought to the frontier by the federal troops killed more people than the Black Hawk War.