Cholera in 1833

Last fall, I wrote here about the Texas Master Naturalist class that I help teach at a state prison.

As my small part of this 12-week class, I teach about “Historic Naturalists of Texas.”  Hundreds of important scientists, patrons, and explorers are listed in our Master Naturalist handbook  — no one could cover them all; I have chosen just a few to learn more about and include in my presentation.

This year, as I was researching a Scottish botanist named Thomas Drummond, I learned about the cholera epidemic of the 1830s, and given our own pandemic, I found Drummond’s experiences very interesting.

Cholera is a bacterial infection of the intestines, spread mostly through unsafe water or food.  At the time Drummond was exploring Texas, germ theory was still unknown, and the miasma theory was prevalent — the thought that diseases were caused by noxious particles in bad air or possibly night air.  (It was not until 1849 that John Snow first published the idea that cholera was spread by contaminated water, and it took many more years for that idea to gain acceptance.)

This 1948 book by Samuel Wood Geiser, Naturalists of the Frontier, explains the conditions:

To set the stage for the entrance of Thomas Drummond into the Texas of the eighteen-thirties, one must paint a backdrop of pestilence, flood, and social disorganization in that remote province, which was then a barely planted colony.

The plague had begun far away — in India.  Early in 1826, cholera, always endemic there, was on the increase through lower Bengal.  In the spring it reached Benares, and the next year Nahin, in the Himalayas.  It broke out in Teheran, near the Caspian Sea, in 1829, and reached Moscow the next year.  In April of 1831 the plague reached Warsaw, and in the autumn Hamburg.  A ship carried it to Sunderland, near Newcastle, in October.  On June 2, 1832, the brig Carricks, of Dublin, arrived at Grosse Isle in the St. Lawrence with a passenger list of 145 immigrants, of whom forty-two had died of cholera.  On June 24, the first case of cholera appeared in New York CIty, with the first death two days later.  Thence the plague spread to Erie, Pennsylvania, on June 26; Cleveland, July 22; and St. Louis, September 10.  At the end of October it had reached New Orleans, where it wrought terrible havoc.  Thus by the routes of trade did the dread disease spread itself throughout the world.  Europe and North and Central America bore the brunt of a progressive epidemic that carried to death hundreds of thousands of victims.

Austin’s struggling colony in Texas did not escape.  At this time it had been ten years in the making.  In December, 1822, Stephen F. Austin, with his band of twenty families, had arrived on the banks of the Brazos… In the intervening years the twenty families had grown to many thousands; a score of thriving towns had sprung up and a rudimentary culture was beginning to be evident….  In spite of the difficulties that surrounded the colony, in spite of weather conditions that year after year brought bad crops…the Empresario [Stephen F. Austin] saw his dreams for Texas slowly being realized.  Then came the cholera.

It is difficult to learn how the plague reached Texas.  Between the first and the twelfth of April, 1833, the disease suddenly broke out in the village of Velasco at the mouth of the Brazos River;  as Austin stated in a report… about a dozen of the American settlers there were attacked by the disease, and several died.  Later the disease spread to the town of Brazoria, thirty miles distant, where it carried off a number of victims, the disease being generally fatal… Later the cholera spread to Mexico; in the capital more than ten thousand persons died of the disease.  Stephen F. Austin himself, in the City of Mexico, was attacked by the cholera, but recovered.

Following the epidemic, which took its toll of the best of Texas, came the Great Overflow of 1833.  The whole season was an abnormal one.  At San Felipe, on the Brazos River, the last part of January had been unusually cold.  In March, throughout a considerable part of Texas there had been heavy rains and extremely high water.  The Brazos rose out of its banks, so that boats arriving at Velasco were compelled to wait a week before coming up the river to Brazoria, then the most important shipping point in Texas.  Fields of cotton and corn, planted usually at Brazoria between the first and fifteenth of March, were completely inundated…. Corn, which was the chief staple of food, was not raised this year in sufficient quantities to feed people; sometimes families went for days without meal.

from Naturalists of the Frontier, by Dr. Samuel Wood Geiser

Drummond had already spent two years collecting  in the Canadian Rockies.  His collecting trip to Texas was enabled by a patron, Sir William Jackson Hooker, a professor of botany at the University of Glasgow.  Fortunately for all of us, in 1835 Sir William published the letters that Drummond had sent him (now available online), so we can hear Drummond’s own account of the horrible situation in Texas that year.

Drummond’s correspondence, published in 1835.  Source

Town of Velasco, mouth of the Rio Brazos, Texas
[May 14, 1833]

…I accordingly came back to this place, which nearly proved fatal to me, for when I had been here about ten days, and completed a collection of the few plants then in flower… I was suddenly sized with cholera.  Though ignorant of the nature of the disease and the proper remedies, I fortunately took what was proper for me, and in a few hours the violent cramps in my legs gave way to the opium [See note below about the opium.] with which I dosed myself.  In the course of the same day the Captain and his sister were taken ill and died, and seven other persons died in two or three days — a large number for this small place, where there are only four houses, one of which was unvisited by the disease.  All the cases terminated fatally, except mine, and always in ten or twelve hours, save one person, who lingered a few days.  The weather was particularly cold and disagreeable for more than a week before the cholera appeared… My recovery from cholera was very slow.  When my appetite returned, I was nearly starved for lack of food, the few individuals who remained alive being too much exhausted with anxiety and fatigue to offer to procure me anything.

Opium: I have not been able to find out any more about why Drummond thought this would be a remedy, and I have no idea whether there is some way it would have really helped at all, or whether his recovery was just a coincidence.

In addition to the cholera, Drummond faced great difficulties from the flooding:

Tomorrow I intend making an attempt to reach Brazoria again, but the greater part of the journey is waist-deep in mud and water… I feel anxious about my collections, which I leave here, to await a vessel going to New Orleans; but there is not help for it, and from the interior of the country it is still more difficult to obtain conveyances, the charge for freight being so enormous as to exceed the value of the collections.

In August, he was in San Felipe and wrote:

About one-third of the plants collected on my route, were destroyed by the overflowing of the river.  Vegetation is now recommencing, but I never witnessed such devastation; it has extended even two hundred miles up the river from this place.

He was also less than impressed by the Texian colonists:

You may form an idea of the difficulties I have had to encounter in this miserable country ( more miserable, however, as to its inhabitants than in any other respect) when I tell you that all the bird-skins I sent you were removed with a common old penknife, not worth two cents, and that even this shabby article I could not have kept had the natives seen anything to covet in it; and that I am obliged to leave behind my blanket and the few clothes I have brought, because of the difficulty carrying them, though I feel pretty sure I shall never see them again.

In spite of all these difficulties, he successfully sent about 700 plant specimens and 150 bird specimens to Hooker in Glasgow, and even wrote that he thought he would do well to move to Texas, where he would have opportunity to get land and raise cattle.  However, he died of unknown causes on a trip to Cuba in 1835.

Living close to where Drummond explored, I have had enough experience with Gulf Coast flooding to make me deeply sympathetic to Drummond and what he went through.

But of course until this year, pandemics did not loom large in my awareness.

Reading about this cholera epidemic, I was struck by the fact that it, too, traveled around the globe, and affected so many people; and by how very quickly it killed people.

Even more, I felt grateful that nowadays we have such improved communication.  I find reassurance in the fact that scientists can work together around the world to find solutions.  And for myself, although I am apart from friends and loved ones, I can still talk to them.

I hope all of you are well and safe!