Early Diseases and an Epidemic in South Wellfleet

Recently, a medical historian, while commenting on the Ebola epidemic, said “Ebola is jerking us back to the nineteenth century.” Human illnesses are certainly one of the great divides between modern life and that of the 18th and 19th centuries. As I’ve looked at families in South Wellfleet and their daily lives, Illness and death are constant themes.

One of the first recorded epidemics in New England decimated the Wapanoags of southeastern Massachusetts just before the Pilgrims arrived. At one time it was thought to be smallpox, but more recent writers now think that it was bubonic or pneumonic plague, and some think it may have been Leptospirosis, another bacterial infection. Coastal natives had increasing contact with European fishermen, traders and would-be settlers for years. From 1617 to 1619, a devastating epidemic killed nearly all the native population. The Pilgrims used their cleared land in Patuxet (the place they later named Plymouth) – thanking God for making the land ready and available.

Smallpox was a dreaded disease in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Boston there were seven major smallpox outbreaks between 1721 and 1791. The development of vaccination had begun, but many were afraid to engage. I found a Boston census of those who had been vaccinated, dated in the 1820s – a sign that the government was attempting to eradicate this scourge.

There were a number of smallpox outbreaks on the Cape. In 1649, a smallpox epidemic with a concurrent outbreak of whooping cough hit Scituate, Massachusetts, and Barnstable on Cape Cod, killing so many children that the church fathers declared a “Day of Humiliation” on November 15, 1649. There is no reference to the disease in the Eastham Town records of the 17th century. However, in the 18th century, when recorded history is more available, there were outbreaks in Chatham in 1765-66, in Sandwich and Yarmouth in 1778, in Wellfleet in 1793, and Falmouth and Yarmouth in 1797. I found one record for a family named Darling who lived on Griffin Island in western Wellfleet and lost four children. They then left the town and moved to Maine, perhaps too heartbroken to stay in Wellfleet.

Many old Cape towns have smallpox cemeteries, separate burying places for those who had died from the disease. They were denied internment in the established churchyard as it was thought that the corpse could affect others.

In Wellfleet, there is such a cemetery on Bound Brook Island where Lombard family members are buried. It is assumed they were banned from the South Truro cemetery. Wellfleet writer Robert Finch recently wrote about another theory concerning the Lombards when he noticed that their death dates were not consistent with a single outbreak of disease. After his wife died of smallpox in 1859, Mr. Lombard placed her grave where he could see it, across the Bound Brook marsh from his farm, and then eventually he and his sons were buried there too.

There is a smallpox cemetery dating to the 19th century in Provincetown where a “pox house” existed. In Chatham, victims of the 1765 epidemic had to be buried in their backyards, and although some were moved later, there are smallpox cemeteries now where these families had lived.

Wellfleet historian Durand Echeverria wrote about the Wellfleet smallpox epidemic of 1746-48. He found references to it in old legislative records, particularly one for Samuel Smith, who apparently took care of the Indians in Billingsgate who died, and then petitioned for reimbursement of his expenses.

In his writing preserved by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Wellfleet’s 18th century Reverend Levi Whitman commented that “in 1772 a mortal fever carried off 40 citizens of Wellfleet.” I think that if it had been smallpox, he would have so named it. Of course there are lots of diseases that could cause a fever; this epidemic may have been cholera or typhoid.

Eventually, vaccination for smallpox was practiced on the Cape as elsewhere, and now as of 1977, smallpox has been eradicated world-wide. Nevertheless there is fear today that it could return as a weapon of bio-terrorism.

There’s one epidemic that I can definitely place in South Wellfleet. In 1816 there was a typhoid epidemic, also called spotted fever, affecting Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham. It worked its way through the population from late winter through the spring. Typhoid is a bacterial infection, and in earlier times was often transmitted by body lice. Medical historians theorize that the infected lice have more opportunity to bite in the colder winter and early spring months when clothing and bed linens were not removed so often. Fifty-two people lost their lives in Eastham, the town which seems to have been hit the hardest.

The disease also affected South Wellfleet. Death records early in the 19th century do not show the cause of death, nor do they provide a specific location within the town. However, I was able to connect a 1816 newspaper story about several deaths in Wellfleet to the 1816 records for the town, and then to the general location of the affected families.

A news report in the Boston Daily Advertiser said that the epidemic had hit “a Wellfleet small neighborhood at an alarming rate.” In the official Massachusetts records of deaths in Wellfleet for 1816 — a longer list than years just before and following – there are about 15 people that I can identify as strong possibilities for typhoid deaths. Their family names place them as South Wellfleet residents.

The January 1816 deaths recorded in Wellfleet are for three small children and infants, a common occurrence and with no reason to believe they were necessarily typhoid deaths. Then in February, there are two possible typhoid deaths, a Higgins and a Doane. March 1816 is the worst: Thomas Stubbs, age 16; Beriah Higgins, age 17; and Isaac Smith, age 17 – his father, John Smith, died in mid-June. Another Smith family lost a daughter, Sally Smith, age 18, and her brother, Hezekiah, age 20. Abigail Dill died in early March and her husband, John, in early April. They were an older couple; their son named his child born later that year “Abigail” for his mother. Seth Newcomb died; I believe he lived in Fresh Brook Village (part of South Wellfleet). John Gill died in late March. Captain Oliver Cromwell Lombard died in April of 1816, leaving a widow, Temperance Lombard, whose name appears in many South Wellfleet deeds.

In his book Truro Cape Cod, Land Marks and Sea Marks, Shebna Rich writes about the 1816 epidemic, quoting from one of the town ministers:

In the month of February, and the year 1816, an epidemic appeared in the town of Eastham in this county and proved very mortal. It was called by different names, as malignant fever, putrid fever, spotted fever, cold plague, etc. It extended from Brewster to Provincetown; in the latter place but lightly. It did not seem contagious; some that went freely among the ill continued well, while those that avoided the sick died. Its signs were pains, either in the head, breast, side, arms and legs, attended with chills. …Some lived four or five days and were in great distress. Those who lived over the seventh or ninth day generally recovered. It was melancholy times. The grave was opened daily to receive the dead. Two or three funerals in a day often took place.

Cholera was also recorded as a cause of death from time to time in Wellfleet death records, after mid-century when the records display the reason why people died, if it was known. This disease was often brought in on ships, and thus a concern in many ports. In 1832, the Wellfleet Board of Health ordered that a red flag be erected at Indian Neck and that “all vessels from a port where spasmodic cholera prevails, come at anchor due west from said flag and there lay until permission is given by a member of the Board of Health for them to proceed to shore.” There is no record I could find of how many years this procedure remained in place.

Another common disease in the 19th century was consumption, or tuberculosis, the more modern name. This disease is noted for many of the people listed in the Wellfleet death records. Sometimes it is called phthisis, the Greek name. In the 17th century it was given the name “White Plague.” I also noted the disease “scrofula,” an infection of the throat and lymph nodes around the neck, caused by tuberculosis. When the archaeological dig around Duck Creek in Wellfleet unearthed many historical artifacts in the mud, one of the medicine bottles found there was a concoction designed to heal scrofula: “Dr. Hough’s Anti-Scrofula” syrup. It was late in the 19th century when the cause of tuberculosis was discovered, and ways of treating it developed. A sanitarium for TB was established in Pocasset, near Bourne.

As I’ve researched life on the Cape, particularly family records from the 19th century, it’s

Childrens' gravestone, South Wellfleet Cemetery

Childrens’ gravestone, South Wellfleet Cemetery

common to find many childhood deaths, especially newborns and toddlers. As children started to grow, many were lost to childhood diseases that rarely occur today, since vaccines and antibiotics generally eradicated these diseases — at least in the developed countries. Over a number of years, South Wellfleet children no doubt died of diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles and whooping cough, but there was one particularly bad year, 1863.

I can place some of the children who died of diphtheria in 1863 in South Wellfleet. The

Scotto Fosters lost their son, Scotto Jr., 11 years old; Almira Newcomb died, also 11 years, along with her sister, Kate, 8 years. All of these children are buried in the South Wellfleet Cemetery. Benjamin Higgins (1.5 years old), Alice Kemp (one month) also died of diphtheria. South Wellfleet children George Bell (nine months) died of scarlatina and Collins S. Cole (2 years) of scarlet fever. Seth Pierce died of dysentery. Elmira Rich (2 years) died of whooping cough. Wellfleet was at the height of its 19th century population at this time, but the number of children who died seems particularly high that year.

Finally, while not a South Wellfleet family, the saddest case of an epidemic I found in

Little Scotto Foster's Grave

Little Scotto Foster’s Grave

Wellfleet was of the Captain Richard R. Freeman family, where “malignant scarlatina” killed five of his thirteen children in a single month’s time. One of the children who lived — also Richard R. Freeman — went on to a very successful life and became the owner of the shooting camp established in the 20th century in South Wellfleet.


The New York Times, October 19, 2014

Newspaper account online at www.genealogybank.com.

Barnstable County Deeds available at www.barnstablecountydeeds.org

David Kew’s Cape Cod History site: www.capecodhistory.us

Durand Echevierra, A History of Billingsgate, Wellfleet Historical Society, 1991

New England Historical and Genealogical Society, on-line publication of Mass. Vital Statistics

Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, Third Edition (online)

Duck Creek Archaeological Dig paper: http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1998/3/98.03.03.x.html






About pamticeblog@gmail.com

Family history researcher living in New York City.
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2 Responses to Early Diseases and an Epidemic in South Wellfleet

  1. Jo Darling says:

    The Darling family you mentioned was my great-great grandmother and grandfather’s family. I was researching diseases of the time and place for the narrative that I am writing about my family and found that your information was very helpful. I looked back on what I had written about this part of my family and my comments were very close to yours. In spite of much that has been written about how people were accustomed to loosing children I do not think that they could have been any less insensitive to the loss than we are today.

  2. Carol Magenau says:

    Pam, you do great work! There was recently a CAPE Cod Times article on the 1816 epidemic, and I googled South Wellfleet cemetery 1816 and found this post. Thomas Webb Stubbs who died at age 16 was a great-great-great (give or take)-uncle’s son. Thank you for your meticulous research.

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