Epidemics have been a part of our history since the earliest explorers came to this country. As they moved west, they brought with them their various diseases and illnesses which were new to the Native Americans.
John Luttig ascended the Missouri River in 1812 as clerk for the Missouri Fur Company, led by Manuel Lisa. On Sunday, December 20, 1812, he made this entry in his Journal: “This Evening, the Wife of Charbonneau a Snake Squaw, dies of a putrid fever she was a good and best Woman in the fort, aged about 25 years she left a fine infant girl.” Later, on Monday, January 4, 1813, he reported that: “Cadet Chevalier paid the Dept of Nature at noon he died of a putrid feaver.”
What was this “putrid fever” that caused the death of these two Dakotans more than two centuries ago? In 1924, Doane Robinson, State Historian, wrote an article entitled “The Putrid Fever of 1812.” He explained that Diphtheria, a disease which was both highly infectious and contagious had made its way to the upper Missouri River. It was frequently fatal and was feared by everyone. Gangrene was present in the throat in the last stage of the illness and easily identified by the foul odor.
Both Sacajawea and Cadet Chevalier died of diphtheria at Fort Manuel along the river just below the South Dakota border in Corson County. It must be remembered that there was no physician at the fort so the record of death was made by a layman.
As early as 1832, Dr. Martin of St. Louis, was sent up the Missouri River to vaccinate all the employees of the American Fur Company. Many Indians were likewise vaccinated.
In 1837 there was a great smallpox epidemic on the Missouri River. All the tribes suffered severely and especially the Mandans. They were practically destroyed.
In 1848 and again in 1852 cholera was brought into the territory by steamboats from St. Louis and quickly became epidemic among the Indian tribes. Father DeSmet worked heroically for the care of victims, as did many of the employees of the fur companies. There are no dependable statistics, but the plague was fatal and the decimation of the tribes was frightening.
The (Yankton) Daily Press and Dakotan, the first daily newspaper in South Dakota, in the December 13, 1876 issue reported that scarlet fever had come to Yankton in “full force.” “The scarlet fever has been prevalent in Yankton for some weeks past, in epidemic form, and instead of abating in seems to be on the increase,” it was disclosed.
“At this season of the year,” the paper reported, “our schools are crowded with children and this circumstance furnished the best possible means for the spread of an infectious disease. Amusements and social gatherings of various sorts are occurring and will continue to occur until after the holidays. People from different households thus constantly coming together furnish a means for the transfer of disease and unless some measures are taken to check the spread of the illness we may receive more of it than present indications promise. This is a usually sickly season in all parts of the country. Epidemics of various sorts are raging and in some localities nearly the entire population is under physicians’ care, or expecting to be.”
The paper went on to say: “We therefore deem it our duty to call the attention of the public to the particular disease which promises to increase in our midst and suggest that the subject receive consideration.”
Late in 1899 the health board carried out what today would be considered extreme measures concerning the control of diphtheria, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and smallpox. Children were excluded from school unless they could produce a doctor’s certificate showing that they had been vaccinated. Under severe penalty, parents were required to report any of these diseases to the mayor or town clerk in order that immediate steps could be taken to prevent spread of the disease.
During these epidemics on the prairie, public funerals were prohibited. It was during these times that the missionary or pastor had to minister privately to the sorrow of the family. Only the missionary or pastor and immediate family were allowed to accompany the deceased to the grave site. This was done in solitude and often at midnight.
No systematic preservation of Vital Statistics was pursued in Dakota Territory or in South Dakota prior to 1905. On July 1, 1905, the law required all deaths, births, marriages, divorces, and naturalizations to be reported. In 1918, South Dakota experienced an epidemic of influenza which resulted in 50,000 cases and more than 1,000 deaths.
For the fiscal year ending June 30, 1924, the ten most common causes of death listed in order were: Heart Disease, Pneumonia, Cancer, Tuberculosis, Apoplexy (rupture or clot of artery in the brain), Kidney Disease, Old Age, Diarrhea and Inflammation of Intestines, and Influenza.
Under the territorial government attention was paid to health issues, though few believed that any special effort or expense in this matter was necessary in this part of the country. It was here that the climate was so rigorous and invigorating.
In 1902, the State Board of Health called attention to the benefits of the large amount of sunshine throughout the year. They suggested that: “Sunlight is one of the most potent factors in the destruction of disease germs.”
That was true in 1902 and is still true today!
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on June 3, 2020.