The killer diseases of pioneer times


JEFFERSON, Iowa, Aug. 1, 2016 – You probably don’t think of Greene County as a place where you risk getting malaria. Or cholera? Typhoid?

Mikki Schwarzkopf

It was true in the 1800s. All three diseases were once a serious scourge in much of the Midwest before widespread drainage tiling began around 1900.

Pioneers came here for the fertile land and plentiful water. But they also found thousands of acres of swamps and sloughs. In fact, settlers often needed to dig wells only 10 feet deep.

Early first-hand reports:

Grand Junction was located at the intersection of two railroads. The history book “The Past and Present of Greene County” commented that the “lay of the land was discouraging, for during a wet season fully half the surface was under water, and for a time… muskrat houses were as numerous as human.”

From memoirs of G.S. Toliver, circa 1856: “The ground was soft and we had great difficulty on getting across the mirey places especially at Greenbrier Creek, where oxen went down to their bodies and the wagon bed rubbed on the ground…”

The Jefferson Bee of March 21, 1873, had a long article about the water. “…within the corporate limits of Jefferson we have full 100 acres of land, which, for the greater portion of the year is covered with water from six inches to four feet in depth… Take them along about dog-days and the stench that arises at that time equal in number and strength any found elsewhere… All know that they are rank in miasmatic poisons, and all will admit that something should be done to drain away these disease-breeding and frog-hatching ponds.”

From a 1967 book about Greene County pioneer Enos Butrick: “Many diseases were prevalent in this new land. The swamps and sloughs afforded excellent breeding places for the mosquito; malaria and ague were common, and dysentery or ‘summer complaint’ among the babies. The family headstones in our old cemetery tell the unwritten stories of babes in arms sacrificed to the ignorance of the care of infants of that early day. With only home-made remedies and improper food it is no wonder the death rate was high… Myriads of mosquitoes came by night. Screens were unknown…”
Pioneers faced plenty of hardships in building homes, constructing their own furniture, and breaking sod for planting. But frequent sickness and death dogged them with every month spent here.

Malaria, cholera and typhoid were all directly or indirectly caused by swampy land.


An advertisement for a malaria “cure.”

Nearly everyone contracted malaria; in fact, one historian commented, recurring bouts of malaria “was so prevalent that it was unusual to escape it.”

The common word for malaria was “ague,” pronounced “ag-yew.” The symptoms cycled from lethargy, teeth-chattering chills, high fever, racking headaches and copious sweating until the fever broke. Sometimes malaria laid siege to entire families, and the animals suffered for food.

Poems were written about ague, and the Oct. 13, 1871, Bee ran a long one featuring the rhythm of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Following is an excerpt:

‘Twas the ague and it shook me
Into heavy clothes and took me
Shaking to the kitchen-every,
Every place there was warmth in store,
Shaking till the china rattled;
Shaking till my molars rattled:
Shaking, and with all my warming,
Feeling colder than before;
Shaking till it had exhausted
All its powers to shake me more —
Till it could not shake me more.

A variety of bogus potions claimed to be a cure. One ad ran in the March 21, 1873, Bee: “King of the Blood, the most thorough purifier of the blood yet discovered.” Among the diseases it treated were “fever and ague, disordered liver, dyspepsia, rheumatism, nervous afflictions, general debility, in short, all the numerous diseases caused by bad blood…”

Quinine was eventually found to lessen the symptoms a bit. The May 10, 1872, Bee joked that “Des Moines prides itself on its fever and ague crop. All but seven of its inhabitants are practicing the loudest kind of quakes, and the seven quakeless ones are making fortunes by bartering in quinine, and exporting the teeth shaken from the jaws of their be-shivered neighbors.”

Malaria is a recurring illness, that strikes repeatedly throughout life, so sufferers never really recovered.

But aren’t malaria-carrying mosquitoes (anopheles) only in tropical areas?

Researchers report they have been found everywhere but Antarctica. They plagued the entire midwestern U.S. in the 1800s. Female mosquitoes laid eggs everywhere there was standing water. The females pick up the malaria parasite by biting infected people. And often previously infected newcomers to Greene County were welcomed here, only to be bitten by our mosquitoes, which then bit and infected others.

These are the same mosquitoes we have here now, but thankfully they haven’t bitten infected people, and aren’t carrying the malaria parasite.


Cholera warning
A warning printed during a cholera epidemic.

Although malaria was a misery, cholera meant death, and was dreaded by all.

Newcomers to Greene County brought their customs, but also brought cholera and typhoid, which are highly contagious. Interestingly, most newspapers were reluctant to report local outbreaks. Sickness was bad for business. After all, news of epidemics would discourage settlement by new families.

People all over the Midwest became sick with cholera and died in a matter of hours or days. Symptoms were severe, including nausea, vomiting, chills, thirst, diarrhea, and violent spasms. The death rate was between 50 percent and 90 percent. Many people fled, and it was often hard to get anyone to care for the sick or bury the dead.

A severe cholera epidemic swept throughout the Ohio Valley in 1854. Thousands fled and sought homes in Iowa. An Iowa City editor asserted that “50,000 men, women, and children will have come into this State by the first of December, reckoning from the 1st of September.”

Cholera was variously attributed to teething in babies, miasmas from the ground at night, the wrath of an angry God, and electrical disturbances in the atmosphere. In fact, it was eventually found to be caused by pathogens present in water contaminated by sewage. But it could also be spread by people, animals, and by handling clothing and bedding used by victims.

Sanitation was casual. Drinking water was dipped from shallow wells, rivers or lakes. Raw sewage was put into streams or in cesspools which overflowed. It was considered convenient to have drinking water and sewage disposal close together.

The Bee of July 19, 1872, reported:

“Now that the genuine cholera is abroad, it is the duty of every family to have some mixture at hand in case of dread emergency. Here is the best receipt known, and is also efficacious in cases of summer complaint [malaria]: Take equal parts of tincture of opium, red pepper, rhubarb, peppermint and camphor… No one who has this by him, and takes it in time, will ever have the cholera.”

Of course, none of these remedies worked. Even now, cholera sufferers can only be cured by rehydration and antibiotics.


Typhoid Mary graphic
Facts about the infamous “Typhoid Mary” in New York.

Typhoid fever was another frequent killer in Greene County, with a fatality rate of 30 percent. From the diary of T. M. Terrill in April of 1868: “The folks here are all well as usual except one of the boys, who is very bad with Typhoid fever – think it is a doubtful case.”

Typhoid was also found in water contaminated with two types of salmonella. Some who contracted a mild case became lifelong carriers of the disease, the most famous of was “Typhoid Mary” in New York. The bacteria get into food or water by a human carrier and are then spread to other people. Sufferers endured poor appetite, abdominal pain, severe headaches, high fever, diarrhea, and internal bleeding.

In T.M. Terrill’s 1901 diary, he explained, “Sickness made it hard on Mother. At one time Dan was the only one able to wait on the rest of us. He was 8 or 9 years old at the time. Typhoid fever left one of the boys eyes so that he could not shut it even when asleep.”

Sufferers either got over it themselves or died. Now, antibiotics can cure it. But as with cholera, draining swamps and avoiding human carriers was the only way to avoid typhoid.

“The Past and Present of Greene County” reports that “for a quarter of a century or more after the laying out of the town, sewerage conditions were bad, and surface water – shallow wells – were the only supply for household purposes. The result was an epidemic of malarial and typhoid fevers, from which many died… A well 2,000 feet deep has changed sanitary conditions to the extent that the fevers mentioned are very rare inflictions.”

When settlers began extensive drainage around 1900, it improved crops AND virtually eliminated several diseases.

So as far as our health is concerned, tiling was literally a life-saver.

Mikki Schwarzkopf, of Jefferson, the author of this story, is a longtime member of the Greene County Historical Society. She especially enjoys researching topics from the past, and has helped provide information used in many of our monthly programs. You can comment on this story in the space below here, or you can write to her directly by email at



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