Cholera probably began in India and spread around the world along trade routes. It first appeared in America in the 1800s. Many western emigrants suffered from the dreaded disease. Various indigenous tribes who came in contact with these newcomers suffered major losses to their population. Cholera rarely spread from person to person but through the contamination of water sources.
The "west" had its first taste of the disease in 1832. Immigrant ships destined for Canada, carried the disease up the St. Lawrence River. From there, the cholera traveled down Lake Champlain and west by canal boat from Albany to Buffalo. In a short time it reached troopers at Jefferson Barracks outside St. Louis.
Wintering each year in the Deep South, in the spring the disease would join the emigrants heading west. Cholera made its way up the Missouri on riverboats. An outbreak on board the Yellowstone in July 1833 turned it into a floating death trap. One of the few survivors, Joseph La Barge, later recalled that just below Kansas City he buried eight victims in one grave. Fear of an epidemic caused Missouri residents in Jackson County to threaten to destroy the ship.
In the mid-1830s reports of cholera lessened. However, the disease reappeared during the Gold Rush of 1849. Historian George Groh wrote the "The gold rush was to cholera like wind to fire." St. Louis was struck in early 1849. By the end of summer, estimates of dead ranged from 4,500 to 6,000. The number of trail deaths is difficult to determine, however, there are estimates as high as 5,000 in 1849 alone.
In 1850 the losses appear to have been greater. One Missouri newspaper estimated that along a stretch of the Overland Trail one person per mile died from the disease. Historian Merrill Mattes estimates the possibility of four graves per mile along the Platte River route.
The disease was particularly deadly at the frontier outposts. In 1855, cholera struck Fort Riley killing the commanding officer, Major E. A. Ogden. For the next ten years, the plains remained relatively free of cholera. It reappeared on the military posts in 1866 and 1867. It was equally devastating to civilian populations in the communities that had recently appeared in response to the railroad construction and cattle shipping in central Kansas. Panic-stricken people fled their homes when the dreaded words were uttered. It has been estimated that the population of Ellsworth was 1,000 before the epidemic and about forty afterwards.
Elizabeth Custer, detained at Ellsworth on her way east to Fort Riley, reported that it was so bad there was not enough lumber for coffins, and that crude receptacles were fashioned from hardtack boxes. Her husband, George Armstrong Custer, left his post at Fort Wallace to journey to Fort Riley and was later court marshaled. One of his excuses was fear for his wife's safety. The last major epidemic in the United States occurred in 1873.
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: June 2003
Date Modified: February 2013
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