Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Small Town Deals with Smallpox

Drawing accompanying text in Book XII of the 16th-century Florentine Codex (compiled 1540–1585), showing Nahuas of conquest-era central Mexico suffering from smallpox.

I love using the FamilySearch records as a resource. I mentioned before that I found that many of the records I thought were original turn out to be 19th Century copies. The originals, I discovered, were still unindexed on FamilySearch.
I've been combing through the Holden, Massachusetts town records for the traces of my Rogers ancestors.  These original records are fascinating because they combine birth records, death records, marriage records and minutes from the town meetings. And it was at one town meeting that I discovered this:

Clearly the people of Holden knew that people with smallpox needed to be isolated and went to the extreme measure of creating a hospital to contain the disease. In the following entry, dated December 13, 1792 I found this:

The phrase that surprised me was "for all those persons that are now Inoculated in this Town and no more". They were inoculating against smallpox in 1792? This was news to me. But a little searching on the internet told me that no less a person than Cotton Mather was advocating inoculation in 1721. You can read about that here.

I also found out that there were a series of epidemics right up until Jenner's discovery of vaccination in 1796. The colonists had a crude form of vaccination and this website provided this information:
"There was, however, a catch: individuals under inoculation did come down with smallpox, and they were therefore fully capable of infecting others with the disease. Unless practised under strict quarantine, the operation was as likely to start an epidemic as to stop one. For this reason, inoculation was highly controversial in the English colonies, where smallpox outbreaks were comparatively rare."
So this explains why a hospital was necessary for the vaccinated. Smallpox runs through a series of stages over a few months, so it would have been imperative to house these people for a while. It was a far more benign solution than the one I found here. North Brookfield is only a few miles west of Holden and this would have been in 1788, a few years before the outbreak in Holden.

The History Today website tells us that there were a series of outbreaks during the American Revolution that affected fighting in both New England and the South and into Canada. From there the disease moved west. Of course we know that the disease devastated the Native American population. I was heartened to find that the town of Holden embraced the idea of inoculation(controversial at the time), did not banish the sick, and did not consider the disease "God's judgment"(another popular idea in Puritan America). Just another window into the lives of my ancestors.

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