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Marquette’s ship fever epidemic, 1849

Olive Harlow is pictured.

The specter of disease hung over Marquette even before it was founded. In 1849, when members of the Marquette Iron Mining Company travelled west from Worcester, Massachusetts, on their way to set up operations near the Carp River, they stopped in Detroit to wait for their machinery to arrive. But a cholera outbreak in Detroit led the men to head north to Sault Ste. Marie to avoid getting sick. When the machinery arrived and portaged over to Lake Superior, the group moved on to what would become the settlement of Marquette.

In the late 1840s and the 1850’s cholera epidemics repeatedly broke out in towns receiving large numbers of immigrants. Cholera is a bacterial infection of the small intestine caused by vibrio cholerae. Cholera occurs where sanitation problems exist and is spread by eating and drinking contaminated food and water.

The classic symptom is unyielding bouts of diarrhea, leading to severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance within hours. Fever, vomiting, muscle cramps, and nausea can also occur. The dehydration in turn results in sunken eyes, cold skin and can also cause the skin to turn bluish, which gave cholera the name “Blue Death.” Symptoms can start anywhere from two hours to five days after exposure. The most susceptible victims were the very young and the elderly as they can have issues maintaining their hydration.

The community hit hardest by cholera in the summer of 1849 was Milwaukee. Immigrants arrived by ships and land, some sickened by cholera and other diseases such as typhoid. Townsmen made efforts to provide clean sanitation and clean water, but were unable to keep up with the influx of people. It was in August 1849 when Marquette Iron Mining Company representatives, Robert Graveraet and agent Edward Clarke, went to hire men for their mining operation.

On their return trip with the new workers, travelling by ship on Lake Michigan, several people became ill and upon arrival in Sault Ste. Marie agent Edward Clarke died. As the group continued on Lake Superior, more men became ill. By the time they landed, the people waiting for them, including Olive Harlow and Peter White, became overwhelmed and frightened.

Peter White is seen in this image taken in Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1862. (Below image courtesy of Peggy Frazier)

Peter White described the arrival of the sick: “In August the schooner Fur Trader arrived, bringing a large number of Germans, some Irish and a few French. Graveraet and Clarke had been to Milwaukee and hired and shipped them on the vessel. It was the great cholera year; Clarke died at the Sault on his way back; several others died on the vessel. We were all frightened, but the Indians who lived here then – to the number of 100 – had everything embarked in their boats and canoes within sixty minutes, and started over the water to escape a disease to them more fearful than the small-pox.”

Dr. Rogers, a physician who arrived with Graveraet in May began to examine the sick. He determined it was not cholera but typhoid. Olive Harlow and Peter White also indicated it was Typhoid or Ship fever. Typhoid, like cholera, is a bacterial infection, the bacterium in question being salmonella typhi. Like cholera it is transmitted through food and water contaminated by human waste. As both diseases feature fevers, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, it could be difficult to assess which illness someone was suffering from. Other symptoms of typhoid include headaches, weakness, and a rash with rose colored spots.

Peter White and Mrs. Wheelock, who had been hired by Mrs. Harlow to cook for the company, along with others cared for the sick. Things became dire when Dr. Rogers became ill. Suffering from delirium and confusion, he could not advise the caretakers. Peter White later recalled, “… that it was contagious was soon evident, for the doctor, and perhaps a dozen of our young men who had never known sickness before were soon stricken down with it. Each one of my companions had in succession taken the position of nurse in the hospital – a rude building called a hospital had been erected – and had in regular order been taken down with the malignant fever…at the advice of a Mr. Harding, Mr. Emmons, and Mrs. Wheelock, I commenced rubbing and bathing them; and Mrs. W furnishing suitable food, the result was that in two weeks they were all convalescents.”

Olive Harlow, wife of Amos Harlow, manager of Marquette Iron Mining Company, also provided her observations. “During the fall we had a great deal of sickness among us, originating among the German emigrants – – a kind of ship fever. The sick were lying about our house until log houses which was the hospital could be put up. Mr. Harlow shingled it by moonlight with the first boards from our new saw mill Sept. 30. Ellen (Olive’s young daughter) contracted the fever which was ushered in with a spasm Sept 12 and continued quite ill three weeks. Mr. Harlow was strongly threatened with it.”

We know that several people died in this epidemic but no one recorded the exact number of deaths. Despite this rough beginning, the small community recovered and Marquette continued to grow.