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Much of cholera story ‘reflected’ in current COVID-19 narrative

May 30, 2020 06:01AM ● By Editor
Sault Ste.Marie, Mich. Ballou’s Pictorial, May 9, 1857.  Image Provided 

By Karl S. Hele from the Sault Star - May 29, 2020

Since February, the media, various politicians, and medical establishment, have all claimed that we are all living in a new world, we need to social distance, self-isolate, wear masks, and most importantly wash our hands often. Likewise there is a debate about the serious nature of COVID-19 and whether or not the methods to stop the disease’s spread are effective. People are also turning to their faith to preserve the health of themselves, their loved ones, and the larger community. Such actions and beliefs are not entirely new to the Sault Ste. Marie region. Throughout the 19th century, Sault Ste. Marie was plagued by multiple and regular occurrences of serious diseases – smallpox, influenza, cholera, measles, and bloody flux to name a few. One of the greatest disease scares of the 19th century for Saultites was cholera, which struck the region in 1831-1833, 1847-1850, 1853-1855, and 1869-1870.

Cholera, generally spread through contaminated water, followed international trade routes. The first cholera pandemic of 1817-1824 was largely absent from North America. Although it killed missions in the Old World, it was during the second cholera pandemic of 1826-1837, which originated in India, that saw the disease spread to North America. As it spread across our continent cholera it killed more than 150,000 people. It is estimated overall that cholera has killed tens of millions of people since its global spread in the early 19th century. Today, despite increasing antibiotic resistance, cholera is a treatable disease.

Cholera progressed from Quebec and Montreal inland via the waterways and settlements. It arrived in Montreal in June 1832 and moved to Upper Canada (Ontario) shortly afterwards, spread by immigrants from England. Interestingly, cholera appears to have surfaced in the Sault in the summer of 1831, possibly through the movement of military troops or employees of the trading companies. In 1832, Capt. Wilcox of Fort Brady prevented the steamer Perin from docking, even though the ship brought additional troops and superior officers to garrison the fort. In an effort to avoid contracting the disease, the Ojibwa retired to distant bays on Lake Superior or sought the protection of the Christian god through baptism in a vain attempt to ward off death. For instance, Methodist preacher David Sawyer noted in 1833 that many Sault area Anishinabeg had converted to Christianity in hopes of avoiding cholera. According to Sawyer, many Ojibwa believed that the missionary’s religion would render them impervious to the new diseases entering Sault Ste. Marie. As a result, the Methodist mission to the Sault recorded more than 500 conversions in the summer of 1832, largely thanks to the threat of cholera. Some Anishinabeg simply opted to avoid the Sault altogether, while others gradually relocated westward along the shores of Lake Superior.

By the 1840s, cholera was once again raging in the distant settlements to the east of Sault Ste. Marie, once again being brought to North America by immigrants from the British Isles. On July 9, William Nourse, Hudson’s Bay Co., factor at the Sault, commented in a letter to A. H. Campbell that two groups of whites held opposing opinions about whether or not cholera presented a threat. The first group attempted to persuade everyone “that such a favoured people as the inhabitants of the St. Mary’s will not be troubled by such a visitation,” whereas the other “party attribute[d] every sudden illness to it.” By July 29, only 20 days after Nourse’s comments, cholera had reached the Sault region as seen in Methodist Rev. John Pitezel’s diary. Pitezel recorded that had cholera killed two Ojibwa at Whitefish Point. Cholera raged from the Michigan Sault to the mining operations along the southern shores of Lake Superior.

Yet it seems that the illness had not managed to cross the St. Mary’s River to infect people in the British Sault. Nourse claimed in a letter to Sir George Simpson, governor of the HBC, dated Aug. 11, that cholera had yet to afflict the North Shore. The factor’s report proved ominous – cholera reportedly struck by Sept. 3. Within the first weeks of September, cholera raged among the workers at Bruce Mines and the British Sault. So many people fell ill at Bruce Mines that copper production ceased for a few months. By December 1849, the new cases of cholera appeared to wane, but both the Native and non-Native communities remained fearful throughout the following year. A few cases reappeared in early 1850 but the disease seems to have quickly subsided.

Several factors contributed to the rapid spread of the disease throughout the region in 1849-50. With the countryside filled with so many individuals seeking the next copper, silver, or iron claims, deadly illnesses travelled rapidly throughout the area. Many Ojibwa present at the Sault in July fled westward when the initial cases were detected, spreading the disease throughout the region by the end of August. In September, the U.S. annual present distribution and treaty payments on Lake Superior at La Pointe, Wisc., further diffused cholera among those not previously stricken. For instance, the chief of Drummond Island and four of his followers rapidly sickened and died shortly after returning home from the gathering. British present distributions at Manitowaning and the treaty commission of 1849 likewise encouraged cholera’s spread among First Nations. The Baptist missionary Reverend Abel Bingham simply could not believe the stupidity of the two Indian departments. His personal journal contained comments relating to the sheer audacity of the U.S. Indian Department to conduct treaty payments while an epidemic raged. In an effort to avoid contracting the dreaded disease, many Ojibwa from both the North and South Shores did not attend either country’s distribution.

The illegal leasing of mineral locations by the British-Canadian government and Anishinaabeg demands for a treaty sparked a claims investigation. While many Anishinaabeg were interested in securing their rights and protection against incoming Settlers, they avoided the treaty investigators in an effort to avoid cholera. By self-isolating, many Anishinaabeg were unable to voice their demands. Continued avoidance of the Sault for fear of contracting cholera led many of the Anishinaabeg of Lake Superior to simply avoid the treaty negotiations and signing in September 1850. These actions, in part, contributed to contemporary land claims.

Despite the precautions taken and not taken, the disease wreaked havoc along the straits. Based on accounts by missionaries Bingham and Pitezel, at least 19 people died — eight Ojibwa, four Frenchmen, and seven whites — while many more were stricken from July 29 to Aug. 29, 1849 at the Michigan Sault. One unfortunate soldier at Fort Brady died of consumption before cholera could kill him, according to Bingham. The village at Naomikong Point (Bay Mills, Mich.) experienced approximately 50 deaths. Interestingly, in a book about the Rev. Peter Marksman, an Anishinaabeg convert, Pitezel claims that the administrations of the Methodist Church and safety precautions prevented deaths at Naomikong, which directly contradicts the archival records. Tahquamenon’s Ojibwa village experienced several deaths as well, although the immediate causes remain unclear since erysipelas and influenza afflicted the village in 1848 and 1849 alongside cholera. The numerous deaths in these communities sparked their temporary abandonment as well as a crisis of faith for many Baptist Anishinaabeg at Tahquamenon.

Unfortunately, the actual numbers of deaths for the entire area cannot be determined due to vague reporting. The Rev. Auguste Kohler, sj. reported in December 1850 that the Drummond Island and Gachkiwang communities had experienced many deaths and abandoned former places of encampment, but did not state how many actually died. A reported a spike in conversions among the Anishinaabeg in 1849 could also be attributed to cholera’s presence. Yet other Anishinaabeg sought solace in their own beliefs with one unnamed ‘medicine man’ telling Reverend Nicolas-Marie-Joseph Frémoit, sj. in the Fort William area, that he intended to remain a “pagan” thereby continuing to enjoy good health.

Cholera once again reappeared at the Sault in 1853-55. It arrived with European immigrants and labourers brought to the Sault to build the first Soo locks. Many of these labourers had been brought directly from the boats arriving in New York without undergoing proper medical examinations or quarantine. Failure to complete the canal and locks within a two-year time frame would lead the St Mary’s Falls Ship Canal Co., to lose 750,000 acres of land. It is estimated that ten percent of the workforce had died in 1854. Pierre Barbeau, a French-Canadian businessman in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., noted cholera’s effect on the Sault population in a somber note that a Métis, Indian, and white had died of the disease. The numerous deaths between 1853 and 1854 have led to local stories that Charles Harvey, the man in charge of building the canal, along with some accomplices, secretly buried many of the dead somewhere in one of the Saults – most often people agree these burials took place somewhere along the North Shore. It is recorded that Harvey sought to keep the presence of cholera a secret from towns and the workers in an effort to prevent mass defections among the workforce and quarantine being imposed on the construction site. Indigenous people, like the response in previous years, simply avoided the Sault as much as possible and refused to accept persons from the Sault in their homes or community.

Like the earlier outbreaks the cholera epidemic in 1869-1870 elicited similar responses by the settler and Anishinaabeg population. The reporting of deaths remained vague and disjointed, resulting in an inability to determine the overall death rates. For instance, Kohler, sj. asserted that there were “few who [we]re not touched by the disease,” and that he buried eight people in six days but he fails to note how many were sick or their nationalities. This count does not include burials conducted by other ministers or priests in the Sault region. It did lead the Anglican Rev. Dr. Frederick A. O’Meara to conclude that disease is like an “[a]pocalyptic angel flying through the midst of heaven.”

Much like today’s COVID-19 pandemic, cholera outbreaks in the 19th century elicited fear and a “new” reality. Today, cholera is treatable and it is hoped that with a vaccine COVID-19 will become manageable. The initial cholera outbreak in the 1830s heralded a “new” reality of recurrence of cholera throughout the century. People turned to God, regardless of faith or nationality. Corporate aims – mining or canal building – seemed to have trumped public health, albeit many at the time period felt cholera was caused by smells or miasma. While not evident in the documents relating to the Sault, records from elsewhere reveal that the cholera epidemics caused hysteria among the general population and a distrust of authority – particularly doctors. Today, it is a fear of the medical establishment generally, and pharmacy and vaccines, specifically. Likewise, self or community isolation helped some Anishinaabeg families and communities avoid numerous deaths – yet the effectiveness is unknown because deaths are not accurately recorded. It seems that much of the cholera story is reflected in the current COVID-19 narrative – perhaps we should pay better attention to the past.

Karl S. Hele is an member of Garden River First Nation and an associate professor of Canadian and Indigenous studies at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.


To read the original article and see related stories, follow this link to the Sault Star website.  https://www.saultstar.com/opinion/columnists/much-of-cholera-story-reflected-in-current-covid-19-nar...

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