Cholera on the Missouri River

Ronald D. Dennis, The Call of Zion: The Story of the First Welsh Mormon Emigration (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1987), 42-7.

Cholera morbus is a highly infectious bacterial disease which is transmitted by polluted food or water; its symptoms are severe diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, and collapse.

Virtually nothing was known in the mid-nineteenth century about prevention or about treatment of an individual once he or she had contracted the dread disease. Orson Spencer, president of the company of Saints on board the Zetland, which arrived at New Orleans two weeks before the Buena Vista, told of his experience with the cholera on the Mississippi:

It was confidently said by officers of this steam boat, that at least fifty of so large a company would die on our passage to St. Louis. We are now within fifty miles of St. Louis, without any apprehension of another death unless a Gentile doctor on board kills them with his favorite dose of 20 grains calomel, laudanum, camphor, and brandy. This dose was given to our deceased brother and sister, contrary to my wishes,. . . and to many others who died immediately within a few hours! Several Saints I rescued from this dose who were as mortally seized, and they now live. (Millennial Star, 15 June 1849, 184)

The numerous suggested treatments call to mind modern-day quackery in dealing with arthritis and cancer:

[Some] felt that the fumes in the air . . . carried the disease. As a result great campaigns were waged in which sulphur was burned for the purposes of purification. Lime was spread on the streets and all kinds of remedies were proposed. The newspaper advertisements proclaimed anti-cholera medicines of all kinds. Blood-letting was advocated and one doctor burned the soles of his patients’ feet. Another raised blisters on his sufferers’ abdomens. One lucky doctor found most success in washing down medicines in small doses with “lots of water.” (Clifford L. Ashton, 65)

Had they listened to this last doctor and followed his advice about drinking plenty of water, fewer lives would have been lost. The medicine he prescribed was of little benefit; rather it was the water which saved the victim from dehydration. A twentieth-century physician commented:

The prime essential in the treatment of any case of cholera is that it be regarded as a medical emergency. . . .It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the replacement of fluids and electrolytes (salts and potassium) is the most urgent necessity, and all other methods of treatment should be subordinated to it. (Elsom, 1411)

Brother Benjamin Clapp, a Church member, was advising the Saints not to drink any water if they were stricken with cholera-a most unfortunate bit of counsel. One who chose not to heed Clapp’s advice was nine-year-old Thomas Jeremy. He “crawled out of his bunk and drank the water off of some oatmeal that one of the ladies had put on the stove to cook and by so doing, his life was spared” (Sarah Jeremy, 8).

Dan Jones had some advice of his own, which he dispensed to the Saints. In St. Louis he wrote to William Phillips that the members of his company had reached that point alive and healthy “through being careful to observe the rules of cleanliness, to refrain from drinking the water of the river without letting it settle, putting alum or oat flour in it-through being faithful and godly-through refraining from eating fruits, meats, etc.” (Udgorn Seion, June 1849, 122, TD9).

Regardless of how well intended all the advice and remedies were, the reality was that in a twenty-three-day period between 28 April and 21 May, forty-four of the original 249 Buena Vista passengers fell victim to the cholera epidemic. One by one their names were recorded by Thomas Jeremy in his pocketsized journal. One can only attempt to imagine his terror, especially on 6 and 7 May when the ink spelled out the names of his three young daughters, two of them buried in the same small coffin. And he was no doubt near utter despair when just four days later he wrote: “Thomas, my son, and Hanah, my daughter, are sick” (11 May 1849, trans.). These two children, however, recovered.

David and Mary Phillips had begun their journey with four children; part way up the Missouri River they were left with just one child after burying the other three in a three-day period. And so it was with Margaret Francis, who was widowed on 30 April; on 8 May she stood at the shallow, hastily dug grave of her third child to be buried in as many days. Samuel Leigh, whose wife had presented him with a new son just before reaching St. Louis, looked on helpless nine days later as both were taken from him. Very few families were left intact as the cholera swept along its path of devastation, claiming one-fifth of the Welsh Mormons aboard the ill-fated Highland Mary. Age was no factor in the selection process-victims ranged from newborn infants to ninety-two-year-old Evan Jones.

The otherwise uncomplicated journey from St. Louis to Council Bluffs was lengthened by several days to allow time nearly every day for graves to be dug along the shore. Only on three days of the fifteen-day passage did Thomas Jeremy not have to record new names in his journal. [1] Dan Jones’s pen fell totally silent for the next two months.

Noah Jones, at the passing of his wife, Esther, expressed his grief in verse:

My dear friends in the environs of Wales,

Kindly hear my lament in verse;

Lamenting still am I in sorrow

Over the loss of my dear Esther,

Whom I loved as my own soul While she was mine;

But God called for my maiden;

Only He knows why;

She had to depart, though against my will.

Not one care came to my family

While crossing the ocean,

And on the Mississippi we were full of comfort,

Until we went to the town of St. Louis.

After we got there the enemy came,

With his spears filled with poison;

He cut the strongest from among us,

And did not ask permission of anyone,

Rather did he cut the finest as if the worst.

Five died by his sword,

No powers were able to withstand him.

They were buried, albeit sadly,

And then we left the town of St. Louis.

The third day of May it was,

When we left the city,

And all were glad to take their leave,

In a steamboat named “Mary.”

To Council Bluffs we wished to pull.

The next day was the fourth,

Two died, and heavy is the news;

And on the fifth, seven were buried;

Today some who were seen are seen no more;

The sixth day came to meet me,

I shall forever remember that day,

For I had to leave my dear bride,

And put myself in great tribulation,

Blinded by the strength of the blow.

I called two elders to come to me;

They came according to my summons;

I was anointed with holy oil,

According to the commandment of the apostle;

And they prayed

To the One who dwells in the heavens,

And He did not delay in hearing them,

I was made whole under their hands;

As long as I live I shall remember my God.

(Noah Jones, 1–2, trans.)

William Appleby, who was on the Missouri River during the same time period as the Welsh immigrants, recorded in his journal a graphic portrayal of the scenes left in the wake of the cholera:

And to add to the horrid spectacle were the graves, side by side-beds and pillows half burned up-pieces of tents, broken cups, bowls, pillows, mattresses, etc., lined as it were the banks of the river, near the boat; while blankets, mattresses, beds, etc., on which the sick had died came floating down the river; while in town, nothing could be seen scarcely but carts and hearses loaded with rough coffins (chiefly). Physicians riding to and fro-citizens congregated together-some locking up their houses, and fleeing into the country, and fear and consternation depicted on every countenance, mingled with the groans of the sick and dying from the hotels, churches and houses, all added to the general and prevailing gloom. (Appleby, 1)

For fear of becoming infected themselves, the Saints in Council Bluffs wanted no part of the new arrivals. Isaac Nash, having recently buried his brother and his grandmother along the Missouri, recorded in his journal:

When we arrived at St. Joseph, the Captain of the boat, by the name of Scott, declared he would not take us any further. But the authorities of St. Joe made him take us away from there. We arrived at Council Bluffs in a sorry condition. Nobody would come near us. We were put out on the banks of the river with our dead and suffering. Apostle George A. Smith, hearing of our arrival and of the sad condition we were in, came down to the river banks. . . . Brother Smith sent word to the people that if they would not take us in and give us shelter, the Lord would turn a scourge upon them. It was not long before teams and wagons came down and all were taken care of. (Nash, 6)

Dan Jones may have written to John Davis and William Phillips about the cholera and its devastation, but very little ever appeared in print in Udgorn Seion. This brief comment, made in a letter written eight weeks after the arrival at Council Bluffs (13 July 1849), was printed: “The cholera imposed heavy losses on our small army along the rivers, especially on the accursed waters of the Missouri; yet, the effect was small in comparison to that on other people throughout the neighboring boats and towns” (Udgorn Seion, September 1849, 180, TD10). And as Jones neared Salt Lake City three months later, he expressed concern in his letter of 12 October 1849 to William Phillips that Welsh Mormons would remain in Wales after hearing of the effects of the cholera. In addition to offering encouragement to the reluctant Saints, Jones called up the ultimate philosophy in such matters as expressed by Job: “‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord’“ (Udgorn Seion, April 1850, 108, TD13).


[1] Jeremy used Welsh in his early journals; however, knowing that his descendants would probably not speak Welsh, he kept his later journals in English, his second language.