Pandemic Part 4

Pandemic Part 3 dealt with the Black Death, now we move to more modern versions, of Plague, Smallpox, and Cholera.

One of the staggering things about tracing a Client’s tree over many generations is that you soon find that there’s nothing new under the Sun. Every generation confronted by some form of catastrophe tends to believe that this is the first time that it has ever happened and that the world will probably end as a result of it. For some individuals this does indeed become the truth at a personal level, but not, so far, for the Human Race as a whole (last time I checked). It is strange how quickly the knowledge accumulated generation by generation is ignored by future generations and huge resources are thrown into reinventing the wheel, and the active resistance to learning from the past. So here’s a look at some examples of the effects of pandemics on a Family I recently traced.

What’s in a Name?

Plagues imprinted on English Names

Other than in a very small number of aristocratic families, in almost every case that I have traced of a “Geographic” Surname it has been given to a family NOT living in the geographic location that it refers to. In the UK these types of name generally originate as a nickname in the 14th century when there was a breakdown in the social order, as movements of peasants between different areas took place.  At that time “Serfs” i.e. peasants legally tied to a specific Parish and owing labour to the Lord of the Manor (one step above slavery) illegally fled their home Parishes and either went to Towns or other Counties, in order to find paid work. They were able to do this, as, on average, a third of the population of England had been killed by the Black Death (Bubonic/Pneumonic Plague) hitting both rich and poor alike.

Whole villages had been wiped out in some places, meaning that any able bodied peasants that were left suddenly became a commodity in great demand by landowners in the countryside and by artisans in Towns, to replace the workforce that had been killed by the Black Death.  There was also a breakdown in enforcement of Laws, especially in rural areas because Judges, Constables, and Feudal Lords and their enforcers died in large numbers. So by facilitating these movements plague has played a major role in the evolution and the way we identify ourselves via our surnames.

Plague: A Time of Opportunity

In 1563 there was an outbreak of plague in the West Country in England near the Town of Taunton where the Thomas, the ancestor of the family I was tracing was in his late teens.  It wiped out almost the whole population of the nearby villages of Kingsbury, Mulchelney, Long Sutton, the devastation and flight of the people of these areas was so bad that for many years after the areas were shunned and regarded as being unhealthy and only frequented by “…outlaws and people of the worst character.”

Thomas’s own ancestors had migrated from nearby towns to Taunton during previous plagues, and had acquired the surname of the town they had originated from. As the country bounced back from the effects of the Plague, Thomas picked up on this upsurge in a desire to spend today rather than save for tomorrow, and soon his Draper’s business was flourishing. Thomas’s business was doing so well that he produced a surplus of profits allowing him to buy up properties in Taunton from 1572 onwards, helped by a reduction in population in some areas after the plague that had dampened demand causing  property and arable land prices to stall or drop temporarily.

Thomas became a prominent Wool Merchant and Draper in Taunton and operated a store for the sale of woollen cloth, clothes, and other goods in Fore Street.  This shop went from a Drapers under the Thomas, to a Grocer’s, to an Antiques Shop, to a Pub – The Tudor Tavern, to a Coffee Shop – Café Nero, until the latest Pandemic forced it to close.  In 1578 as a sign of his growing wealth, Thomas had ornate and very contemporary (for the time) alterations made to the building to ensure that it stood out in the townscape of Taunton and attracted as much custom as possible. To do this to a property that he only leased shows a degree of wealth and a shrewd business eye to “speculate to accumulate” understanding the importance of the trappings of luxury in the shopping environment, to drive up footfall and profit, a “modern concept” that’s actually a very old one.

Plague Returns

With success came responsibility, and John, Thomas’s descendent takes his responsibilities seriously. In 1611 when Plague arrived back in Somerset, Plague had been recurring in England for Centuries and was a particular problem in areas with seaborne trade bringing in travellers from abroad and in centres of dense population, exactly as happened in the latest Pandemic, but with airports substituting for seaports.  Minehead and Dunster on the Somerset coast were hit by plague in 1611, and the Good Burghers of the County raised cash to pay for relief for the affected areas:

“June 25, 1611. The justices ordered money to be collected for the relief and maintenance of the towns of Dunster and Minehead latelie infected with the pestilence, and the same to bring unto Taunton unto Mr. John Trowbridge his house there on Saterdaie the 13th of July next, and to paie yt unto the Constables of the hundred of Carhampton.”

Perhaps connected with the ravages of the bouts of Plague, the finger of death touched John’s Family from 1616 when two of his children Joan and William died, and 3 years later in 1619 his sister Dorothy died, again a year after that 1620 his father Thomas died. The Long Effects of Plague a parallel with Long Covid today?

On his Father’s death in 1620, John gave up his Woollen shop adjacent to that of his late Father’s.  But this was not a sign of surrender, far giving up in despair at all the death and pestilence he had seen, John did the opposite and took over the lease on his father’s shop at Fore Street, he had decided to take on the large shop that his Father had made such a success.  It was a full 42 years after his Father’s renovations to the building. 

Plague Again

In 1625 Plague was spreading again through the Country, and John is seen to be prominent in this as the monies collected for the relief of victims was brought to his house for safe keeping before distribution.  The Magistrates of Taunton instructed the local Constables (in this case a Constable was a specific term for a feudal officer rather than “Police Constable” although with similar civic powers) to take action:

“July 19, 1625. For preventinge the greate danger of infecion of the plague in and about the towne of Taunton, Mr. John Trowbridge agreed to the erection of booths and tents to quarantine people coming from London or other infected places in a four acre field called Tunwayes at Bathpool in West Monkton, belonging to the said John Trowbridge.”

Contemporary fear of plague is shown in the woodcut print depicting consequences of plague around London at the time. Such depictions in pamphlet form were widely distributed, and Taunton’s trade with places such as London and Bristol would have made such leaflets available to the Merchant classes like the Trowbridges. Pamphlets spreading fear, political views, and “fake news”, were the Social Media of their day.

In 1625 John oversaw the repair of the Taunton House of Correction:

“1625, John Trowbridge of Taunton, gent., to be paid 10 pounds 0s, 5d, towards the reparations of the house of correction in Taunton.”

So John served as a Constable in Taunton and provided a field from his holdings in West Monckton for this quarantine of travellers from London, both those fleeing the plague, and honest Merchants thought to be at risk of bringing the plague with them.  In addition, the Magistrates decreed that watchers were to be appointed to keep all suspect persons, whether Taunton born, residents in the town, or strangers, in this quarantine camp for at least 20 days.  These measures and the strengthening of the House of Correction in Taunton to ensure law and order, appear to have worked, and no outbreak of plague is recorded in the town during this period. So the enforcement of quarantine on travellers certainly worked then as it does now if carried out quickly and firmly, Taunton proved this in the 17th Century long before New Zealand did in the 20th Century. There may be political and economic reasons for resisting it, but the epidemiological argument is concrete and proven.

Later Life, Return of the Plague, Puritan Work Ethic

In July 1640 Exeter cancelled its Lammas Fair, that was an annual trade fair when the Mercers of Taunton brought their wares to Exeter for sale and export, but due to an outbreak of Plague in Taunton, people and goods from Taunton were banned from entering the City of Exeter.  In August the corporation of Exeter sent Taunton about £190 for the relief of the plague stricken poor, that was an amount estimated to be enough to give relief to up to 3,000 people.  Trade suffered then as now, but Charity could still help where needed, much in the way that organised relief through furlough has helped in the current pandemic.

These actions had massive implications for the local economy, and there is little doubt that John’s business would have had to fight hard to stay afloat.  And Charity was tempered with a need to survive financially, the amount of litigation that the Trowbridge Family entered into was enormous, there are gaps during periods of Plague, where Christian Charity and a need for isolation was no doubt to the fore, but once the immediate danger had passed, anyone not paying their bills was fair game, and the family pursued debtors thoroughly.  The family also pursued through the courts those who they believed did not share the same level of civic commitment to dispensing charity that they did.  The Trowbridges were the epitome of “The Puritan Work Ethic” Charitable and brave in the face of adversity, but grim and relentless when crossed in business.

John arranged commercially important marriages for his children with other Business Families on the nearby coastal Towns to a merchant family of Lyme Regis a major shipping port for Woollen Cloth; to the daughter of the Sheriff and Mayor of Exeter, Exeter being a major shipping port for Woollen Cloth on the Devon Coast; and to various merchant families of both Taunton and Exeter. These coastal commercial links would lead to the family moving to the American Colonies.

Smallpox; a major export

The Family moved from the West Country in England for New England in the Colonies. There was a mutual fascination between the “Neponset Indians” the local native American Tribal Confederation, and the nearby English Settlers. Through trade the Neponset gained to a wealth of technological innovations and manufactured goods, and the English gained knowledge and access to local produce and knowledge. This was potentially a good deal for both parties, however, the thing that always happens along with contact between groups of humans with different epidemiological genetic histories, is that the group that has a history of less contact with other human groups and domesticated animals, i.e. the Neponset in this case, take a massive epidemiological hit from pathogens that are less fatal to the other Group.  Many English Settlers having been in contact with dairy animals both directly and through their ancestors since Neolithic times, had developed either full or partial immunity to Smallpox because they had been exposed to Cowpox through close contact with cattle and drinking unpasteurised milk. Cowpox is less deadly to humans than Smallopox, but conveys a degree of resistance to the deadlier Smallpox.  Once Smallpox was unleashed inadvertantly by the settlers on the Neponset, Neponset numbers started to fall through exposure to the English Settlers’ pathogens, including Chickatawbut the Sachem or Chief of the Neponset Tribe, who died of Smallpox in 1633.  Given that no one at the time really understood the path taken by infectious disease, it was an unintended consequence of the settlement, and outside of this, relations were generally friendly between the two groups, which was a different story compared to some other less well managed settlements. Globalisation, then as now exacts the greatest toll from those least able to exploit it.

How Europeans brought sickness to the New World | Science | AAAS

Disease next touches our family after William Trowbridge, a Sea Captain was lost at sea in 1703 and his widow Thankful Trowbridge begins selling up his lands and property, before moving to Boston in 1718, where she promptly finds herself being “ordered out of Boston” in 1719, the year she died.  Her “ordering out” coincides with Boston having very strict rules on quarantine, especially for suspected outbreaks of diseases like Smallpox, moving suspected infected people into quarantine on a nearby island, refusal would mean exile from the town.  Given that Thankful died the same year, this may well have been the case.


As the American Colonies grew, the family as with many Colonists left the land and the close contact with farm animals and took to living in the burgeoning Colonial Towns. almost 150 years after their first contacts with the Neponset, in 1775 there was a severe outbreak of Smallpox in Boston, this may well have been caused by the influx of British and Hanoverian Soldiers shipped in to fight on behalf of the Crown against the American Militia and Continental Army.  Many of the European soldiers had either had Smallpox and survived it (or in some cases Cowpox) and were therefore more or less immune or had undergone “variolation” a primitive and crude form of inoculation, by the British Army. 

The practice of Variolation had been adopted from Circassian and Caucasian female slaves in the Turkish Sultan’s Harem, who practised it in their mountainous homelands before their captivity. A small amount of puss from a Smallpox rash being introduced to a small incision in the arm of a recipient, generally conferring a degree of immunity. The Turks seeing the efficacy of Variolation, adopted it themselves, and visiting English Aristocrats brought the practice back to England to be taken up by the aristocracy and then more generally among the populace.  Variolation was much more common in Europe than America, although some variolation was carried out in early outbreaks in New Haven, that at the time still had close contact with Great Britain and adopted many British practices.  Indeed the main advocate of Variolation, a man named Cotton Mather was almost assassinated by the early equivalent of militant anti-vaxxers for his efforts.

Variolated individuals stood about a 2% chance of dying from variolation, sometimes from the Smallpox puss itself, but often through other infections caused by cross infection from Doctor to patient due to a lack of basic hygiene in the process, this compared to a 15-20% death rate from Smallpox, and with the risk of blindness for those who did survive.

George Washington: Anti-Vaxxer?

In contrast to the British and Hanoverian Troops, only about a quarter of the Continental American Army had either had Smallpox or undergone Variolation. We know that the American Army was rife with Smallpox, as one of the reasons that the Continental Army had lost the battle of Quebec and had been forced to march back from Fort Ticonderoga to Morris Town New Jersey (now spelled as Morristown) , was because their numbers had been much reduced by the disease. Those infected whilst in the Canadian Campaign included both Benedict Arnold (before he changed sides) and Benjamin Franklin.  It has been estimated that 90% of all the casualties suffered by the Continental Army during the War was from disease, and the greatest of these was Smallpox.

The number of soldiers in the town was increased by contingents from the abortive invasion of Canada and the retreat from Fort Ticonderoga.  The Continental Army marched into Morris County to pitch tent and bivouac amongst its people, bringing a smallpox epidemic, and a raft of other infectious diseases with them, including Dysentery, and Tuberculosis, and respiratory diseases leading to pneumonia.  With the arrival and encampment of Washington’s men, in the centre of town in the middle of Winter when most socialising was happening inside people’s houses, this could only have been a recipe for disaster for the local populace. Unfortunately for the Family I was tracing the tree for, their ancestors at this time were settled in Morris Town.

Whilst George Washington was immune to Smallpox (having had it as a young man) and had persuaded his wife to undergo Variolation to protect her from it, in that same year he had given an order forbidding the soldiers in his army undergoing variolation for fear of weakening their short term fighting power. 

There was undoubtedly a short term risk to health of crude variolation, and it may have denuded his ranks of a small number of men, but Washington’s decision had helped cause the Smallpox epidemic that forced the army to retreat from Quebec and de-camp to Morristown, bringing the epidemic with them that killed many in the Trowbridge Family and their neighbours.  

To his “credit” (?) once he saw his army being decimated by Smallpox, Washington reneged on his diktat and introduced variolation to the Army, but by then the disease was rampant among the local civilian population. The Trowbridges could not have helped but notice the effect the Continental Army’s presence had on the members of their close Family.

George Washington realised he had a major problem on his hands and said of Smallpox “…we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy.”  Having previously forbidden variolation of his troops in 1776 for fear of the Army being laid low by the effects, Washington took the measure the day after arriving at Morris Town to order that all the troops moving through Philadelphia should be variolated and included the troops in Morris Town in the order.  However, the already infected Army awaiting variolation were now encamped in the fields around the Trowbridges’ and the homes and farms of our family, and the civil populace had no protection.

It is no coincidence that in 1777 the Trowbridge family lost Anne the matriarch, her second husband Caleb, and two of their sons, followed by another son the following year.  Anne, Caleb, and their son Ezra died from Smallpox, but “putrid sore throat” and dysentery were also rife among the population. The Continental Army had brought death to the quiet Town of Morris without a shot being fired.

These epidemics ha a direct effect on the future direction of the Trowbridge Family.  A Grandmother, Step-Grandfather and three Great Uncles died, followed by two more family members in May 1777 of dysentery, then another in 1782.  Consumption (TB) followed in 1800, and although that is a long gap between the war ending and a death, TB has a notoriously lengthy gestation period, and can lay almost dormant in a carrier for 20 years, Lydia Trowbridge’s birth coinciding with the billeting of the Continental Army in Morris Town she may well have carried the final legacy of their visit into adulthood before it overwhelmed her.

Civil War

We next pick up the family crossing the path of a major pandemic during the American Civil War. One son, Bartlett, joined the The 19th Indiana Regiment was quartered at Fort Craig near Washington. Given the lightness of the casualties in the various skirmishes (usually described as “battles” in the USA) between Union and Confederate forces in the early stages of the war, Bartlett would have needed to have been particularly unlucky to have succumbed to death by enemy action.  But there was a much more widespread and insidious killer stalking the Union Lines. 

Just as Washington’s forces had been decimated by smallpox nearly a century before, so the Union forces would be swept by Cholera over 80 years later.  In 1861 40% of the Indiana Volunteers became ill.  It appears that the Infirmary at the Patent Office in Washington was mainly filled with sick Hoosiers, the Indiana Volunteers being noted as suffering particularly badly from sickness, more or less from the time they left training in Indiana, the troops were particularly subject to Typhoid, Malaria, and Diarrhoea. So many were struck down within a score of days of each other, that the authorities suspected that the Confederates had poisoned the drinking water in the local wells.  However the cause was more prosaic, a simple lack of hygiene, and perhaps lack of camp discipline such as digging adequate latrines in their encampments had led to a Typhoid epidemic, and poison in the wells was more likely through a lack of simple precautions against human infections reaching the water supplies than enemy action.

Only the worst affected soldiers were taken to makeshift hospital wards, most of them in commandeered buildings or tents, and Bartlett happened to be one such casualty.  We can get a feeling for how it affected soldiers from a letter written by Joshua Jones, an Indiana Volunteer who succumbed to the infection at the same time as Bartlett:

“Dear Companion,

“I will have to say to you that I am not well the second day (Sept 14th 1861) after I wrote your last letter I was taken sick.  I was taken with a chill and a fever and it run into the Tifoid (sic) fever.  I never was so sick in my life but I am getting better. I can set up in bed and write a little at a time.  I am very weak and poor, it has cut me down very fast.  I laid in my tent a little too long I got a cold in my lungs I have a bad cough.”

Hand-colored wood engraving on paper, 1861 NPG.POB7 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Joshua was one of the lucky ones, he survived and after 2 months of care was well enough to re-join the ranks.  Bartlett was sent to the Patent Office in Washington, that now doubled as a Barracks, Hospital, and Morgue.  The Patent Office Infirmary was later visited by Walt Whitman who chronicled what he saw in a contemporary account from February 1863:

“I must not let the great hospital at the Patent-office pass away without some mention. A few weeks ago the vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers. They were placed in three very large apartments. I went there many times. It was a strange, solemn, and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight. I go sometimes at night to soothe and relieve particular cases. Two of the immense apartments are fill’d with high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention, it ever enter’d into the mind of man to conceive; and with curiosities and foreign presents. Between these cases are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide and quite deep, and in these were placed the sick, besides a great long double row of them up and down through the middle of the hall. Many of them were very bad cases, wounds and amputations. Then there was a gallery running above the hall in which there were beds also. It was, indeed, a curious scene, especially at night when lit up. The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot—the suffering, and the fortitude to bear it in various degrees—occasionally, from some, the groan that could not be repress’d—sometimes a poor fellow dying, with emaciated face and glassy eye, the nurse by his side, the doctor also there, but no friend, no relative—such were the sights but lately in the Patent-office.”

Unfortunately for Bartlett, like several of his Trowbridge forbears, he was killed by disease as a by-product of war.   The doctors were overwhelmed by the numbers of sick, Bartlett was in a delirious state of fever and there was no one else there to even correctly give the spelling of his name, it was spelled “Trobridge” on the hospital death records.  Similar parallels to the situation seen in China and Italy when Covid first hit there.

Bartlett passed away on 5th October 1861, 2 months and 5 days after having enlisted at Indianapolis.  Two of the three other soldiers in the alphabetical listing of the dead on that day also died as a result of Typhoid, and the fourth died of Malaria.  The lists of the dead for that month cover a number of pages in the records, the 19th Indiana would lose 116 men, roughly 10% of its standard force to disease.

Bartlett’s death would have had a devastating impact on his family at home.  In a little over 2 months he had gone from a fit, brave and active young man, to an emaciated victim of Typhoid.  Not dying bravely face to face with the enemy, but in a crowded and largely insanitary makeshift hospital in a Government building in Washington, with no friends or family around him to even spell his name correctly.  It is no wonder, that his brothers and half-brothers don’t appear as volunteers after Bartlett’s death. Again the pain and suffering apparently hitting out of nowhere was exactly as experienced by families around the world during the Covid pandemic.

…and finally, Spanish Flu

The last member of the family to die from a Pandemic was to be a young man struck down by Spanish Flu after joining the American Army in 1918 and contracting the disease amongst the close confines of the training camp with the other recruits. But that is a story for another time. he was hit at a time when the lessons of isolation, masks, and vaccination would need to be rediscovered all over again.

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