Thursday, July 9, 2015

Vectors and Migrations

If one had just arrived in paradise, what could possibly induce a soul to want to leave again?

The move to the Broad River area of Georgia seemed just the thing for the party of Virginians joined by my Taliaferro ancestors, just after the Revolutionary War. The land held out promise of productivity. The river provided convenient access to markets via Augusta to Savannah. What more could anyone desire?

Within one short generation, however, the promise of this new land had begun to fade. And with that fading went the prosperity of the people called there by that very hope.

For one thing, living near a river in a temperate climate can have its down side. A first clue to such difficulties was one I found in a biographical sketch of Nicholas Louis Meriwether—doubtless a distant relation—who had become one of the many who sadly bid goodbye to his Broad River home. The entry noted, "He spent most of his time attending the sick of the Broad River settlement."

The possible cause of such illness might be inferred from a history of nearby Augusta, Georgia—similarly situated upon a river. What was once dubbed "Stranger's Fever" periodically made its appearance in Augusta over the years following the nearby establishment of the Broad River settlement. According to Charles C. Jones' Memorial History of Augusta, Georgia, what later became known as Yellow Fever was documented in an outbreak there in 1839 in which one third of the entire Augusta population suffered an attack. Another such episode followed in 1854.

Members of the local Medical Society set themselves to the task of evaluating possible causes of this devastating illness. Opinions vacillated between conjectures that the disease was not contagious and that it was—and if so, how it was spread.

Eventually in the Society's investigations, it was noticed that "an unusual quantity of animal and vegetable putrefaction" had been found in "a number of small ponds and marshes." (Jones, page 258-259.)

In a stellar example of public policy that might have seemed like a good idea at the time, it turned out that the city fathers, some time before this, had decided that
there be constructed a slide or platform on the river bank for the purpose of throwing the dirt and rubbish collected by the street officer clear of the bank into the river.

As it turned out, their plan worked quite well, as many in the city availed themselves of this dumping-off point—so much so that the heap had swelled into a mountain of its own. Once the local officials realized what they had done to themselves, the next task—a similarly huge assignment—was to dismantle the hazard.

While that entire debacle occurred not in the Broad River settlement, but down river in Augusta, it serves to demonstrate the then-current view of rivers and their usefulness. It also revealed lack of understanding, at the time, of vectors of diseases—including the oft-found mosquitos of such low-lying "small ponds and marshes" as had been noticed in the physicians' inquiry into the Yellow Fever causes. Apparently, the good people of places like the Broad River settlement were all but hanging out welcome signs for the very visitors who bred the disease that was killing them.

I doubt very many of those choosing to leave the Broad River settlement realized, at the time, what it was that convinced them to pack up and move. Perhaps they once again convinced themselves that that periodic wearing out of the land was upon them.

Then again, the rise and fall of fortunes seemed pegged to more local causes, such as the fate of the nearby town of Petersburg—the down river inspection stop for shipments of tobacco headed to Augusta, then Savannah, then across the ocean for international trade. A shift in cash crops from tobacco to cotton and a change in transportation modes from "Petersburg boats" to roads and railroads routed elsewhere had a devastating impact on the economic well-being of the region.

Or maybe the Broad River families succumbed to a new kind of fever—western fever, for which the only known relief was to forsake all and move out West.


  1. One must also recall that other mosquito-borne disease, malaria, which affected so many -- including Civil War soldiers. I am not sure when it made its debut.

    1. Oh, I'm sure these diseases were prevalent long before anyone fixed a name upon them. Yes, malaria was possibly another inspiration for those who lived near low-lying waterways in the South to move elsewhere. Good call.

  2. Ugh. Sounds like they polluted paradise.

    1. you an idea of the "heritage" of water pollution. It was apparently a long-standing tradition.


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