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Illness in the Archives — Yellow Fever, Anvil Dust Pills, and Quarantined Longhorns

It goes without saying that health and illness are at the front of everyone’s minds as the world continues to contend with COVID-19. Perhaps surprisingly, there are numerous and varied references to illnesses found in the maps and land records of the GLO.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Texans experienced seasonal epidemics of yellow fever. Spread by mosquitos and fueled by the warm, wet climate of the American South, the disease could progress from mild flu-like symptoms to a high fever and organ failure, and it resulted in an estimated mortality rate of 10–60% of cases. A particularly devastating recurrence in 1844 killed approximately one-third of the population of Galveston.[1]

J.M. Toner and John M. Woodworth, Chart of Yellow Fever in the United States, Washington, D.C.: N. Peters, 1874, Map #95701, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

The 1874 Chart of Yellow Fever in the United States attempts to show all the locations where yellow fever had appeared since 1668. Cases are indicated along the entire eastern seaboard, as well as sporadically throughout the Midwest and Southeast. Clusters of outbreaks are especially prevalent in the coastal regions of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the western Florida Panhandle. In Texas, the map depicts cases of yellow fever stretching from Corpus Christi in the south along the Gulf Coast to Beaumont, and as far inland as Corsicana.

Cases of yellow fever in Texas were most prominent along the Gulf Coast.

A more personal account of yellow fever comes from Dudley Ward, the son of the second Commissioner of the General Land Office, Thomas William Ward. Dudley enlisted as a private in Company G, 2nd Texas Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. He was captured at the Siege of Vicksburg and held as a prisoner of war until he was paroled on July 7, 1863.[2]

Dudley Ward mentions the prevalence of yellow fever in Texas coastal towns. Dudley Ward to Thomas William Ward, 12 December 1863, DW012, Dudley Ward Papers, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Writing to his father from Velasco on December 12, 1863, Dudley mentioned that the town was “very healthy, except I suppose when the yellow fever is prevalent and then like all other coast towns it must be sickly.”[3] In a May 1864 letter, Dudley described Galveston as “oppressively warm” and said, “if it were not for the sea breeze I do not know what we would do,” although he noted that his health and that of the regiment was “excellent.” He (rightfully) complained that their water “is neither enough nor is what we do get good, being first of all brought from some brackish Bayou and then let stand in the sun until it becomes full of filth and vermin, and of this miserable stuff we only get one gallon per day for each man.”[4]These conditions created an ideal environment for the spread of yellow fever, as the standing water served as a breeding ground for mosquitos, the main transmission vector for yellow fever.[5]

Dudley Ward described the “oppressive” heat of Galveston in May. Dudley Ward to Thomas William Ward, 23 May 1864, DW026, Dudley Ward Papers, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Sure enough, on September 14, 1864, Ward wrote to his father confirming that “physicians one and all have pronounced the prevailing disease ‘yellow fever’” and that there were “upwards of a hundred cases of it” with “two to five persons buried every day.”[6] As to his own health, he was doing “remarkably well” and had “not felt the least inconvenience as of yet, although [he visited] all of [his] friends who are sick.” Unfortunately for Dudley, his good health did not last — he contracted yellow fever and died before the month’s end.

Dudley Ward wrote about a spreading yellow fever epidemic among his regiment, although he himself felt fine. He died of yellow fever before the month ended. Dudley Ward to Thomas Ward, 14 September 1864, DW034, Dudley Ward Papers, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Letters between another Confederate soldier, Rufus Brooks Mann, and his wife Mollie provide details about other illnesses and ailments people suffered in their daily lives. In one letter, Mollie wonders if Rufus has ever encountered “camp dysentery,” and mentions an “infallible” remedy for it she had received from a doctor.[7] The recipe included “equal quantities of anvil dust, browned pulverized egg shell and corn cob ashes” mixed into “pills with tar,” which should be taken in doses of two or three pills, two or three times a day.

Mollie Mann gave her husband a recipe for a remedy for “camp dysentery” that consisted of anvil dust, browned pulverized eggshell, and corn cob ashes mixed with tar into pills. Mollie Mann to Rufus Brooks Mann, 1 August 1863, File 000002, Rufus Brooks Mann Civil War Papers, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

In other letters, Mollie complained of “a serious rising under [her] right arm” which left her restless and “unfit for any thing.”[8] She also described what may have been a severe case of conjunctivitis (pinkeye) that she and her family suffered, in which they “couldn’t see to wait upon [themselves].” Mollie claimed she was blind “about 20” days with “the most acute suffering” she had ever felt and noted that although she “knew the eye to be a most sensitive organ,” she “never could have imagined the intense pain that could be felt in so small a compass.” Later, Mollie mentioned the threat of measles and whooping cough, “which [terrified her] very much,” and that she worried “would continue in the family until fall which [she] would consider certain death to all new comers.”[9] In a situation familiar to parents today, Mollie told her husband that their baby son had “but little appetite” and had “eaten nothing but the simplest diet for ten days.” According to the family doctor, there was no danger, but he was not likely to improve until he “[cut] four jaw teeth which [were] coming.”[10]

[top] Mollie Mann described an ailment that blinded her for twenty days and caused excruciating pain in her eyes. Mollie Mann to Rufus Brooks Mann, 21 October 1863, File 000003, [bottom] The Mann family doctor attributed baby Wirt’s discomfort and lack of appetite to teething, with four teeth on the way. Mollie Mann to Rufus Brooks Mann, July 1864, File 000006, Rufus Brooks Mann Civil War Papers, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX

So far, all of the references to disease or illnesses have involved humans — but what about one of Texas’ iconic animal species, the Texas Longhorn? In the second half of the nineteenth century, a “very subtle and terribly fatal disease” that came to be known as “Texas fever” began to spread among midwestern and Texas Panhandle cattle.[11] Ranchers realized that the disease seemed to be caused by the interaction of midwestern cattle with South Texas longhorns being driven north, even though the longhorns appeared to be healthy. Policies were adopted to manage the driving of Texas cattle such that they would be quarantined from other animals, including a law passed by Kansas in 1885 that banned Texas cattle from the state altogether except for the winter months of December, January, and February. Eventually, research found that a microscopic protozoan in the blood of the longhorns, to which the animals acquired immunity through early exposure, was spread by ticks to other animals that lacked immunity.

Julius Bien & Co., Southern Cattle Fever, 1885, Map #95143, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

This map, Southern Cattle Fever, was created the same year that Kansas initiated its quarantine on South Texas longhorns. That year, according to the Inspector for the Bureau of Animal Industry, “thousands of cattle” from Texas caused “heavy losses” from Kansas ranches valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars.[12] In 1886, however, the Kansas State Board of Agriculture noted that the law “afforded ample protection to the whole state,” only six infected herds had been introduced in violation of the quarantine, and the Kansas Sanitary Commission declared the quarantine “absolutely necessary for the protection” of the interests of Kansas ranchers.[13]

Areas south of the bold red line shown on the map were thought to be where the ticks were common, with three dashed lines representing alternate suggested limits for the zones of infestation. A dashed green line in the northern Texas Panhandle along the 34th parallel north indicates the quarantine line of the “Kansas Law” of 1885.[14] Texas fever was effectively eradicated by a program of cattle dipping, pioneered by King Ranch manager Robert J. Kleberg, that eliminated the disease-spreading ticks.[15]

[1] Handbook of Texas Online, Penny Clark, “YELLOW FEVER,” accessed May 28, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/scyel. Uploaded on April 2, 2020. Modified on April 5, 2020. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[2] Dudley Ward Parole from Vicksburg, 7 July 1863, DW001, Dudley Ward Papers, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[3] Dudley Ward to Thomas William Ward, 12 December 1863, DW012, Dudley Ward Papers, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[4] Dudley Ward to Thomas William Ward, 23 May 1864, DW026, Dudley Ward Papers, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[5] https://www.cdc.gov/yellowfever/transmission/index.html

[6] Dudley Ward to Thomas Ward, 14 September 1864, DW034, Dudley Ward Papers, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[7] Mollie Mann to Rufus Brooks Mann, 1 August 1863, File 000002, Rufus Brooks Mann Civil War Papers, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[8] Mollie Mann to Rufus Brooks Mann, 21 October 1863, File 000003, Rufus Brooks Mann Civil War Papers, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[9] Mollie Mann to Rufus Brooks Mann, 26 July 1864, File 000005, Rufus Brooks Mann Civil War Papers, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[10] Mollie Mann to Rufus Brooks Mann, July 1864, File 000006, Rufus Brooks Mann Civil War Papers, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[11] Handbook of Texas Online, Tamara Miner Haygood, “TEXAS FEVER,” accessed May 28, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/awt01. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on May 23, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[12] Cecil Kirk Hutson, “Texas Fever in Kansas, 1866–1930,” Agricultural History 68, no. 1 (1994): 86. Accessed June 2, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/3744450.

[13] Ibid., 88.

[14] Irwin M. Taylor, General Statutes of Kansas, 1889: Being a Compilation of All the Laws of a General Nature, Including the Session Laws of 1889, Based Upon the General Statutes of 1868 and Dassler’s Compiled Laws of 1885, Vol. II, Topeka: Geo.W. Crane & Co., 1889, 2062. Accessed June 2, 2020. https://books.google.com/books?id=lbxCAAAAYAAJ.

[15] Haygood, “TEXAS FEVER.”

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