Cholera was a disease of conquest in Chicago, making its first known appearance in 1832 with Winfield Scott’s troops who had been sent to subdue Black Hawk and his allies. This swift-moving disease could kill within hours of contraction. Victims felt sudden cramps, followed by vomiting, diarrhea, and often death due to dehydration.
While cholera was present in Chicago across its history, it was particularly virulent every summer between 1848 and 1855. By then, Chicagoans purchased their water from private vendors who delivered casks of Lake Michigan water, or drew water directly from area waterways. While it was clear that cholera was highly contagious and traveled easily with humans, it was not until 1849 that a London physician made a direct connection between a contaminated water source and the disease. In response, Chicagoans organized the Chicago City Hydraulic Company in 1851 to provide a safe drinking supply. With ongoing improvements to water provisions, cholera’s threat lessened, but did not disappear. One reason was that as Chicago established a ready reliable water supply system, wastewater overwhelmed the region. Not until the 1880s, when residents were required to connect to an expanding sewerage system, did cholera firmly recede. But cholera was under control in Chicago before the disease-causing bacteria was identified in 1883 and before the development of antibiotics that could cure it. Prevention saved the day.
Lemuel Bryant Travel Journal, Chicago, July 1832
Under the threat of attack from Black Hawk and his allies, the U.S. Army sent Winfield Scott with troops to protect the American settlement at Chicago. The soldiers carried cholera with them and were laid low on arrival. In July 1832, Lemuel Bryant described the chaotic arrival of Winfield Scott’s troops in Chicago. Sick with cholera, these troops were to be feared almost as much as an Indian attack. In the end, Black Hawk did not attack Chicago, and the allied tribes were forced to turn over their claims to land in northeastern Illinois in the Treaty of 1833.
Arrival of Steamboat with Cholera, 1834
The steamboat Chicago arrived in its namesake city in August, 1834. Chicago's captain reported that two sailors had recently died of cholera. The small town was up in arms because residents had gone fourteen days without a reported case of cholera. Edmund Stoughton Kimberly reported on the organization of a commission to protect Chicagoans from the disease.
Report from City Health Officer and Physician on 1849 Cholera Cases
Levi D. Boone, Health Officer and Physician for Chicago, reported in the August 27, 1849 issue of the Chicago Journal, on his work with indigent cholera patients and those taken to the Cholera Hospital. Over half the indigent patients were Norwegians, most of whom lived in dense squatter settlements along the Chicago River.
The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago © 2005 Chicago Historical Society.
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