Epidemics and Genealogy

Posted by Aaron on

In the 19th century, several diseases impacted our ancestors. When reviewing a death record of an ancestor in the 1800’s, the coroner or doctor reporting the death often used terms like consumption / tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera, or diphtheria. We rarely hear these terms today, due to changes in hygiene, the availability of vaccines and the virtual eradication of many diseases of the previous centuries.

We can catch just a glimpse of the impact of these diseases through researching the census records. From 1850-1880, the United States tracked mortality and causes of death for particular years. These mortality censuses and only recorded deaths within one year of the census. We can research the 1850, 1860, 1870  and 1880 mortality censuses and see names, ages, birth location, occupation and cause of death for anyone who died within the year in a particular county and state.

The numbers seem so cold when you start to look at your own ancestors and realize the dread they must have felt when faced with these frightening diseases, with practically no cure or remedy. This chart shows just some of the diseases listed as the cause of death for Fauquier County residents from 1850-1880, with the numbers of those who died of each disease:

Cause of Death / Year Consumption (Tuberculosis) Typhoid Measles Pneumonia Cholera Diphtheria
1850 11 19 3 0 2 0
1860 25 27 0 35 5 0
1870 58 3 9 20 8 7
1880 23 8 5 22 16 25
Total 117 57 17 77 31 32

I have had a fascination (perhaps morbid) with epidemics in history since I was young. My great-grandmother’s younger brother and sister died of diphtheria four days apart in December 1877, at ages five and two  I have also been particularly fascinated with the Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919, just 100 years ago. In fiscal year 1918, Fauquier County reported 14 deaths from Influenza. In fiscal year 1919, the Influenza killed 11,352 Virginians; only 65 of the deaths occurred in Fauquier County, but several surrounding counties suffered many more fatalities.

  • The State of Virginia kept a mortality chart arranged by locality of the Influenza Epidemic in both 1918 and 1919 (Annual Report of the State Board of Health and the State Health Commissioner to the Governor of Virginia for the Fiscal Year Ending September 30, 1918 / September 30, 1919).
  • See also John Toler’s recent article “Recalling the Devastating Flu Epidemic of 1918″; Fauquier Times, February 14, 2018; p. 1 and 4.

Related Resources

For further research and related reading, check out some of these resources:

Remember, the Fauquier County Public Library subscribes to AncestryLibrary, which you can access at any library branch. AncestryLibrary has vital records, census, military records, immigration records and much more. HeritageQuest has local history and genealogy books, census records, and some military records. It can be accessed remotely using your Fauquier County Public Library card.

Happy researching!

∼ Mary Sue, Reference Librarian, Bealeton branch library

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