Without a doubt, the fear was justified.
What initially began like the flu soon became much more. Within days of the beginning symptoms of fatigue, fever, headache and general discomfort, spots began to appear. The red spots were followed by the formation of deep, painful blisters which often covered much of the body. Although not all who contracted smallpox died, all suffered greatly and the resulting deep pitted scars left their unmistakable mark on its victims for a lifetime.
The John Monroe Ganus family moved about considerably over the years. In the early years they lived in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Colorado. In about 1897 the family moved to Indian Territory, which would later become Oklahoma.
Smallpox comes up with some frequency in the history of the early days of Indian Territory. Although smallpox certainly was not unique to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), the risk appears to have been greater than it had been in Colorado where the Ganus family previously lived. For example, according to the “Annual Report” by the United States Public Health for the year 1909, Oklahoma had 1,328 cases of smallpox with 6 deaths as compared to Colorado’s 345 cases and no deaths. (see page 188)
A microfilm at the Family History Library entitled “Creek Nation: Outbreaks” for the years 1882-1909 * covers the period my ancestors lived in Okmulgee, in Creek Nation. It was while living in Indian Territory that my Great Grandfather William Franklin Ganus died in 1906 at the age of 53, and my Great Grandmother, Sally died in 1909 at the age of 45. In addition, my Gr Gr Grandmother Olivia Ganus died there in 1902, followed by my Gr Gr Grandfather John Monroe Ganus in 1906, Although it’s obvious that my great great grandparents were considerably older, I’ve always thought it was curious that the four died in a relatively short span of time and particularly that my great grandparents died fairly young while many of the older Ganus generations lived until quite old. Because no death records exist for Indian Territory for that period of time, the cause of death is not known. I wondered if there was a chance that any of my Ganus ancestors died of smallpox.
As I scrolled through the microfilm, it became very apparent that smallpox was a major concern during those years. There were a variety of records related to the efforts taken to control and reduce the spread of smallpox, such as setting aside funds to deal with outbreaks, plans for immunization and determining where to treat the victims. From the film I learned that on February 18,1899, Okmulgee, where my Ganus family was living at the time, was quarantined for smallpox. How had this impacted the Ganus family? What changes did they make to the way they conducted their day to day life? Were neighbors and friends ill?
In January of the following year, houses and furniture of some of the ill in the area were burned, leaving the owners of the dwellings homeless. The act was justified as being for the “benefit of all people, white, black and indian residing in Indian Territory and adjoining states and territories.” In addition, a detention camp was prescribed by the board of health. Nurses and doctors were employed to assist in treating the smallpox victims in the camps and hospitals.
As I turned to Oklahoma newspapers, I found a variety of articles pertaining to smallpox.
From the Muskogee Times-Democrat 31 Mar 1909, I learned that the detention hospitals were more than just a place to receive medical attention, but as the name implies, they were literally a place of detention, with serious consequences for those who chose not to be confined. On page 1 I found the following:
“Sheriff Ramsey today offered a reward of $25 for the apprehension of C. O. Zinn, who escaped from the smallpox detention hospital south of the city night before last.”
Some Oklahoma community newspapers carried a monthly bulletin stating which illnesses were most prevalent along with the number of resulting deaths. Some communities listed the individuals suffering from smallpox as well as the specific towns under quarantine. Such was the case in 1909 of Fort Towson, Oklahoma which is located down near the Texas border. According to page 1 of the Dailey Armoreite on May 13th of that year, the entire town was quarantined due to smallpox and no one was allowed to get on or off the train there without a physician’s certificate.
Additionally sometimes courts were cancelled due to outbreaks of smallpox. On page 2 of The Indian Chieftain (Vinita, Oklahoma) a headline read “DANGER OF SMALLPOX” No Court Should be Held in Vinita at This time.” Schools and other pubic gatherings were often cancelled as well.
As a sideline, The Muskogee Cimeter 25 January1907 included the following humorous story.
An Illinois farmer, …one day received a note from a Chicago friend which read as follows: “My dear John, the small pox is epidemic in this part of the city and for safety, I have taken advantage of one of your many kind invitations and sent my two sons down to you. In two weeks the farmer sent a note to the city friens (sic) which read: “I herewith return your boys: please send me the small pox.” Oklahoma State Capital, Jan 19, 1907. (page 1)
Did any of the early Ganus family members contract smallpox? I still don’t know for sure, but I feel fairly confident that they likely had friends and neighbors who did. While I did not find any of the Ganus family on a list of smallpox victims, I can see that smallpox touched every member of a community in some way and that the fear it generated was justified.
*Creek Nation: Outbreaks, documents 22 July 1882 – 7 Apr. 1909- FHL US/CAN Film 1666283, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah
Copyright © Michelle G. Taggart 2015, All rights reserved