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  • Writer's pictureMaggie Meahl

March 2020 and the Coronavirus: An unwelcome taste of the early modern world

*Originally posted March 16th 2020*

Smallpox hits the Aztecs, from the Florentine Codex, Book 12, 16th century / Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, Florence

In early February 1764, there was a small pox outbreak in Cape Ann, Massachusetts. A letter, from a young Jedediah Huntington, eldest son of the Norwich, CT merchant, Jabez Huntington, described it:

“The Small Pox is in what they call the Town of Cape Ann and has been very mortal so much as to Destroy every one that has had it yet, But that is five miles from the place we are in—-” Jed Huntington to Jabez Huntington, Feb. 29, 1764 (Connecticut Historical Society)

He was right. In fact, from January to September of 1764, the Boston-area did experience the worst small pox outbreak since 1752 (source: Kirrily Apthorp, thesis, The University of Sydney, “As Good As An Army: Mapping the Small Pox During the Seven Years War in North America,” Oct 2011.)

He was writing from Sandy Bay in Rockport where one of his father’s brigs had run aground–a common occurrence on the rugged rocky coastline of Cape Ann.

Later in the letter Jed reassures his parents that he will stay far away from the pox:

“I Beg you will not be concerned about my catching the Small pox for I shall not run the least risque as I am determined not to go near it by any means whatever."

Handmade sketch of Sandy Bay, Rockport, MA

Replica of an 18th century brig–a key component of the Atlantic trade.

Flash forward to March 2020 and we are back in the world of public health epidemics–something most of us have never encountered. Some of our older friends and family can remember the polio fears of the mid-twentieth century.

Polio was a childhood fear until a vaccine was discovered in 1955.

The measles, chicken pox, scarlet fever, diptheria, and other childhood diseases were also real threats that our parents, grandparents, etc. all had to contend with (although usually survivable). For example, in the 19th century, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s sister Mary was blind after a bout with scarlet fever and Laura’s husband Almanzo became partially paralyzed after a relapse of diptheria. Vaccines for all the childhood diseases were discovered throughout the 19th and 20th century thanks to scientists and doctors.

But back to Jedediah. He stayed in the Cape Ann area to try to salvage the goods from the damaged ship most of which was dominated by hogsheads of salt procured from the West Indies by enslaved labor. His captain had obviously been heading up to Nova Scotia to do some trading for things like: cod, pine pitch, and perhaps lumber when the shipwreck occurred.

Jedediah would later serve in the American Revolution with distinction and would have seen many small pox “camps” set up for the soldiers as they were more likely to die of the pox than a bullet. He himself barely survived a bout with yellow fever in the summer of 1776 and missed the Battle of Long Island where he probably would have been captured along with the majority of his regiment.

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