As it were

Perils, fever killed early settlers

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Frontier Ohio was a rather formidable place to live.

The life was hard and life expectancies were rather low by the standard of our own time. Many people living in central Ohio a couple of centuries ago often counted themselves lucky if they were able to celebrate their 50th birthday.

But the opportunities offered by inexpensive land and the chance to start a new life in a new place were attractive. Thousands of people continued to come to Ohio after the end of the American Revolution.

The causes of death at a young age in the frontier state were many and diverse. But in many cases, they were not what many of us were led to believe by some books, movies and television programs.

Frontier Ohio is often depicted as a place of raging rivers, precipitous cliffs and forests dark, deep, dangerous and full of deadly beasts.

And if that was not bad enough, the place was full of existing inhabitants who did not like the newcomers very much.

It is true that the years between 1750 and 1800 in the Ohio Country were a violent time. Raiding parties of Native Americans attacked new settlements in the Ohio River Valley from camps in central Ohio. Counterattacks were launched by hundreds of frontiersmen wishing to settle the score.

The only major confront-ation between Native America and colonial forces in what is now Columbus took place in 1774, when William Crawford led 300 men in an attack on a Native American village where the Arena District is today.

Most of the warriors were away hunting. The resulting attack was not a battle. It was more of a massacre.

From these kinds of clashes, we began to create myths about the men and women who endured these struggles. Simon Kenton became Ohio's answer to Daniel Boone of Kentucky and indeed even saved Boone's life once.

Lew Wetzel, the frontier legend of what is now West Virginia, could reload a flintlock musket on a dead run while being pursued.

The man whose "gun was never empty" became known as "Deathwind."

Betty Zane was immortalized by her descendant Zane Grey as the woman who saved what is now Wheeling, W. Va., by carrying gunpowder in her apron across a field of fire.

On the Native American side, there were any number of legendary people as well: Little Turtle of the Miami, Blue Jacket of the Shawnee, Captain Pipe of the Delaware and Tarhe of the Wyandot. These are only a few of the prominent people who led the struggle to keep their homeland.

What is often forgotten, however, is that most of this struggle was over by the time frontier Franklinton was laid out in 1797 at the forks of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers, or in 1812 when Columbus was established on the "High Banks opposite Franklinton."

There certainly was fear and trepidation during the War of 1812 as British forces and their Native American allies attempted to seize northern Ohio. But none of those battles were fought in central Ohio.

The forests were not all that dangerous. The great Darby and Pickaway plains west and south of Columbus were quiet as well. Native Americans were not a clear and present danger to life and limb. Yet people continued to die at a rather young age.

What was killing them?

Go into any of our older cemeteries in central Ohio and you will find examples of the family plot where the patriarch buried three and sometimes even more wives in serial succession. Why did they die so young? In a few words, the problem was "complications of childbirth."

But men were dying well before their time, too. What was killing them also killed a large number of women who had managed to survive childbirth. What was killing them was disease.

In his History of Ohio, pioneer historian Caleb Atwater noted that in 1806, "a fever of the remittent type made its appearance, extending from the Ohio River on the south to Lake Erie on the north."

The fevers did not go away. In 1813, the editor of the Freeman's Chronicle in Franklinton noted the fevers of the season and excused himself from issuing a full newspaper because of sickness in his family.

In 1823, a "great June freshet ... overflowed and saturated the country, when in the full flush of a most luxuriant vegetation, and the hot sun of July and the decaying matters ushered in a season of unparalleled sickness and deadly fevers." Among the victims was Lucas Sullivant, the founder of Franklinton. He was 58 years old.

Most of these "fevers" were called by various names: "the ague," "the cold ague" and "the shaking ague."

Today, we might call them malarial fevers feeding off the decaying vegetation of nearby floodplains.

In the course of time, the few thousand people then living in Columbus would clean up the worst of these problems, and by the 1830s, the worst of the fever scares was over. And then, just when people thought it was safe, cholera came to Columbus. But that is another story.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.

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