The pioneer settlers of what is now Columbus and Franklin County were a hardy lot.
They overcame extraordinary problems in simply getting from one place to another and in communicating their needs and desires in an era without electronic assistance.
They also encountered difficulties with a variety of flora and fauna. Hunting in the woods might have brought them face to face with bears, wildcats and a variety of nasty snakes. If a settler had a cow and that cow ate some grass laced with snakeroot, drinking that cow's milk might have caused a bad case of "milk sickness" -- which could kill.
If all these perils were formidable, at least they could be seen and either avoided or confronted. Such was not the case with microscopic dangers.
The families of early settlers tended to be large. Parents rearing families of five to 10 children was not unusual. People had a lot of children because, on average, one child in four would die before reaching the age of 1, and more than half of all children died before reaching adulthood.
In an era of modern medicine, efficient sewer systems and available antibiotics, we tend to forget how fragile mortality was.
What was killing most of these children was not snakes or bears; it was a series of diverse diseases that were lumped together because of their symptoms and called "bilious fevers."
An early local history described the influence of fever on a frontier society:
"The Indians who preceded or were contemporary with the first white settlers were by no means exempt for these maladies, which were treated by their 'medicine men' according to their own superstitious methods. In his diary ... Mr. James Kilbourn mentions the bilious and febrile ailments which prevailed in central Ohio when he arrived in that part of the state in 1802. 'In the autumn of 1806,' says Atwater's History of Ohio, 'a fever of the remittent type made its appearance, extending from the Ohio River on the south to Lake Erie on the north.' Of this disease Mr. Atwater furnishes the following description:
" 'Its symptoms were chills in the forenoon, between ten and eleven o'clock, which were succeeded by violent fever afterwards in an hour and a half. The fever continued to rage until about six o'clock in the evening. During the exacerbation, great pain or depression was felt in the brain, liver, spleen or stomach, and frequently in all of these organs. The sweating stage took place around midnight. By daylight there was a respite, but not a total exemption from the urgency of these symptoms. This was the common course of the disease.'
"A bilious malady popularly called the 'cold plague' ravaged the settlements, says Atwater, in 1813 and 1814.
"Governor Ethan Allen Brown began his annual message of December 6, 1821, with the words, 'A season unusually sickly has visited this and some sister states since the last adjournment of our legislature.' The bilious disorders seem to have recurred indeed almost every year. Ensuing from a prolonged rainfall in the spring of 1823, a great June freshet, says the author of the Sullivant Memorial, '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.' The diseases of 1823, says (historian William T.) Martin 'were bilious and intermittent fevers of all types from the common fever and ague to the most malignant.' "
A resident later remembered, "At first the physicians treated the bilious fevers with bleeding and physic, but not very successfully. Dr. Turney, a Chillicothe physician, departed from the common practice, allowed his patients to eat all they wanted, gave them as much brandy as they could drink, and generally cured his cases. ..."
Even as the Ohio and Erie Canal and the National Road were nearing completion as they passed through or near Columbus, the annual attacks of fever continued. A resident wrote to a friend Aug. 10, 1831:
"The mortality which has prevailed here during the preceding month exceeds that of any previous year. The average number of deaths has been one per day, and that in a population of less than three thousand souls. ... The natives are restless to a proverb. They wander about in the damps at night without reflecting that he who promenades at that ominous hour walks with the fever hanging on one arm and the ague clinging hold of the other. And then the mornings, which in New England are clear and refreshing, have been with us stupid with pestilential vapors, rolling their murky volumes around our habitations."
With some optimism, the same author wrote again Nov. 1, 1831: "The epidemic called 'chills and fever', which has visited us ... is fast abating, leaving for its traces a most deathlike sallowness of visage, and a most wolflike voracity of appetite."
Coping with "bilious fevers" of various kinds was part of the continuing story of early Columbus.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.