Thursday, April 2, 2020

"At First Only the Homes Were Quarantined": Oklahoma Freedmen Recall Health Epidemics

"At first only the homes were quarantined, but later it was so bad, 

that the whole town was quarantined. Lots of people died."   

Henry Clay, Chickasha Oklahoma - 1937


In this unique time of a global pandemic, we should note that many who came before us, also faced times of health crisis in their lifetime. A century ago, many families suffered the loss of loved ones during the period of the Spanish Influenza, of 1918. Others during the same decade had ancestors who faced the threat of tuberculosis.

Earlier, in 19th century, cases of smallpox, measles yellow, fever and cholera also plagued daily life. In Indian Territory, many Freedmen also faced outbreaks of cholera, smallpox and other epidemics. Some spoke about it to their families, and others left words behind in the Indian Pioneer project in the 1930s and some of them told the stories of how they fared during that time of health crisis.

I am sharing a few quotes from Freedmen who were interviewed in the Indian Pioneer Project.

Anderson Bean , Muskogee  (Interviewed February 27, 19370
"I remember the cholera soon after we moved here. A negro man was the first one who died, and a negro woman was next. She died the same day. It was on Monday. They were not kin, and they did not live near each other. They just died sudden-like. It wasn't anything for someone to say that so-and-so "is dead". And you would say, "no he ain't dead. I was just talking to him about an hour ago" and the answer was, "makes no difference, he's dead, now." Some claimed that the muskrats that came up on the river boats were what started the cholera. My brother died with it. The government moved us Negroes out onto Four Mile Creek, until the cholera was over. Some of the people died while out there. Russell Vann picked out a cemetery. It is still in use. My mother was buried there in 1908. You can see her tombstone over there in the cemetery if you go there. Her name was Crosby Bean. She was born in 1802."

Jake Simmons, (Interviewed 1937)

"In 1881, there was a smallpox epidemic at Okmulgee, Indian Territory, and it came near wiping out the entire population of this village. They attributed the epidemic to the Bill Fryer family who had moved into the settlement."

Mary Nivens, (Interviewed February 22, 1937)

"Was I in the cholera? Does I know anything about it? Well, I reckon I does. Mr., I tried to die. All my folks died. I tried to die. Mr. I wouldn't tell you no lie, I sho' did try to die. I et green corn and green cabbage, and everything I could, tryin' to get that cholera so I could die, too. All my folks died and I didn't want to live, but I just couldn't die. The government put us out on Four Mile Creek and we lived under trees and in tents. The government give us our rations. Russell Vann picked out the cemetery location when the first one died out there. People would drink pusley tea and everything they could, trying to do something for the cholera. But they just took sick and died in a few hours."

Henry Clay, Chickasha (Interviewed June 16, 1937)

"In 1902 or 1903, Black Smallpox hit the town. At first only the homes were quarantined, but later it was so bad, that the whole town was quarantined. Lots of people died."

It is clear that 19th century threats to the public health affected Freedmen from the Five Tribes,as well as people throughout continental North America. The few words extracted above, from the Western History Collection at the University of Oklahoma reflect the crises that they faced.

As we deal with the challenges of the current global pandemic with Covid-19 virus, we can find some comfort knowing that our ancestors came through those years when medicine was not advanced. They faced the future with a fear that we also can understand. We can be comforted, however, with the knowledge that the epidemics that they faced did subside, as this one will, as well. And like our ancestors, we should remember to tell the stories of how we faced the situation. This is the time to journal, to record our own feelings, and to pass this to the next generation.

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