1849 - Cholera strikes St. Louis

Cholera, depicted here as a black angel of death, left thousands dead in St. Louis, and devastated Indian tribes living along the Missouri River.

        Cholera was raging through the city of St. Louis by the first of May that year.  DeSmet wrote in his journal: "The cholera is now most awful; hundreds of new cases occur daily."  By the end of the month, DeSmet wrote: "... thousands have died of it already…it appears still on the increase." 

         Families fled by the hundreds, emptying the city. By July, business was at a standstill.  By the end of August, one out of ten residents had been buried.

         This latest plague was reported to have arrived at the waterfront town by steamboat.  Over the course of that year, 2,546 steamboats had tied up at the city wharf, including those that had made 350 trips up the Missouri.  After unloading their cargoes of fur, fifty-eight steamers working the Big Muddy returned up river filled to capacity with wide-eyed emigrants who were sick with gold fever.  To make matters far worse on the Oregon Trail, most wagon trains departed that spring with infected people, and the plague was soon spreading from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains, laying waste to Indian tribes along its deadly path.

         By April, emigrants crowded into the westward bound staging area of Westport and Independence had become alarmed.  In five days, more than twenty people had died of the scourge.  One observer, Dr. B.B. Brown, reported that cholera was "sweeping over the trains on this road with fearful mortality."  One boat of Mormons bound for Omaha buried 47 of the faithful and were denied permission to tie up at St. Joseph.   Dr. T. McCollum, a westward bound traveler that year, reported "The road from Independence to Fort Laramie is a graveyard."