1850 Sacramento Floods and epidemics

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19TH Century Sacramentans  Faced , Floods,  Malaria, Cholera, and an Unhealthy Environs

FLOOD_- Jan 10,1850: Drs  Jacob Stillman and J. F Morse[1] (of Morse Ave fame),are at their hospital,  at Third and K Streets, Sacramento. At Seventh and P Streets, the water level rises more than 9 feet in 24 hours. This structure is the first in the city built and leased as a hospital. It is about 35 by 55 feet, has eight muslin lined private wards, a ward in the garret, an apothecary, and cooking/dining facilities. It cost $15,000 to build and $1500 monthly to rent, a bargain in this violent gold rush city of transient men, few women or children,  with an abysmal lack of sanitation or civic order. I quote Stillman’s notes:

Jan 11, 1850: “We (are) all, about forty of us, in the upper story of our hospital. Dr. Morse and myself writing, Higgins reading Demartime’s ‘Raphael’, the cook preparing something for breakfast, two or three others, quartered with us, talking in an undertone; some asleep, and a few patients muttering in delirium. A lone woman, sick and destitute, is curtained off in the corner of the room. Some are lying on the floor; others, dead, are sewed up in blankets and sunk in the water, in a room on the first floor. Dr. Morse pours some brandy in his ink, to give spirit to his letter; I pour from another bottle…containing laudanum, to quiet the apprehensions that my (letter) may awaken; then we all laugh and go on as before.”

Jan 12, 1850: “The water is still rising-at the rate of 6 inches an hour. Tents, boxes, barrels, horses, mules and cattle are sweeping by… (with) a few two story houses. There is no first floor in the city (un-flooded). I have misgivings about our fate, but sure I am that we will not desert the sick, and if we are swept away, we will all go together.

Jan 13, 1850: “…We found it necessary to bury the dead. I made arrangements with a whale boat… for $40 and deposited the bodies in it. …We fished them up with a hook and line. … Mulford,… Cameron the druggist, and myself, with two sailors owning the boat, started for land. Dug a grave at the foot of an oak,… in a South-easterly direction.”

MALARIA: It’s said that Yolo meant swamp for indigenous people, who left for higher ground seasonally. When land was dredged for gold, and cleared for timber or farming, wintertime stagnant water increased. Malaria was not indigenous to the Americas, but was introduced to the Columbia River area in Oregon in 1830-31.[2] Among those who fell ill was John Work, an Irish immigrant who led trapping expeditions for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Aug 17, 1832 to Oct 31, 1833 Work’s trapping expedition from Fort Vancouver, Oregon, to the Bonaventura (Sacramento)River. The group comprises almost 100 men, women, and children, including Work’s family. Some, like Work, carry malaria. They enter California near Goose Lake, and travel to the East of Mount Shasta, down the McCloud and Fall Rivers, Hat and Cow Creeks, and to the Sacramento. Each day Work notes the weather and the day’s events; the following quotes are from his journal[3]

Nov 27, 1832. …killed 5 elk, 3 deer& 1 antelope. The animals are all very lean.

Nov 30, 1832 …There are a great many Indians all the way along the river. They seem to live principally on acorns. …(East of the Sacramento River, near the Buttes. Similar conditions prevail as they move South. They have frequent encounters with the Indians, some hostile, some friendly, with frequent horse rustling. They winter near the Buttes, travel to the Bay area to re-supply with munitions, find the Monterrey not fruitful for trapping, and return to the San Joaquin/ Sacramento River area.)

Aug 6, 1833  “…the villages which were so populous and swarming with inhabitants … seem now almost deserted & have a desolate appearance. The few wretched Indians who remain… are lying apparently scarcely able to move, it is not starvation as they have considerable quantities of their winter stock of acorns still remaining. We are unable to learn of the malady or its cause. I have given the people orders to avoid approaching their villages lest it be infectious.

Aug 14, 1833 “…The heat is as great as ever… not a breath of wind… The natives along here seem even more wretched than those on the feather… found in ones or twos in little thickets… the bodies of others partly devoured by wolves.

Aug 12, 1833 “…As if the heat was not sufficient we are like to be devoured with swarms of Muscatoes…Returning Northward, the trapping party itself is affected by the malaria they had introduced to the region on their way South.

Aug 13, 1833  “…it appears to be a kind of fever, the patients are attacked with pains in all their bones & a violent headache…”

Aug 15, 1833… The sick people (in the trapping group) are not recovering but others falling ill daily. There are near 30 affected with the fever…

Aug 20. 1833 “… Our sick people get no better, nine more have fallen ill  within these two days, making in all 61…attacked with trembling fits.

When the trappers leave the valley and attain higher elevations they begin to improve, and the majority survive. Work remains sickly the rest of his life though he settles on land in Oregon and raises his family. The following is from a letter just before his death in September 1861. “His complaint is relapses of fever and ague with which he was first attacked at Fort Vancouver 27 years ago.”

CHOLERA: The Sacramento Transcript of 1850 outlines the general state of the city of 7,000 thus: “… backyards of … restaurants, hotels, stables and markets diffused with… filth… piles of empty fish barrels, meat casks, salt and…spoiled meat and cheeses… vegetables … in the process of decomposition… (yet) deaths seldom (exceed)…twelve a week, … the result of exposure, intemperance and over exertion.”[4] Thousands of people live in tents, or makeshift shelters, and there is little provision for sewage. Water from the river, at first potable, is now suspect. Statistics are scarce, but 6 years later a hospital reports 17 deaths among 578 admissions, as follows: Trauma, 5; Consumption, 4; intermittent fever, 3; heart, 2;  meningitis, purulent absorption, and debility, 1 each.

Oct 7, 1850: The steamer California, proceeding from Panama, arrives in San Francisco with 22 cholera cases aboard. No quarantine is imposed.

Oct 18, 1850: The first case arrives in Sacramento.

Oct 31, 1850: The epidemic has increased rapidly and only begins to fade on Nov 6, after 3000 deaths, among 6000 cases. Among the dead are 17 physicians, approximately one in three.   Impressive as this is, the rate is higher in the general population.

Nov 12, 1850: Dr. Morse, representing the Medico-Chirurgical Association, an early attempt at a medical society, asks the City Council to appoint a City Board of Health. He is turned down, but efforts continue, and finally, in 1862, Sacramento becomes the second city in the nation, after Boston, to establish a City Board of Health. That’s chiefly because we needed it more than other cities. By comparison, our summertime brown-outs and winter rains, do seem trifling.


[1] Sacramento Society for Medical Improvement written by J. Roy Jones, M.D.  “Memories, Men, and Medicine”, 1950 (dedicated to the future physicians of SSMI, now SSVMS.)

[2] Ken Owens, CSUS,  personal communication (lecture, April 16 2003, SSVMS History Library.)

[3] Fur Brigade to the Bonaventura (Sacramento), edited by Alice B.  Maloney, California State Historical Society, 1945

[4] Jones, J. Roy, M.D. Memories, Men, and Medicine.


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