Cholera, a deadly, infectious gastrointestinal disease that usually spreads through contaminated water, is an acute infection of the small intestine caused by the toxin released by the Vibrio cholerae bacteria, leading to severe diarrhea and dehydration. Left untreated, cholera can be fatal in a matter of hours. The first cholera pandemic of 1817–1823 spread from India to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Russia, and Europe, especially England. Cholera was prevalent in the 1800s in America beginning in New York City. Due to increased traveling, the use of steamboats, and more navigable waterways, cholera made its way to the Mississippi Delta region.

In October 1832, cholera reached Arkansas. An infected passenger boarded the steamboat Volant, captained by Charles Kelley. The Volant traveled from New Orleans, Louisiana, up the Mississippi River and into Arkansas via the White River. At the time, no deaths were reported on the Volant, but more steamboats traveled up and down the Mississippi River, where the disease preyed on travelers. That same year, the steamboat Reindeer had several infected passengers and crew members. The ship’s captain, David Miller, died near Montgomery Point, located along the river in present-day Desha County, which was a transfer point for passengers and freight that was used by bigger boats of the Mississippi River and the smaller ones running on the Arkansas and White rivers. On June 23, 1833, when the Reindeer stopped in Little Rock (Pulaski County), it had an infected crew and had already lost six people to cholera, also including the pilot and chief engineer.

In 1831, Dr. Matthew Cunningham, a physician, became the first mayor of Little Rock. He was directly involved in the formation of a board of health created by the new town council in response to a cholera epidemic brought by migrating Native Americans. In the 1830s, tens of thousands of Native Americans passed through Arkansas as part of Indian Removal, and many traveled on steamboats such as the Smelter, Volant, Thomas Yeatman, Reindeer, Little Rock, Tecumseh, and Cavalier, or on the keelboats often towed by these vessels. Arkansas became a highway not just for people and animals, but also for diseases. During the relocation of Native Americans called the “Trail of Tears,” many died from the scourge of cholera in Arkansas. Cholera prevailed amongst the Cherokee camped at the mouth of Cadron Creek.

Cholera became a problem all over the state but was more prevalent in communities near water. The growth of the major industrial cities also caused water pollution. Rivers that passed through urban areas became receptacles for human waste products, both domestic and industrial. Sewage was washed out into the streets, where it found its way to the rivers. Cholera was hardest felt in heavily populated areas, and it visited populations that had the highest poverty rates. During the Civil War, cholera hit large encampments of soldiers, such as those at Helena (Phillips County), due to poor sanitary practices, although dysentery, typhoid, and malaria claimed more lives than cholera.

Cholera struck Little Rock in 1873. According to the State Board of Health, on July 5, the first recorded case of cholera in Little Rock had sickened a woman in the Capitol Hill area. The section was often described as the most “salubrious and elevated” portion of the city. A day later in a different part of Little Rock, a man who had been in a damp and unsanitary environment was stricken. Both cases were fatal. Also, an African-American man traveling from Memphis, Tennessee, was treated for cholera and sent to the “County Poor-House,” where he died a few hours later. This facility was described as a “miserable establishment” full of undesirable inmates. The sanitation and food were unhealthy by any measure. Several more cases were registered as being cholera related.

In 1852, England passed the Metropolitan Water Act, which required water companies to filter and chlorinate the water. This sanitation effort helped to set a global trend, and it slowed cholera epidemics in London. In America, legislative interest in water pollution began in 1887, when the Connecticut General Assembly authorized the formation of a sewer study commission to “investigate the subject of sewage disposal.” In the twentieth century, many great strides were made to minimize the chances of a cholera outbreak. The last major epidemic in the United States came in 1910–1911. In the twenty-first century, cholera has all but vanished from the United States, though it remains a concern in other parts of the world, as exemplified by the outbreaks of cholera following a major earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

Several types of cholera associated with domesticated animals, such as birds and pigs, have occasionally been reported in Arkansas. In 1885, a New York Times story titled “Hog Cholera in Arkansas” reported that cholera was killing hogs in Van Buren, Stone, and adjoining counties by the hundreds. According to the U.S. National Wildlife Health Center’s quarterly wildlife mortality report, avian cholera (a.k.a. “fowl cholera”) was recorded in Arkansas and Baxter counties in January and March 2001. The species affected were American coot, an unidentified grebe, ring-necked duck, gadwall, and common grackle. This outbreak killed 226. In 2006, avian cholera was reported by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists to have killed between 1,300 and 1,500 snow geese at Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge.

For additional information:
Dungan, D. H. “Summary of Evidence and Local Reports upon Cholera, as It Has Prevailed in the Mississippi Valley and Elsewhere in America during the Year 1873: Cholera in Little Rock, Arkansas.” Public Health Papers and Reports 1873: 257–260.

“Hog Cholera in Arkansas.” New York Times, October 7, 1885, p. 2.

Huddleston, Duane. “The Volant and Reindeer: Early Arkansas Steamboats.” Pulaski County Historical Review 24 (Summer 1976): 21–33.

Kohl, Rhonda M.“This Godforsaken Town”: Death and Disease at Helena, Arkansas, 1862–63.” Civil War History 50 (June 2004): 109–144.

McClintock, Charles T., Charles H. Boxmeyer, and J. J. Siffer. “Studies on Hog Cholera.” Journal of Infectious Diseases 2 (1905): 351–374.

Scholle, Sarah Hudson. A History of Public Health in Arkansas: The Pain in Prevention. Little Rock: Arkansas Department of Health, 1980.

Edmond Davis
Arkansas Baptist College


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