Deadly Yellow Jack

Issue #49

One of the deadliest epidemics in American history occurred in 1878 in the Mississippi River Valley. Spreading by riverboat upstream from New Orleans, hundreds of thousands of people living in the Mississippi River Valley became ill with a then-mysterious and deadly disease: yellow fever.

The Eradication of Yellow Jack

Like human migration itself, yellow fever first emerged on the continent of Africa, where it evolved and eventually spread to the rest of the globe. Carried by the aedes aegypti species of mosquito, the deadly hemorrhagic fever arrived in the New World via the Atlantic slave trade. The first yellow fever epidemic in the New World was recorded in Barbados in 1647, followed in ensuing years by outbreaks in South America, the Yucatan Peninsula, and eventually continental Europe, when Caribbean slave ships carrying the mosquitoes arrived there in the 1650s. The first North American epidemic occurred in New York City in 1668, with later outbreaks in Washington, D.C. and in Philadelphia, where a 1793 yellow fever outbreak killed nearly 10 percent of the population, causing citizens (including George Washington) to flee the city until the threat was over. 

Yellow fever is characterized by a progression of symptoms. After being bitten by a mosquito carrying the disease, a human host may feel no symptoms for 3-5 days. After that, flu-like symptoms appear and may linger for a week longer. At this point, approximately 75 percent of people begin to recover. But for those who do not, death is nearly certain. At this stage the liver and kidneys are attacked by the virus, which result in jaundice, giving the disease its name. As the patient’s skin and eyes become yellow, the body begins to internally hemorrhage, and death follows. The disease cannot be spread from one human to another, but that did not keep “yellow jack” from making its way around the world.

New Orleans suffered a series of cyclical yellow fever epidemics during the 18th and 19th centuries, thanks to its busy international seaport through which infected travelers passed. Once established in New Orleans, the disease (often referred to as “yellow jack”) traveled up the Mississippi River via riverboat, dispersing itself as infected passengers got on and off the boats. This was the path of yellow fever in 1878, when a particularly devastating outbreak hit the entire Mississippi River Valley, eventually taking approximately 20,000 lives. 

On Sunday, the 9th day of last August,” said Dr. John Brownrigg, “in the stillness and beauty of a summer day, it was announced in Grenada [Mississippi]  that yellow fever was epidemic.” Brownrigg was addressing the Mississippi State Board of Health in 1879, describing the outbreak the state (and the small town of Grenada) had suffered the previous year. “The besom of destruction has swept over the place….The plague destroyed social organization and the mechanism of civilization as if they had been living beings…. Its victims hide themselves to die like wild beasts.” 

The 1878 Mississippi River Valley epidemic began in New Orleans in May of that year, possibly with the arrival of the steam ship Emily B. Souder from the Caribbean. One crew member of the Emily B. Souder died of yellow fever upon arrival, and within a month twenty New Orleans residents were also dead of the disease. By July it had begun to travel upriver. 

At the time, nobody knew where yellow fever came from or how it spread. A chorus of different self-proclaimed experts offered their opinions. Some claimed the disease was carried by immigrants, some offered astrological charts to explain its appearance, and others argued that poor sanitary conditions were to blame. None of these explanations were true. It would be another 22 years before the American Public Health Association accepted the findings of Cuban epidemiologist Carlos Finlay, which pointed to the aedes aegypti mosquito as the correct culprit. In the meantime, however, thousands perished. 

Believing that the disease was somehow connected to waterways and port cities, the small inland town of Grenada, Mississippi convinced itself that yellow fever could not be transmitted there. With the best intentions, the town welcomed refugees from afflicted towns. Firm in their belief in the town’s safety, its leaders refused to enact a quarantine, nor did they place any restrictions on travel in and out of town. Between the end of July and the beginning of November, 350 residents of Grenada died of the disease--14 percent of the entire population. In the city of Jackson, twice the size of Grenada, city officials enforced a strict quarantine and consequently only 80 citizens there died of the disease. 5,000 residents of Memphis died of yellow fever, leaving the city unable to govern itself and leading the state to temporarily revoke its city charter.

Like all yellow fever outbreaks, the 1878 epidemic ended abruptly after the first hard frost in the region, which killed the virulent mosquito population. In the 1880s Dr. Carlos Finlay and Dr. Walter Reed proved Finlay’s “mosquito theory” correct, which led to the United States’ decision to attempt construction of the Panama Canal, a project sited in such mosquito-heavy jungle that previous efforts had failed. Utilizing mosquito eradication techniques, the United States government nearly eliminated two mosquito-borne diseases, yellow fever and malaria, in Panama, and demonstrated that this was possible elsewhere, too. 

The last epidemic of yellow fever in the United States was in New Orleans in 1905. After that, mosquito eradication campaigns kept the disease at bay, just as they continue to do with malaria. In the case of yellow fever, however, a vaccine was developed in 1936 by South African-American physician Dr. Max Theiler, who received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1951 for his discovery.

Weekly Discoveries

  1. If you have Dutch ancestors, you may be in luck!  Ancestry has recently updated it’s Netherlands collections for Birth, Marriage and Death indexes, among others.

  2. Learn about genealogical and historical records about Virginia ancestors, with a focus on the Colonial period in the presentation “A Focus on Virginia Records and Research.”

  3. How Li Discovered They Had a Prominent Ancestor Who Fought For Cuban Freedom.

  4. How a left-handed son revealed forgotten family history.

  5. There are many types of societies that dedicate their resources to the preservation of materials especially helpful to genealogists. Explore some of the resources held by genealogical, ethnic, and other historical societies of the Mid-Atlantic region.

The Devil’s Backbone and the Trail of Tears

The Mississippi River played a large role in the commerce of early America.  In the era before steamboats, flatboats or keelboats carried merchandise from the industrialized north down the  Mississippi River; however, they were unable to traverse back up the river against the current. This left the boatmen no choice but to return by foot to their northern starting points, most often on the Natchez Trace, after selling their boats for lumber.

The Trace began as multiple trails created by the indigenous people in the Natchez area, leading to what would later become Nashville. It is believed that animals leaving the Mississippi River, headed to the salt licks in Tennessee created the continuous trail and in their search of animals for food, the natives began utilizing the trail. With the increases in trade and, therefore, foot traffic on trail, use of the trail continued to rise.  Following the purchase of the Louisiana Territory and subsequent treaties with the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes, the United States government expanded the road, creating one of American’s first National Roads, which soon became the main means of travel for not only the Native Americans and boatmen, but also military troops, postal services and everyday citizens traveling points between Natchez and Nashville. Walking the trail in its entirety, from Natchez to Nashville, took approximately three to four weeks, while those on horseback, such as postal riders, could cover the same ground in about two weeks. 

The Natchez Trace was treacherous, with all of the changing terrain, swamps, poisonous snakes and river crossings, among other natural obstacles. In addition, the route was riddled with natives and outlaws looking to rob travelers, earning it the nickname
The Devil’s Backbone.”  Despite these dangers, over 10,000 boatmen used the Trace annually on their trek northward. Money and personal possessions weren’t the only things that were lost on the trail, sometimes travelers lost their lives, with one of the most notable being, Meriwether Lewis, of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition. Following the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis was named governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory. Traveling the Trace on his way to Washington D.C. in 1809, he died at an inn by gunshot.  (Whether it was by suicide or homicide is still being debated to this day.) 

The construction of more direct overland routes, coupled with the invention of the steamboat, reduced the popularity of the Trace. Upriver travel from New Orleans to Louisville could be completed in approximately two weeks by 1820. Afterwards it was used mainly for more localized travel, with a few exceptions.  One of those being the use of the Natchez Trace for troops movement, including General Grant on his way to Vicksburg.

Beginning in 1838, on the trails originally formed by their forebears, thousands of Native Americans walked portions of the Trace during the Trail of Tears.  Following this relocation of the natives to the Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), documentation of these individuals became more prevalent, including records of enrollment, marriage, citizenship and also censuses.  These record types are available on sites such as for the Arapaho, Cherokee, Cheyenne Choctaw, Creek, Kiowa, Quapaw, Sac and Fox, as well as the Shawnee tribes or nations, and may include information such as the natives’ age, names of their parents, spouses or even blood quantum. The well-known Dawes Final Rolls, which enumerated the Five Civilized Tribes, are another option for learning about one's Native American ancestors, but there were other rolls which aren’t as well known, such as the Choctaw-specific Armstrong Rolls and the Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation Rolls, among many others.

This is just a sampling of the many documents which recorded the indigenous peoples of what would become the United States. Best wishes for abundant rewards in your quest for knowledge and understanding of your native ancestors!

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Helpful Resource

Continue the expansion of Native American knowledge with The Native American Code Talkers of World War I.

Past Issues Worth Reading


Kyle Winston, “Yellow Jack’s Wrath:  The 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic and Public Health in Mississippi,” Journal of the Southern Association of the History of Medicine and Science, Volume 2, Issue 1 (2020): p. 1-24; e-journal ( ; accessed 23 September 2021).

University of Virginia Health System, Claude Moore Health Science Library, Virginia Heritage, ( : accessed 23 September 2021), “A Guide to the Philip S. Hench Walter Reed yellow Fever Collection 1806-1995.” 

PBS ( : accessed 23 September 2021), “1878 Epidemic.” 

Gregory K. Culver, “The Impact of the 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic on the Jackson Purchase the Mississippi Valley,” The Filson Club History Quarterly, (July 1997), p. 1-17; e-journal, ( : accessed 23 September 2021).

Jo Ann Carrigan, “The Saffron Scourge:  A History of Yellow Fever in Louisiana, 1796-1905,” LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses, image copy, ( : accessed 23 September 2021).

New York State Department of Health ( : accessed 23 September 2021), “Yellow Fever (jungle yellow fever, urban yellow fever).” 

"Yellow Fever News" Weekly Clarion (Jackson, Mississippi), 16 October 1878, digital images, ( : accessed 22 September 2021), citing print edition, p. 1, cosl. 2-3. 

National Park Planner ( : accessed 23 September 2021), “History of the Natchez Trace Parkway.” 

National Park Service ( : accessed 23 September 2021), “Trail of Tears on the Natchez Trace.” 

David Devoss, Smithsonian Magazine ( : accessed 23 September 2021), “End of the Road.”

The University of Southern Mississippi, Special Collections ( : accessed 23 September 2021), “The Natchez Trace.” 

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (  : 23 September 2021), digital image, unknown photographer, transferred from Flckr under creative commons license,,  “File:Trail of Tears for the Creek People (7222969326).jpg;” photograph uploaded by user Ser Amanito di Nicolao.

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (  : 1 September 2021), digital image of original b&w photo, Andrew David Lytle, photographer, Lyttle’s Studio, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1897,  “File:Yellow_Fever_Quarantine_Camp_Louisiana_1897.jpg;” photograph uploaded by user Infrogmation.

Wikimedia Commons, database with images : 1 September 2021), digital image of original illustration, late 18th century,  “File:Keelboat and flatboat.jpg;” photograph uploaded by user H-stt.

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