The ague: If it’s not one thing, it’s another

I was cruising the Net the other day and over at Only Oswego, Steven Jack posted a news release from the Church of the Good Shepherd here in Oswego promoting their community garage sale, the proceeds of which will be used to fight malaria in the Third World through a project named Imagine no Malaria.

That piqued my interest, as did a notice that West Nile Virus, which is carried, like malaria, by mosquitoes, has made its appearance in Kendall County again this year.

West Nile arrived in the U.S. carried by mosquitoes that apparently hitched rides on shipments from infected regions of the world. From the first documented case in New York back in 1999, it’s now spread across the U.S. Fortunately, it’s not an extremely virulent disease, so chances of catching it are not high.

Although the pioneers were mystified concerning the causes of the ague, medical researchers later pinned the blame on the female Anopheles mosquito. Today, the Fox Valley is pretty much ague-free.

Although the pioneers were mystified about what caused the ague, medical researchers later pinned the blame on the female Anopheles mosquito. Today, the Fox Valley is pretty much ague-free.

Malaria, on the other hand, is quickly spread by infected female Anopheles mosquitoes, is much easier to get, and didn’t need to be imported since we had a fine local strain right here in northern Illinois ready to infect all those eager pioneers who showed up in the first half of the 19th Century.

Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries they didn’t call it malaria, though. They called it “the ague,” pronounced like “argue” without the “r.” Although only occasionally fatal by itself, the negative economic impact of the debilitating effects of the disease on county residents during the settlement era was significant.

When the pioneers arrived, they found significant areas of the county covered with water at depths from a few inches to a few feet, remnants of Ice Age glacial lakes. Generally called sloughs and marshes, these thousands of wetland acres helped retard flooding and kept groundwater supplies charged, but they also annually produced hordes of biting insects, including those pesky, hungry ague-carrying Anopheles mosquitoes.

Ague was so common that its mention was often off-handed in narratives of the era, something so usual it apparently almost went without saying. On the other hand, when folks wrote in their letters that their health was good, and inquired about the health of others, they weren’t asking idle questions.

Residents of Chicago in 1834, situated as it was in the midst of sloughs and marshes and the sluggish Chicago River, were prime candidates for the ague, especially since the log buildings of the era, including the two inns at Wolf Point illustrated above, had no window screens. And in any case, no one knew at the time the ague was caused by mosquito bites.

Residents of Chicago in 1834, situated as it was in the midst of sloughs and marshes and the sluggish Chicago River, were prime candidates for the ague, especially since the log buildings of the era, including the two inns at Wolf Point illustrated above, had no window screens. And in any case, no one knew at the time the ague was caused by mosquito bites.

According to historian R. Carlyle Buley: “There were varieties of ague—dumb ague, shaking ague, chill fever, and so forth. Some had the combined chills and fever each day or on alternate days, or even every third day; others had the chills one day and the fever the next. Whichever brand was favored, it was regular, but, like the moon, it appeared somewhat later each day; it often came back in season for years until a sort of immunity was established. Work schedules were planned to accommodate the fits.”

In the 1840s, Chauncy and Hannah Carr came out from Ohio and settled on one of the roads leading south between Oswego and Yorkville. On Oct. 17, 1846, she penned a letter to her mother back in New Haven, Ohio. Writing about her neighbors and her own children she reported: “We are all tolerably well at this time. We have had 2 or 3 attacks of the ague since we wrote last. Maria Campbell has it now though she is around the house most of the time. Harriet’s little babe has that breaking out yet. I think it must be a disease in the blood. Maria’s children once in a while have a chill very light. Thomas and Mary have had a little of the ague since I wrote before, but are quite Smart now. The Sickness have abated in a great degree here. But very few cases of the ague now that I know of.”

But the next day, continuing her note to her mother, Hannah was forced to report concerning her husband, a wagon maker and wheelwright, that: “Chauncey has shook with the ague to day and has been very unwell all the afternoon but is [better] so he is out now helping wait upon some teamsters that have just stopped. He worked too hard this forenoon was what brought it on I think.”

Cook County's Horse Collar Slough gives an idea of what thousands of acres of Kendall County wetlands looked like when the settlers arrived.

Cook County’s Horse Collar Slough gives an idea of what thousands of acres of Kendall County wetlands looked like when the settlers arrived.

The Carrs had settled near what the pioneers called “The Big Slough,” an ancient Ice Age lake that was the source of Morgan Creek. The area was extremely unhealthy, with the slough producing clouds of mosquitoes carrying the ague to nearby homesteads.

Evidence from the era suggests that other settlers who built their homes on higher ground away from the marshes and sloughs were far healthier. For instance, a series of letters in the collections of Oswego’s Little White School Museum written by Elvirah Walker Shumway from her rural Oswego home to her relatives in Massachusetts seldom mention sickness, and never mention ague at all—the Shumways lived on high ground along modern Simons Road southeast of Oswego, which may have been the deciding factor.

James Sheldon Barber arrived in Oswego in December 1843, traveling with a wagon train from New York State. On Dec. 19, 1843, just days after arriving in Oswego, Barber wrote to his parents back in Smyrna, N.Y. about the trip as well as his enthusiasm for the Fox Valley area, although with one caveat. “If it was not for ague & fever here I should like it first rate,” he wrote, adding, “It is the most beautifull country I ever saw.”

While it was ignored as much as possible, the ague was never far from anyone’s mind back in that day. On July 28, 1844, Barber wrote a chatty letter to his parents about how his life was going on the western frontier. “My health is first rate & I feel in good spirits & no signs of the ague yet & think I shall escape,” he predicted.

By 1845, Barber was an old Illinois hand and an experienced ague victim. Writing to his parents in September, Barber admitted “On Wednesday I got a light touch of the ague & on Friday I got a good shaking but I have got it broke up and am now able to work a little so I think that I shall get along with this but it made me pretty sick you may depend.”

The folks back then had no idea what caused the ague. Most blamed it on “humors” arising from the soil during the night. It wasn’t until organized efforts to drain Kendall County’s sloughs and marshes got underway that the ague was beaten. And at that, wetland drainage wasn’t done to make the area healthier, but rather to create more cropland from all those submerged acres. And it all turned out to be successful, one effort unintentionally bolstering the other. And then when government-funded scientists discovered the link between mosquitoes and the ague (and malaria) the disease was vanquished in northern Illinois.

Of course, those efforts had their own unintended consequences. Draining Kendall County’s wetlands greatly raised the danger of flash flooding and the quick run-off of stormwater meant water table declines while frequent, extreme water level fluctuations in the region’s rivers and creeks became the norm. And all that DDT used to kill disease-carrying mosquitoes began decimating wildlife, including birds, fish, and mammals, until its effects became so alarming its use was banned.

Today we have the luxury of sending money overseas to help folks fight malaria since we’ve pretty much beaten it around these parts. The ague might be gone, but municipal governments are spending thousands of tax dollars to spray for the nasty little breed of mosquitoes that spread the West Nile virus to humans and animals alike, hopefully with less catastrophic effects on the environment than those caused by eradicating the ague.

As Emily Letella used to say on “Saturday Night Live,” it’s always something.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

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