Cleveland Pioneers Persevered Through The Ague

Lorenzo Carter was one of Cleveland's pioneers who survived the ague.
Lorenzo Carter was one of Cleveland's pioneers who survived the ague. [“Sketches of Western Reserve Life” by Harvey Rice]
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Long before today's COVID-19 crisis the people of Northeast Ohio had a different sickness to fight.  

We're talking even before the Spanish flu of 1918 and the 1832 cholera epidemic.

Cleveland's earliest pioneers battled and eventually overcame a disease known as the ague.

When Moses Cleaveland and his team of surveyors arrived along the shores of Lake Erie in the summer of 1796, they stepped out near the mouth of the Cuyahoga River where Whiskey Island is today.

Sketch of the mouth of the Cuyahoga ca. 1800 by Allen Gaylord from memory 1860. [Western Reserve Historical Society]

The river channel that runs along Whiskey Island was silted up and closed off, according to John Grabowski, a Cleveland historian who works for both Case Western Reserve University and the Western Reserve Historical Society.  

"The river was flowing through what is its current mouth, but it wasn't flowing very strongly. In the old channel they probably saw a lot of weeds, grass and whatever was growing at that time in this stagnant pool of water," Grabowski said.

Because the "crooked river" didn't run straight into Lake Erie, the river's mouth was like a swamp, which bred mosquitoes carrying malaria.

"It would be the chief impediment to the early settlement of Cleveland. That's the result of that water as people moved into the area very slowly really. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, many of them came down with something they called the ague, and it was a series of chills and sweats and fevers that would be cyclical. They would go on and on," Grabowski said.

Plan of the City of Cleveland by Seth Pease 1796 [Cleveland Memory Project]

It was as if the mouth of the river itself was sick and made anyone who lived near it gravely ill.

"We don't have good data on death rates or anything, but clearly quite a few people were taken by the malaria," said Bob Wheeler, a retired professor of history from Cleveland State University and co-author of "Cleveland: A Concise History." "Most of them did not die of it, but they were severely incapacitated."

In 1802, Connecticut landowner Jonathan Law visited the Western Reserve, and Grabowski said his diary explains how the anticipated growth of the settlement was stymied.

"John looked around the young community, and he noted that there was a 'doleful cloud hanging over this settlement,'" Grabowski said.

Many of the city's earliest settlers moved away from the sluggish water at the river's mouth, but a few sturdy souls remained, led by a man named Lorenzo Carter.

"He began trading with Native Americans who lived on the west side of the Cuyahoga River, and he did a fairly robust business in that trade. He was a boat builder, and he owned land down there. Carter also, I think, had access to a whiskey still. He becomes sort of the John Wayne of Cleveland, if I can use that cliche? He hangs in there, that's why you can see a model of a replica, supposedly, of Lorenzo Carter's cabin down in the Flats today. So he stuck it out," Grabowski said.

A replica of Lorenzo Carter's cabin along the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland's Flats [Dave DeOreo / ideastream]

Carter had quite the reputation according to Wheeler.

"He was accused by the much more stalwart Connecticut Congregationalists of being sort of a rascal. But my sense is rascals often persist in this kind of environment if they're lucky enough to survive the disease, because they don't have the same demands that they make on their lives and their person," Wheeler said.

Grabowski agreed.

"If you want to make something special, and I think you'd probably be correct on this, of Lorenzo Carter... he was in the worst part of it, and he had a tough road to hoe," he said. 

Carter and the other early settlers persisted and persevered through the ague to help found the city we know as Cleveland today, Wheeler said.

"They came out here, and they did their best to succeed by themselves, but persistence and also a strong constitution, which allowed many of them to escape or to persist after the ague bothered them or laid them down. In some cases by the way, sometimes these people would be in bed for six months with it. They couldn't work, they couldn't harvest, they couldn't do this or that. So it was a very challenging time," Wheeler said.

People also survived without medical attention, Grabowski said. 

Meanwhile, Carter's log cabin in the Flats became the focal point of the settlement despite the ague.

"The first Fourth of July celebration is in Lorenzo Carter's cabin. The first dance in Cleveland is in Lorenzo Carter's cabin. It's kind of the social center of that time," Grabowski said.

But Cleveland could not prosper without changes to the Cuyahoga.  

"What really needed to be done was the river needed to be cleaned up and straightened a little bit in the mouth so it would flow freely and the water wouldn't back up and continue to create this problem, and that took federal money. That's what the early power people in Cleveland lobbied for," Grabowski said.

Grabowski sees a parallel today.

"The only thing that really would clear this up for Cleveland though interestingly was federal action in the 1820s, which basically cleared the sand out of the mouth of the Cuyahoga River and began to allow it to be more free flowing or more rapidly flowing. That would begin to dispel some of the miasma that was around there," he said.

Wheeler sees a correllation, too. 

"I would say almost everyone that I had contact with through diaries or letters was affected by the ague within the first two years of their arrival. Sometimes bouts of it would come back and then it would disappear, and then it would come back again. I would say I don't think there were many people who escaped it. I'm hoping more people escape COVID-19 of course," Wheeler said. 

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