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Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Epidemic Anniversary

A History of Disease in Wisconsin

Epidemic Anniversary | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeAn unidentified young Ho-Chunk boy and girl with smallpox stand outside of their home. The Ho-Chunk girl is wrapped in a shawl and is standing on the left, and the Ho-Chunk boy is posed only in a shirt and is standing on the right.

Ho-Chunk Boy and Girl with Smallpox

Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Date unknown. View the original source document: WHI 63929

The first AIDS diagnosis was on June 5, 1981. That's a gruesome fact. But it's one that, like any other, has a historical context. Epidemics have swept through human communities for 10,000 years and Wisconsin has had its share.

Diseases in Native Communities

European diseases probably reached Wisconsin before European explorers themselves. In the fifty years following Hernando de Soto's invasion of the lower Mississippi in 1539, disease killed 90 percent of the Indians living in the middle Mississippi Valley. These were Indians with whom Wisconsin peoples had traded for centuries, since at least the time of Aztalan. Many archaeologists have speculated that epidemics of measles or smallpox may have swept through Indian communities in Wisconsin decades before Jean Nicolet stepped ashore in 1634.

Once Europeans set up permanent settlements and native peoples gathered around them, disease penetrated Indian communities as effectively as metal pots, firearms, or porcelain beads. "Maladies wrought among them more devastation than even war did," concluded contemporary French writer Bacqueville de la Potherie of the Wisconsin tribes, "and exhalations from the rotting corpses caused great mortality."

An Act of Biological Warfare

EnlargeThe left panel shows a stork carrying a baby in its beak, and the right panel depicts a baby being carried toward a cemetery by a large house fly.

The Danger of Pests

Illustration made for International Harvester's Agricultural Extension Department to demonstrate the danger of pests, including diseases carried by insects. The left panel shows a stork carrying a baby in its beak, and the right panel depicts a baby being carried toward a cemetery by a large house fly. View the original source document: WHI 75493

The first clearly documented epidemic in Wisconsin was an act of bioterrorism perpetrated by British traders against Indians who had killed one of their colleagues. Dr. Douglass Houghton, who interviewed the Ojibwe about epidemics in 1832, wrote down their recollection that in 1770, when visiting Mackinac, "a cask of liquor and a flag closely rolled were presented to the Indians as a token of friendship. They were at the same time strictly enjoined neither to break the seal of the cask nor to unroll the flag, until they had reached the heart of their own country.

"This they promised to observe; but while returning, and after having travelled many days, the chief of the deputation made a feast for the Indians of the band at Fond du Lac, Lake Superior, upon which occasion he unsealed the cask and unrolled the flag for the gratification of his guests... and of those Indians then at Fond du Lac, about three hundred in number, nearly the whole were swept off by it. Nor did it stop here; for numbers of those at Fond du Lac at the time the disease made its appearance, took refuge among the neighboring bands; and although it did not extend easterly on Lake Superior, it is believed that not a single band of Chippewas north or west from Fond du Lac escaped its ravages...

"The Indians at this day [1832] are firmly of the opinion that the smallpox was at this time communicated through the articles presented to their brethren by the agent of the Fur Company at Mackinac; and that it was done for the purpose of punishing them more severely for their offences." His full account, including other outbreaks after this first one, is here. Houghton estimated that the disease had appeared among the Ojibwe at least five times in the previous 60 years.

Disease is no respecter of race or ethnicity, and the earliest white settlers suffered catastrophically from epidemic outbreaks as well. At Fort Crawford in the summer of 1830, 154 of the 199 soldiers came down with malaria. Cholera broke out among them in August 1833, taking down 23 soldiers and killing six, and other outbreaks swept through the state between 1849 and 1854.

Smallpox and Polish Uprising

EnlargeTwo children lying sick in bed during the Spanish Flu epidemic.

Children Lying in Bed with Spanish Flu.

Two children sick with the Spanish Flu lie in their beds. Lincoln county, ca. 1919 View the original source document: WHI 61830

In August of 1895, smallpox swept through the southside of Milwaukee, where the traditions of recent Polish immigrants clashed with modern public health practices. The first patients were segregated at an isolation hospital outside the neighborhood, even though the residents preferred caring for their own sick in their own homes, as they had in the old country. When hospital patients began dying, the residents came to see the hospital as a slaughterhouse  a place they would never send their loved ones. When city health officials or ambulances attempted to remove patients to protect the uninfected, they were met by barricaded doors and armed uprisings. A protest rally drew nearly 10,000 people to the hospital who stoned the police and fired pistols in the air. The 100 police officers plunged into the crowd swinging billy clubs, cracking heads and driving people back to their homes.

The Spanish Flu epidemic that followed World War I perhaps affected more Wisconsin residents than any other outbreak. Known variously as the "Spanish Flu" or "La Grippe," influenza killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. By the end of 1918, more than 675,000 Americans had died from the flu, most between the ages of 19 and 42, and the Wisconsin Board of Health declared that the "Spanish flu" epidemic would "forever be remembered as the most disastrous calamity that has ever been visited upon the people of Wisconsin." The first cases were reported in southern Wisconsin in September 1918, and by December, influenza had sickened almost 103,000 residents and killed more than 8,000.

Read more about the Spanish Flu in the article by Steven B. Burg, "Wisconsin and the Great Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918," Wisconsin Magazine Of History. Volume: 84, Issue: 1 (Autumn 2000).

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