Cholera and COVID-19: A Special Message – by Pat Traffas (March 27, 2020)

Special Message from Immediate Past President Pat Traffas

Looking back, and looking forward:

Much like 178 years ago this Spring, people were on the move. Whether it was a wagon train heading for Oregon Territory or persons traveling to Mardi Gras, college students packing for their much-anticipated Spring Break, military personnel either deploying or returning from their assignments, or business persons embarking on economic endeavors domestically or abroad, plans seemed to have been dashed overnight by an invisible enemy which we are all struggling to understand.

Here, at the beginning of the trail, families and companies gathered to outfit in Independence, and in coming years in Westport, Omaha, Council Bluffs, and St. Joseph. They had to wait for the first blades of spring grass to be abundant enough to provide nourishment for the horses, cattle, and oxen that would be their power source for the next six or so months. While waiting and gathering provisions and swapping plans and dreams, the emigrants were huddled together in these frontier communities, sharing space with livestock and common sources of water. Organized trains that departed early were the lucky ones, because they were often spared of contagion left behind. They, however, became the carriers of that contagion that would pose a real threat to those who would follow. In the 1800s, the invisible enemy was cholera….today it is the novel Coronavirus 19.

Unknown to most, there is a cholera cemetery in Independence, and likely this is the first vestige that remains of the killer cholera. We can track the passage of cholera westward easily, both on the ground by numerous graves and by the sorrowful diary accounts for the many, many miles of trail history. Wagon trains would often camp in the same spots as earlier ones because wood, grass and water were available. As cholera claimed lives along the trail, existing resources were taxed to meet the immediate needs….a wagonmaster was asked to find someone to look after a new widow and her family whose husband and father had succumbed, or a “wet mother” who could adopt a suckling infant who needed nourishment. No one could have imagined just how quickly their lives could be changed by something they could not see or foresee.

Don’t you suppose that even in the 1800s, most would have wanted to find someone or something to blame their sad state of affairs on? We are like that today. Modern science and improved mass communications spread information, false hopes and fears, and stories of those who are rising up to meet the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are a realistic people, with dreams and visions for the future. We can practice social distancing which would have been a foreign concept in the 1800s. We can look after others, protect the most vulnerable, understand those with different ideas than ours, and not place blame where no blame is due. If we all do our part, we can survive this medical and economic crisis. We should all remember that water runs downhill, and that we all live “downstream.” I pray you will all remain safe in the days ahead.

Pat Traffas
Past President