It's not Bishop Hill's first pandemic

Cholera outbreak of 1849 memorial

Dave Clarke for the Star Courier

BISHOP HILL — This is not the first time Bishop Hill has been hit by a pandemic.

In fact, Colony leader Erik Janson may have been the first in this area to come up with what today we call social distancing. Only three years after the Swedish immigrants arrived on the

prairie on the southern edge of Henry County, they were struck by an epidemic of cholera. The disease had ravaged Europe and was spreading through the United States.

In spite of the settlers’ isolation from the outside world, cholera came to Bishop Hill in 1849, probably carried from New Orleans, where there had been an outbreak and where the

colonists sold their brooms and grain, and purchased supplies. At the time, most of the settlers were packed in apartments on the first floor and in the basement of the Colony Church, built in


Cholera is spread by unsafe drinking water and poor sanitary and drainage systems. Janson's solution was to send as many healthy colonists as possible to various outposts, including a

farm the colony owned near LaGrange (now Orion).

But it didn't work. Seventy people died there and were buried in a mass grave now marked by a monument.

Here's the story from the Bishop Hill State Historic Site's Facebook page:

"On July 22 1849 the first death from a Cholera epidemic occurred. Throughout the United States, many people died from the disease during this pandemic. Cholera struck Bishop Hill hard, killing an estimated 143 to 196 residents. Although Erik Janson had many colonists flee to Rock Island and the Orion area, the disease followed them there. Janson’s first wife, Maria, and one of their children died in Rock Island.

Approximately 70 people died in the Orion area. The majority of the victims received burial in the Bishop Hill Cemetery. Showing the speed of death, The "Galva News" offered the following account in an article looking back on the epidemic on May 2, 1946. “To give our readers an idea of how quickly lives were snuffed out: One woman, who was well and had prepared the family noon-day meal was dead at 4 that afternoon; a man who was digging graves for his friend one morning was lying in that same grave in the afternoon; one woman buried her husband with her own hands. We have a number of reports stating that in Bishop Hill they died so rapidly that relays of men dug shallow graves day and night in which bodies were placed, and that the one horse cart serving as a hearse was not unhitched for several weeks because it was in constant use in hauling bodies to our present cemetery. Furthermore to keep the hearse driver from breaking physically, Janson supplied him with enough “No.6” (a beer made in the Colony) to keep him in a constant state of intoxication.” Between Orion and Osco, the Colonists erected a  onument in 1882 to the 70 colonists buried there."

Bishop Hill Heritage Association Administrator Todd DeDecker paid a visit to the monument and posted the following on the BHHA website: "This site struck a chord with me. As I was standing in front of the monument, I could see the village of Andover and the wind turbines of the Bishop Hill Wind Farm. To my left, vehicles whizzed by on the Osco/Orion road. Behind me, I could hear the traffic on I-74. Among all these fast-paced modern items, sits this mostly forgotten monument to pioneers who made our current life possible. For me it serves as a reminder on how important museums and non-profit organizations, like the BHHA, are. It is because of these organizations that people today are reminded about how the past influenced the present and will shape the future. At the same time, this monument also gives me hope for the future when it comes to preserving our past. Someone has taken the time to mow around it and to place plastic flowers

next to it. These actions show that there are still people today who care about protecting our history.”