Did You Know That Malaria Was the First Epidemic to Ravage Delaware?

Credit Line: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

COVID-19 wasn’t the first epidemic to hit the First State. In the 1650s, Delawareans suffered high fevers and symptoms caused by malaria.

As much as disease has monopolized the news cycle over the past few years, it was also a recurring theme in colonial conversation. Widespread, and sometimes prolonged, outbreaks of flu, whooping cough, colds, malaria, smallpox, and other diseases were common in the seventeenth century. In the late 1650s, for example, a multi-year epidemic occurred in English and Dutch colonies when “Pestilential disease” and “hot fevers” were reported beginning in the late summer and fall of 1657. In response, West India Company (WIC) Director Peter Stuyvesant ordered a New Netherland-wide Day of Fasting in January 1658. The proclamation declared that God “hath visited near and remote places, towns and hamlets with hot fevers and dangerous diseases.” A similar proclamation was made in October of that year, and another still in September 1659 because of the summer’s generally “painful and long, lingering sickness.” At that time, Stuyvesant himself was seriously ill, as were many others in New Amsterdam and on Long Island. Between August and October, letters to WIC directors in Amsterdam refer to his symptoms as “a hot internal fever,” loss of appetite, and weakness. [i]

Perhaps no place suffered more during these years, however, than the young Dutch colony of New Amstel. In 1655, WIC had retaken Dutch territory on the Delaware River that trespassing Swedes occupied for nearly 20 years. The Swedish Fort Trefaldighet was captured, and the City of Amsterdam planted a new colony at that location: New Amstel, today’s New Castle, Delaware. The city sent Director Jacob Alrichs and colonists in 1657, and correspondence between Alrichs, Stuyvesant, and Amsterdam-based officials reveal a three-year epidemic that threatened to destroy the new colony.

1639 Vingboons Map of the Delaware River and Delaware Bay./Credit Line: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Almost upon his arrival, Alrichs reported that “a fever or other sickness is rampant” at New Amstel. The next summer he wrote, “The general sickness and burning fever has set us back considerably and many are languishing,” and “A serious general sickness has been raging here again for some time among many of the settlers.” In September 1658, he repeated that the situation was “very grievous because of a persistent burning fever and other sickness which oppress and incapacitate the greater part of the inhabitants.” [ii]

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Alrichs was hopeful that the disease had run its course by the fall of 1658, but his optimism was short-lived. Within a month he again referred to the “general debilitating sickness…many are still languishing in bed and only slowly able to regain their former strength and health.” [iii] Fever was the primary symptom reported by Alrichs, but he also described people as “languishing” and living with “languors, and that this state lasted some time.” At one point, Alrichs implied that people could expect to be ill for one to two months, and the October 1658 proclamation noted that “entire families were laid up and still are laid up ill and sick for weeks and months.” [iv]

The disease primarily affected young people and children, but there were many instances of adults succumbing: the mill owner, two surgeons, five WIC employees at the nearby settlement of Altena and likely its baker, half of New Amstel’s soldiers, the minister, Director Alrichs’ wife, and ultimately Alrichs himself. By the time of his death, Alrichs estimated that 100 had died out of the settlement’s population of 600. [v]

The Sick Woman, by Jan Steen c. 1633/Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum on loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest). Public Domain.

Malaria is a possible cause of the epidemic, because although the only symptoms described were fever and fatigue, on Alrichs’ deathbed in December 1659 he clearly stated that he was suffering from the disease. He wrote the Amsterdam commissioners that he was “confined to my bed between 2 and 3 months, and so severely attacked by tertian ague, that nothing less than death has been expected every other day.” A New England diarist also noted that “fevers and agues” afflicted the “southern colonies” in the summer of 1658. [vi]

Ague often referred to malaria, and some types were called tertian ague because of a three-day cycle of chills, fever, and sweating as parasites repeatedly destroy red blood cells. Anemia causes the resulting exhaustion. Other symptoms include head and body aches, abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, febrile seizures, and organ enlargement. Coma followed by death is possible. Malaria is not indigenous to North America; varieties were introduced from Europe and Africa with the earliest colonists and enslaved people. Female mosquitoes, which require blood meals, are responsible for transmitting malarial Plasmodium parasites. [vii]

Ague can also refer to any illness with fever and shivering. Typhoid fever, a Salmonella bacterial infection transmitted through contaminated food and water, manifests with similar symptoms as malaria though it tends to resolve faster. It is also possible that multiple infections were present–in fact, malaria and typhoid fever often co-occur in the same patient. Malaria and typhoid continue to be leading causes of illness and death in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia (especially among children) but have fortunately been eliminated in the US. [viii]

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In 1659, Alrichs acknowledged that sickness and other problems were “all over this province” and not limited to New Amstel; he also admitted that similar issues had affected everyone in New Netherland. Still, New Amstel was especially hard-hit because the illness sapped the new colony of its labor force immediately upon its founding and slowed development to a near halt. Alrichs said, “the general sickness struck us so hard and was so protracted that all other work of house and farm ceased for many months, which at the outset is very damaging and difficult to overcome.” He later added that two years of sickness and bad weather resulted in “great retardation in the agriculture and everything else.” [ix]

In addition to the high mortality rate, many settlers simply left the colony in the first years because of the poor conditions (many headed to New Amsterdam, Maryland, and Virginia). Morale was understandably low during this time, and Alrichs described the colony as “too weak, with little heart because of two years of sickness, a bad summer, a harsh winter, [and] a scarcity of provisions without any assistance or ship being sent here.” He likened New Amstel to a seedling, saying “this colony has been oppressed and trampled by the aforesaid hardships like a plant in its early stages of growth.” [x]

Fever and other symptoms continued to be reported from New Netherland and became problematic at Esopus on the Hudson River in the winters of 1659 and 1660, leading to yet another Day of Fasting. Given the time of year and “giddiness” or “dizziness” described as a symptom, typhoid may have made its way to the mid-Hudson Valley rather than malaria. This is because cold temperatures inhibit mosquito reproduction and the growth of the parasite, and delirium is a symptom of typhoid but not always of malaria. [xi] Furthermore, typhoid is caused by poor sanitation and garrisoned soldiers were the affected group. By that time, the epidemic seems to have passed at New Amstel. Settlers were described as “well-provisioned” and prepared for winter in January 1660, and a neighboring official was able to report, “Our people are now healthy, praise God.” [xii]

Written by Chelsea Teale
Humboldt State University and New Netherland Institute


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[i] Calendar of Historical Manuscripts of the Secretary of State, Albany, N.Y.: Part I. Dutch Manuscripts, 1630-1664, pp. 287; Correspondence 1654-1658, pp. 212; Correspondence 1659-1660, pp. 25, 76, 78, 90, 107, 133; Council Minutes 1656-1658, pp. 375, 549-550; Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New-York, Vol. 2, pp. 79; Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New-York, Vol. 14, pp. 444; Narratives of New Netherland, pp. 401. Quakers and conflicts with the Esopus tribe were also mentioned as problems in the proclamations.
[ii] Delaware Papers, Vol. I, pp. 112, 125, 126, 128
[iii] Delaware Papers, Vol. I, pp. 130, 132
[iv] Council Minutes 1656-1658, pp. 549-550; Delaware Papers, Vol. I, pp. 125, 130, 132; Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New-York, Vol. II, pp. 69, 70.
[v] Delaware Papers, Vol. I, pp. 113, 128-129, 132, 179, 182, 184; Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New-York, Vol. II, pp. 69, 76.
[vi] Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New-York, Vol. II, pp. 113; The Diaries of John Hull, Mint-master and Treasurer of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. Boston: John Wilson and Son, 1857. pp. 184.
[vii]Malaria: Poverty, Race, and Public Health in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001; Russell 1968. The United States and Malaria: Debits and Credits. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 44(6): 623-653.
[viii]  Jarcho 1955. Cadwallader Colden as a student of infectious disease. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 29(2): 99-115; Keong and Sulaiman 2006. Typhoid and malaria co-infection – an interesting finding in the investigation of tropical fever. Malaysian Journal of Medical Science 13(1): 74-75; Malaria: Poverty, Race, and Public Health in the United States; World Malaria Report. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2019; Saporito et al. 2017. Typhoid Fever. International Encyclopedia of Public Health (2nd Ed.). Vol. 7, pp. 277-283; Schumacher and Spinelli. 2012. Malaria in children. Mediterranean Journal of Hematological Infectious Disease 4(1): e2012073.
[ix] Delaware Papers, Vol. I, pp. 134, 138, 175
[x] Delaware Papers, Vol. I, pp. 138, 145, 148, 167, 175.
[xi] Calendar of Historical Manuscripts of the Secretary of State, Albany, N.Y.: Part I. Dutch Manuscripts, 1630-1664, pp. 289; Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York, Vol. 13, pg. 144; Correspondence 1659-1660, pp. 173; Records of New Amsterdam, Vol. III, pp. 148-149. Threats of invasion by the English, and conflict with Native Americans, are also mentioned in the proclamation.
[xii] Delaware Papers, Vol. I, pp. 184. The official was WIC Vice-Director Willem Beekman at Fort Altena, modern-day Wilmington, Delaware.

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