Great fears of the Sickenesses here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.
— The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 30 April 1665
We’ve been here before, and survived these things before.
While trying to concentrate on getting on with life, I am drawn back to a small cluster of deaths among the Ballard family in Tidewater Virginia in 1719. If anything, revisiting them helps this compiler gain perspective, and derive a small measure of comfort in the fact that humans have experienced these things before, survived, and went on with the business of living.
Noah Webster’s A brief history of epidemic and pestilential diseases; with the principal phenomena of the physical world, which precede and accompany them, and observations deduced from the facts stated. : In two volumes (Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin, 1799), pp. 225-228) describes the circumstances of a plague that swept over Europe in 1719, and likely made its way to America.
In 1719 malignant fevers were prevalent in many parts of Europe, marking a pestilential principle of great extent. The winter of 1719-20 in America was very cold.
In these last years raged malignant pleurisy in Hartford, in Connecticut, with great mortality.
In March 1719 an immense meteor passed the heavens, illuminating the earth and bursting with a tremendous report. Its diameter was calculated by Dr. Halley at a mile and a half.
At this time the plague appeared in Aleppo, and carried off by report 80,000 people. Russel agrees that this disease came from the north, altho he has given us few particulars. It raged, as usual, for two or three years.
In 1718, 19, 20 and 21, says Dr. Rogers, the greater number of those who lived near the slaughter-houses at Cork, died.
In 1720 happened the last great plague in Marseilles, on which occasion has been published “Traité de la peste,” a treatise in quarto, by Chicoyneau, under the sanction of the French king, in which great efforts are made to prove the disease to have been imported from the Levant.
The proofs of importation stand thus. “Capt. Chataud left Said in Syria in January 1720, with a clean patent. The plague was not then in Said, tho it broke out soon after. On the passage, several persons died, and the physicians at Leghorn, where the ship stopped, pronounced their disease to be “a malignant pestilential fever.”
The ship arrived at Marseilles, and some persons who had concern with the goods, died in May. The suspected goods were subjected to fifteen days retreat and purification—they were forbid to be introduced into the city—the porters were shut up; but all regulations were fruitless. In June, deaths appeared in the city with distinctive marks of the plague.”
On such flimsey evidence do the sticklers for the sole propagation of the plague by infection, ground all their assertions respecting the disease at Marseilles!
But it happens in this case, as in most similar instances, that the pretended proofs of infection carry refutation in the very face of them.
In the first place, it is an acknowledged fact, that at the time the ship left Said, the plague had not appeared in that port, or town. It was at Aleppo and in other places far distant in 1719, but had not broke out in Said. How, in the name of reason, could men or goods be infected, when the disease did not exist in the place?
To overcome or rather to evade the force of this objection, the writers on the subject are compelled to resort to supposition. They say it is possible, the plague might have been in the place, tho not known or generally admitted. And here rests their whole argument!
It is true, that some of the seamen or passengers died on the passage, with a malignant pestilential fever. But in this case, the malady originated on board the ship—and the infection is not traced to the Levant ports. There is an end of the chain—the disease began without infection, on board the ship, as malignant fevers have done in thousands of other ships.
Again, it is admitted by Dr. Mead himself, p. 255, that from the time of the sailors’ death, after the ship arrived, it was full six weeks before the disease was known in the city of Marseilles; a circumstance that renders it nearly impossible that there could have been any propagation of the distemper by infection. To remove this objection, the advocates of infection again resort to supposition. They suppose it possible some latent seeds of the disease had been concealed in goods, or clothes—and such ridiculous suggestions are made the grounds of assertion.
But what completely refutes all these idle suppositions, is, that we have full evidence, that the plague in Marseilles was generated in the city, and gradually arose from milder diseases. In the beginning of the “Traitè de la peste,” it is stated from Mon. Didier and not denied, that “the preceding year 1719 was a barren year—the corn, the wine and the oil, were defective. The heat of spring was excessive and followed by great rains, with westerly winds—the fruits were bad. In this year a pestilential fever appeared in Marseilles, of which many died, and in some, appeared buboes, carbuncles and paroitides.”
Here we observe facts that always exist, before the plague, and which demonstrate the uniform operations of the laws of nature. The year 1718 began to exhibit malignant diseases in greater numbers than usual. In 1719 the plague broke out at Aleppo, and in the north and west of Europe, malignant fevers became in many places, epidemic and pestilential. In 1720, the pestilential state of the air, arrived at its crisis in Marseilles. The pestilence in Europe exhibited a regular progress, from ordinary typhus fever to the plague. A fatal small-pox and spotted fever prevailed in Piemont.
To demonstrate this fact, the reader will only turn to the bills of mortality in London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Dresden, &c. for the years under consideration, and observe every where the effects of a general unhealthy state of air, in the increase of the number of deaths.—The bills of mortality in Boston and Philadelphia also prove this state of air to have extended to this country; and the malignancy of it seems to have abated in America after 1721, in which year the small-pox was very mortal in Boston.
The accounts of diseases in America, at this period, are few and imperfect. Tradition has preserved the memory of desolating sickness, at various times and in various places, some of which, I suspect, refer to this period, but I am not able to ascertain the dates, with any certainty.* By accident however, I am able to determine positively the pestilential state of air in America in 1720. A genuine letter is extant, from Thomas Hacket of Duck Creek, now in the state of Delaware, dated April 10th 1720, in which he states that a mortality prevailed in that place, which exceeded that in London in 1665, and almost depopulated the village. I have seen the letter in possession of Dr. Rush.
So – while it may be coincidental, who might have succumbed to possible plague during this time?
We have three candidates: Francis Ballard, his nephews Matthew Ballard and William Ballard of York county all died in 1719 (in Francis’ case, in 1719/20, under the old Julian calendar); Francis and Matthew just days after writing their wills, and William dying intestate. The only contemporary account we have found is a report in the Boston News-Letter that in 1720 it was a “sickly” time in Virginia and that many persons were dying “of a Fever with a pain in their Side and Breast.” (Boston News-Letter, No. 830, March 7-14, 1720, cited by John Duffy, Epidemics in Colonial America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971) p. 190. There were no newspapers published at that time in Virginia; The Virginia Gazette did not begin publication until 1736.
Matthew Ballard (c.1685-1719), the eldest son of Thomas Ballard, Jr. of York county, Virginia, died between 13 May 1719, the date his will was written, and 18 May 1719, the date his will was entered into the York county, Virginia records. Matthew was survived by his son Matthew, who in turn died without issue in 1741.
William Ballard, a younger son of Thomas Ballard, Jr. of York county, Virginia, was a minor on 26 September 1706 when his father’s will was drafted; James Branch Cabell in his history of the Major and allied families simply notes that “he seems to have died unmarried.” (James Branch Cabell, The Majors and Their Marriages (Richmond: W.C. Hill Printing Co., 1915) p. 76). William Ballard died in York county before 21 September 1719, for on that date his brother “Robert Ballard came into Court and made oath that William Ballard departed this life without making any will so far as he knows or believes. Said Robert Ballard gave bond with Philip Lightfoot & John Gibbon his security and was appointed administrator of the Estate of the said William Ballard decd.” (21 September 1719. York Co. Va. Deeds, Orders, Wills Book 15, p. 485; p. 489. Inventory recorded, p. 505.) We know this William Ballard died without issue when his estate is presented in court by Thomas Vines, Edwd Baptist, Walter Butler and Robert Ballard, and consists solely of “a Negroe girle of about 19 years old which we value to 30 pd.” (17 December 1719. Presented in Court 21 December 1719. York Co. Va. Deeds, Orders Wills, 1718-1720, p. 527. Note that William Ballard was devised two slaves in the will of his father, “negro Giles, Molatto Kate with her Increase” and ten pounds Sterling.). No provision was made for a wife or orphans. Perhaps the absence of children is the reason no will was drafted.
Francis Ballard (c.1675-1719/20) of Elizabeth City county, Virginia, son of Thomas Ballard of James City County (1630-1690). Francis Ballard was dead after 10 March 1719/20, when his will was written in Elizabeth City county (some sources give a date of 12 March 1719/20) and recorded in Elizabeth City county on 16 March 1719/20. He was survived by two sons and four daughters.
Two lines died out, and a third prospered for several generations. Such is life.