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SMALLPOX EPIDEMIC,
NEWBURY, MASS 1759-60

   Robert C. Chase

 

   In 1994, when my aunt died in Newburyport, I fell heir to the contents of an old safe that had been in the Chase homestead for many years. Among the papers was a collection of documents pertaining to the Merrill families, dating back to the late 1600s. Most of these documents were little more than promissory notes on scrap paper, folded, fragile and faded with age. Others were military orders, church records, town ordinances, tax receipts, letters, wills, deeds and journals. All of these documents have since been copied and transcribed, and together they provide a narrative of what the lives of our Merrill forefathers were like six, seven and eight generations ago.

   Among those documents was the journal of my gr-gr-gr-gr-grandfather, Henry5 Merrill, the son of Henry4 Merrill and Priscilla Lowell, of Newbury, MA. Henry [Henry4, John3, Abraham2, Nathaniel1] was born 15 Oct 1751, in Newbury, and died there 03 Apr 1844. He married first 25 Nov 1773, Rebecca Moulton (1750-1823), and second 10 Jan 1824, Hannah Chase (1763-1836). Subsequent marriages between our Merrill and Chase lines have helped to preserve what for our present generation is a family treasure. Among the items in Henry Merrill's journal was the following description of the smallpox epidemic that ravaged that area of Newbury [now Newburyport], near Curson's mill, in the fall and winter of 1759-60: A short account of a distressing sickness occasioned by the small pox, by Henry Merrill, Newbury, which prevailed in school district No 1 in the road leading from the school house Now standing on the Plains (so called) to Curson's mills in which there were ten families out of which no one escaped death, and out of the heads of seven of the families there was but one left which was my father. John Merrill, an uncle of mine, was the first which suffered by the disorder. Unknown from whence it proceeded, it was called [the eruptive fever] by the phisitions (physicians). Enoch Sawyer and two sons, Edmund and Mikajah, the(y) suffered fever. It was thought by my father to be the small pox by what he had heard of it previous to that time and he consulting with the phisitions and they ageing (arguing) with his judgement concluded to call a council and did So and was pronounced it to be the small pox.

   From this source sixty four others contracted the disorder (including the phisitions) out of which 24 died, all of which had ar(r)ived to the age of manhood. Exclusive of the two named, those that died: John Merrill, Anna Merrill, Margaret Merrill, Hannah Blake, David Merrill and all of his family, his sons Stephen and Moses and his grandchildren Moses and Lydia Davis, John Sawyer and wife, Samuel Davis, Daniel Emery, John Woodman, Joseph Mirick, Elephalet Sawyer, Benjamin Long, Peter Ordway, Benjamin Ordway, James Ordway, Samuel Rogers, Mary Jackman, Mary Moulton, Trustom (Tristram) Bartlett.

   The Selectmen, taking in consideration the ravages of this disorder, inclosed this unhappy neighbourhood by fencing acrost the Road and obliging them not to provide the necessities of life for themselves but took the burden upon themselves and also were obliged to send to Boston for the Physitions and assistants on account of the scanty numbers which were to be had (in) Newbury and the adjoining towns.

   The names of the Doctor(s) were Lowell and Lamson, but by the extreme (magnitude) of the disorder by the Doctors at that stage the patient(s) received no great benefit from them but added (further) injury by being kept to (their) rooms which was contrary to the course that ought to be persued as it is thought since that time.

   The epidemic is briefly mentioned, without names, in Joshua Coffin's "A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport & West Newbury:" In November 1759, several cases of smallpox were reported in the West parish, "near the plains," and, before the disease could be stayed, thirty-six persons, all but two of them adults, died.

   John J Currier's magnum opus, "History of Newbury, Massachusetts, 1635-1902", offers a few more corroborative details:
In November of this year [1759], the small-pox made its appearance on "the plains,' so called, and was for some time called the eruptive fever ... in July [1760], the small-pox ceased in Newbury. During its continuance, the selectmen fenced in the infected district, from the schoolhouse to Emery's hill, and sent to Boston for physicians and nurses, who as the custom then was, greatly aggravated the disease, by shutting up the sick in small and heated rooms. About eighty persons had the disorder, of whom thirty-six, all adults but two, died.

   Unfortunately, the outbreak can also be laid on our Merrill doorstep, as detailed in Samuel Merrill's definitive work "A Merrill Memorial," published in 1928:
"JOHN4 MERRILL [John3, Abraham2] was born 13 Jan 1717/18, in Newbury, MA, and died there in November 1759. An epidemic of smallpox visited Newbury in the winter of 1759/60, and caused more than thirty deaths. According to tradition, John Merrill contracted the disease by wearing a cap which he found on the bank of the Merrimack [river], and his was the first death. All the victims of the epidemic are buried together in Sawyer's Hill cemetery, Newburyport."

   In 1746, John4 Merrill married Anne Ordway, the daughter of Peter and Jemima Ordway of Newbury. John was the uncle of Henry5 Merrill which may have prompted him to pen this record of the epidemic. John and Anne had five children. The youngest daughter, Anna, born in 1757, was probably the Anna Merrill mentioned in Henry's list of victims. The next name, Margaret Merrill, was probably John's stepmother, Margaret Lowell, who married John3 Merrill in 1729, as his second wife.

   The tragic reference to David Merrill "and all his family," probably refers to Henry's great uncle David3 [Abraham2] who was born 20 Feb 1677/78, in Newbury. His death during the epidemic can be inferred from the fact that administration on his estate was granted 07 Mar 1760. David was a joiner. He married 18 Dec 1706 Mary Morse, daughter of Deacon Benjamin and Ruth (Sawyer) Morse, of Newbury, who was born 15 May 1686 and died 10 Aug 1755. The reference to David's sons refers to Stephen4 who was born 24 Feb 1709/10, and Moses4 born 17 Feb 1713/14. The "Merrill Memorial" lists their deaths "before 04 Jan 1762" which appears to be the date their father's estate was proved. Moses' share of his father's estate was given to his "legal representatives," presumably for the benefit of his surviving children.

   David Merrill's son Eliphalet4 was born 07 Oct 1717, in Newbury, and married 10 Jul 1735 [or 1739] Lydia Clough of Amesbury. Their daughter, Lydia5, was born 20 Feb 1740 and married Moses Davis 17 Nov 1759, in Newbury. Hoyt lists Moses Davis, born 16 Dec 1737 [son of Benjamin and Ruth (Brown) Davis, of Newbury], whose brother, Benjamin, was granted administration of his estate 12 May 1760. The reference to David's grandchildren, therefore, probably refers to the young married couple struck down in the blush of youth.

   While most of the victims were supposedly "buried together in Sawyer's Hill cemetery," the cemetery inscriptions assembled by Mrs. Anna Bartlett Boyton in The Essex Institute Historical Collections [volume 53], 1907, include only three of the victims mentioned in Henry Merrill's account, and no mention of a common grave site:

     Here lies buried the body of Mr Benjamin Long Jr
     who departed this life Jenry 2nd 1760, aged 38 years

     Here lies buried the body of Mr Daniel Emery
     who departed this life Jany 24th 1760
     in the 26 year of his age

     In memory of Mr Tristram Bartlet
     who decest Janry ye 3rd 1760 in ye 30th year of his age
     Son of Samuel and Judith (Coffin) Bartlett;
     born 13 Sept 1730

   If anyone has additional information regarding the smallpox epidemic of 1759-60 that ravaged this part of Newbury[port], or the many victims, I would like to hear from them. The area itself, along Curson's Mill road, is just north of what is now the intersection of I-95 and Route 113, in Newburyport, and adjacent to the Maudsley State Park, which used to encompass what was once the old Merrill-Chase homestead.

   Submitted by: Robert C. Chase
   E-mail: Treborchas@AOL.com
   04 Feb 2000


   If you have further information on Newbury and would like to share it with others, please contact me.

     © Merrill.org - Updated 12 October, 2001

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