• Henry M. Miller, Ph.D.

Health and Mortality in Early Maryland

Updated: Apr 12

Henry M. Miller, Maryland Heritage Scholar, Historic St. Mary’s City

Archaeologists excavating burials inside the Chapel at St. Mary's.

Insights about the topics of health and disease for people during the first century of European settlement in Maryland are not easy to acquire. Historical records are often silent or incomplete and fail to provide sufficient evidence. Many diseases are not expressed on the human skeleton; however, the efforts of historians and archaeologists have produced some insights on these topics.

Coming to Maryland was a gamble. One acquires immunities to the diseases in the region where you grow up and such immunity typically does not transfer when migrating to new areas. Maryland offered a different climate and disease environment and there was a substantial shift in both diet and work patterns. The consequences of this were severe, for people experienced a very high death rate and shortened life expectancy. Historians have found that a 20 year old male coming to Maryland could expect to live to about 45, if they were lucky. For comparison, a 20 year old going to Plymouth, Massachusetts in the mid-17th century could anticipate living into his late 60s. The data do not allow an accurate estimate of the experiences for women, but there is some suggestion that they lived longer if they survived their childbearing years. Children in Maryland also had a high death rate, with estimates that up to 50% did not reach the age of 20. The Chesapeake in general was an unhealthy place for colonists.

What were the causes of such high death rates? Research suggests that the greatest single factor was malaria. It had been inadvertently introduced to the Chesapeake by Europeans and probably Africans. By itself, it was not a major killer, but it weakened the individual and made them more susceptible to other diseases. Malaria was found throughout the tidal Chesapeake, everyone was infected and suffered the characteristic symptoms of fever and chills, headache, fatigue, and swellings. A classic description of it in Maryland comes from Ebenezer Cook in his The Sot-Weed-Factor (1708):

“I felt a Feaver Intermitting;

A fiery Pulse beat in my Veins,

From Cold I felt resembling Pains:

This cursed seasoning I remember,

Lasted from March to cold December.”

All immigrants experienced what was called “the seasoning”, the adjustment to the new environment and diseases, especially malaria. Many did not survive seasoning and it is estimated that about a quarter of the new immigrants died within their first year. The colder climate of New England seems to have made malaria a less significant factor there.

Recently a fascinating letter was found in England that provides a most striking description of the health challenges in early Maryland. Written by Ann Truman from a plantation on the Patuxent River in April of 1671, she states

“… our deare Nanny dyed june 19th & one of our servants a litle before, the rest of us (through mercy) seasoned (as they call it) well, most of us in the sumer (3 months of wch was hot) had an ague & fevor wch held us about a week or fortnight, but have had our healths this winter. I was delivered of a son jan. 16th who lived but 10 dayes…”

This single plantation experienced two deaths from seasoning, another of a newborn child, and all suffered from “the seasoning.” This is the only known letter about the subject from a female colonist, and it clearly expresses some of the hardship of migrating to Maryland.

But there were other causes of ill health in Maryland. These were described as “Agues”, “malignant Feavers”, “Swellings” and “Gripping of the Guts”. Precise diagnosis with such vague terms is difficult, but it is believed that dysentery was as serious as malaria. Typhoid fever and even lead poisoning could have also caused intestinal pain. People weakened by malaria would also be more susceptible to communicable diseases such as influenza. Indeed, there are two periods of exceptionally high mortality in Maryland (1675-1677 and 1698-1699) vaguely described as “Infectious Times”; medical historians suggest that these were flu outbreaks. Smallpox arrived in the Chesapeake in the later 1600s but it seems to have had limited impact. Unlike places like Boston that featured close human contact and experienced repeated smallpox outbreaks, the dispersed settlement pattern in Maryland probably reduced its spread. Other documented causes of death are accidents, warfare, drowning, murder, death in childbirth, and suicide. Given the richness of the natural environment and effectiveness of food production, malnutrition or even starvation were not significant mortality factors in early Maryland, unlike early Virginia.

Archaeology adds important insights to this subject. None of the diseases discussed above leave any evidence on the human skeleton. However, Smithsonian forensic anthropologists have identified broken bones, healed fractures, head trauma, abscesses, bone infections and evidence of both arthritis and osteoporosis on skeletons excavated from St. Mary’s City. Skeletal analysis also found that most individuals engaged in hard physical labor during their lives, as evidenced by highly developed muscle markings on the bones, something to be expected in a tobacco economy that was totally reliant upon human labor.

Analysis of the remains of the 17th-century residents of Maryland continues, and one of the most affecting findings of all the skeletal research regards dentition. Examination of the teeth of the 17th-century settlers shows they had an almost total lack of dental care, aside from pulling a decayed tooth. Cavities on some individuals are massive and almost painful to look at. Perhaps the most egregious examples come from two of the highest status women in Maryland. One is Anne Wolesley Calvert, the first wife of Chancellor Philip Calvert. Anne was in her 60s at the time of death and she had lost 20 of her teeth and several of the remaining teeth were worn down to the roots. The other was Lady Anne Copley, the wife of Maryland’s first Royal Governor. Although only 32 years old, Anne had already lost 8 teeth and four of the remaining had active decay. Wealth did not give protection from such decay and may have even enhanced it by giving greater access to sugar. But even indentured servants suffered from this problem. Perhaps the best example is a 17 year old male found by Al Luckenbach in Anne Arundel County. He was probably murdered. This young man had huge cavities in a number of his teeth and must have been in great pain. The only pain killer available was alcohol, to which he probably had limited access as a servant. Medicine has made extraordinary advances in the past four centuries. Dentistry is a field that is often overlooked, but in terms of health and well-being, its progress is equally remarkable. One of the principal contributions of archaeology is the ability to better understand the lives of past people in a direct way. At the same time, by revealing these long-forgotten people, archaeology gives the 21st-century a valuable perspective to more fully evaluate and appreciate the tremendous progress that has been achieved in health and medicine.

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