The smallpox epidemic of 1765-66

It’s been almost six weeks now since I have been in a gathering of more than two people simultaneously. My wife and I go out on errands to the grocery store and the liquor store, to mail a letter, drop off recycling or take walks, but we no longer go into the store (curbside pickup or home delivery) and if we pass anyone on our walks, the event only lasts 5 seconds and we make sure that we have at least 10 feet between us and those walking in the opposite direction. It’s not quite like being marooned on a desert island, but it’s not something I ever imagined that I would experience in my lifetime.

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered our reality for the foreseeable future and occurred with such rapidity that it’s truly astonishing.  As many of us are doing, I’ve been looking back at other epidemics in the nation’s past, trying to get a perspective on what’s happening to us. Most of the contagion outbreaks in the past 100 years have quickly become international events that have affected millions of people.

However, in the days before international travel became commonplace, infectious diseases were often contained within a more localized area, sometimes as small as one community. The disease would circulate in the community and ill citizens would be isolated until they either recovered or died. When the last person still alive with the virus finally succumbed, the community would be rid of the disease, at least temporarily.

Smallpox was one viral disease that haunted the early days of the United States in this way. The disease was constantly reintroduced into the population of New England when ships arrived from trans-Atlantic crossings with infected people. One such outbreak occurred on Cape Cod in Chatham, Massachusetts in 1765-66. This smallpox event had a profound effect on the ancestors in my wife, Tripp Ryder’s, family.

Tripp’s 6th great-grandfather, John Rider (4), was born in Yarmouth, Massachusetts in 1692 and married Mehitable Crowell in 1713. He was the fourth John Rider in a lineage that eventually contained seven John Riders. John and Mehitable were the parents of nine children, the first of whom, John Rider (5) was born in 1714. We don’t know much about their lives in Yarmouth, but at some point, they moved to Chatham, just east of Yarmouth. They had a farm on land formerly owned by a prominent early settler named William Nickerson, Sr.

In 1765, a smallpox outbreak occurred in Chatham that lasted for several months. Thirty seven people in the community died from the disease, but an unusually high percentage of the dead were members of John and Mehitable’s family. John and Mehitable both died, as did their sons Zenas, Steven and Simeon, and daughter Bethiah. Zenas’s wife, Elizabeth died and so did Steven’s wife. Mercy, and nine of their children. Seventeen members from three generations of the John Rider (4) extended family died within a matter of months of one another during the small pox epidemic of 1765-66.

Tripp and I visited Cape Cod in the late summer of 2017 and spent an afternoon in the graveyards of Chatham. It took some time to find Nickerson Cemetery where John Rider (4) and two of his children are buried. It’s a tiny plot of land (about 20 yards long on a side) and it’s bounded on three sides by other properties and on the fourth side by a grove of trees. The only way in is at the end of dead end street. Our GPS was completely useless! There are only four marked graves in the cemetery, although we think others are buried there in unmarked graves.

Mehitable is buried in a different place, Old North & Old South Cemetery. We believe that happened because she outlived John by two months and because she is buried in the same cemetery as her parents and other members of the Crowell family.

Nickerson Cemetery, Chatham Massachusetts

The headstones are difficult to read, but I found a journal published in the early 20th century that preserves the text word for word. “The Mayflower Descendant” Vol. 19 No. 2 (April, 1917), p. 49, reads as follows:

(On Hill West of Ryder’s Cove, Near Residence of Charles J. Jager)

Rider, John, died with the smallpox, 10 January 1766, in his 76th year.

Rider, Zenas, died with the smallpox in his 41st year.

Rider, Bethiah. “Sister to ye above named”, died “at the same time”, in her 39th year. [on stone with Zenas]

Rider, Elizabeth, wife of Zenas, died with the smallpox, in January, 1766, in her 39th year.

Tripp and I are taking the COVID-19 outbreak very seriously. We hope that you are also and that you are well. Please practice appropriate physical distancing and wear a face mask when out in public. Don’t forget to WASH YOUR HANDS and DON’T TOUCH YOUR FACE!

4 thoughts on “The smallpox epidemic of 1765-66

  1. While spending a LOT of unplanned time at home, I have been researching family trees. Just today, I was working on the Ryder/Rider family, and decided to read up on the smallpox epidemic that I discovered. Imagine my surprise to find your blog, and not only read about the ancestors, but discover another cousin! John and Mehitable were my 7th great-grandparents. Their great-great-granddaughter Betsy married John Henry Van Houten, my great great grandfather.
    I’m glad you mentioned the plethora of John Riders out there, because it’s starting to drive me crazy. Unfortunately it looks like I’m going to have even more time this winter to work on family trees. My best wishes for good health to you and your wife, and thank you for this most interesting article.
    Warm best wishes,
    Sherrie Van Houten
    Bay City, Michigan

    1. Hi Sherrie!
      Thanks for finding my blog and sharing your own search for family roots. I spent some time trying to locate your great-great grandmother Betsey/Betsy Ann Van Houten in the Ryder/Rider branch of my tree and couldn’t find her. However, I found another Van Houten family tree that shows Betsey Ann Rider Van Houten in a different Rider line. Her father’s name was indeed Stephen, but not the Steven Jarvis Ryder in my wife’s line. The Stephen Rider in the Dawes/Van Houten tree (1805-1880) died in Michigan so that fits, but his father’s name was Nathan, not John.

      You may have found this information by now, but thought I’d pass it along in case you haven’t. I hope this note finds you well.


    2. well, hello cousins. One of my sets of 6th great grand parents where John and Mehitable. Like you i discovered this blog research the small pox epidemic that killed so many Chatham residents. I’ve been researching my family for ages and this past year have focused on documenting all of the lines that i can.
      Ron Gove

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