Posts Tagged ‘yellow fever’

As my last post demonstrated, historical population statistics can offer a rich source for historical analysis. The outbreaks of yellow fever south of Fulton Street forced drastic migration patterns and arguably aided in the development of Greenwich Village from a pastoral paradise to an urban hub. If the information were available, I think it would be fascinating to track and aggregate data on contractions of yellow fever, deaths, and migration patterns from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Fortunately, geographical information systems (GIS) help us to collect, analyze, and then interpret this sort of data. It has been described as  the merging of cartography, statistical analysis, and computer science, and GIS allows users to search and analyze spatial information, edit data, and present the results of all these operations on maps.

Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 9.33.56 PMThe Center for Population Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business has created a historical GIS data set for analyzing the urban health statistics of seven major US cities from 1830 through 1930. These cities include: Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Brooklyn and Manhattan, Cincinnati, and Boston.  The Historical Urban Ecological (HUE) data set includes ward boundary changes, street networks, and ward-level data on disease, mortality, and crime. As their website describes, “These materials constitute a framework on which users can build additional spatial data and conduct a wide range of historical inquiries.”

An example of GIS mapping

An example of GIS mapping

Unfortunately, HUE data set does not span back to the times of the early yellow fever outbreaks that I wrote about previously (circa 1790-1830). It does, however, have statistics on deaths from yellow fever starting in the 1860s. For a researcher (like me) interested in Greenwich Village history, he or she could choose “Manhattan” as their city, and select a number of different data categories; for example, “crime” or “disease,” along with another search value. I chose “yellow fever” These search criteria only bring up 13 results.

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I then selected to look at all the deaths from yellow fever in the year 1868:

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When I downloaded the results, the folder contained a text file with the sources used to collect this information and an excel sheet with the number of deaths per ward in 1868.

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Astoundingly, it appears that only one death from yellow fever is reported from that year. Considering the havoc that yellow fever caused only forty years ago, I can use this information to conclude that the main culprits of the disease (the poor water supply) had been mostly rectified by this time. Behold, the power of geographical information!

While the HUE data set gives you the aggregate data to create informative maps for free, to get the full experience users will need to use software such as ArcGIS (which comes at a cost) to display the data on maps. However, people can also use free, open-source platforms like Quantum GIS to map and analyze the data. To a more expert researcher, the results can be visually powerful. Here is an example that the Center for Population Economics Provides:

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The website claims that their HUE data set has already been used in the following ways:

“Researchers have mapped early public transportation networks, the construction of modern sanitation systems block by block, characteristics of the built environment from fire insurance maps, and locations of business, industry, schooling, and social services from city directories. Researchers have also employed census aggregations and historical weather reports at both the city and county levels.”

Historical application of GIS is a fairly new, but extremely powerful  tool for analysis. I’m excited (albeit — as a GIS novice — a bit confused at times) at the research possibilities of this new tool. The Center for Population Economics has a PDF tutorial for the HUE data set, and I highly encourage researchers at all levels to see what they can uncover.


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There are many surprising ways in which issues with the water supply have altered the path of New York City’s history. As the population exploded during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the water supply and its quality shaped the growth of urban development. Poor water supply systems created a constant threat of water-born diseases for early Manhattanites — in particular, yellow fever.  While Lower Manhattan (specifically Wall Street) has been America’s center of finance for over two centuries, for brief periods in the nineteenth century Greenwich Village housed bankers and businessmen (as well as many other New Yorkers) seeking to escape periodically vicious outbreaks of yellow fever.


Aaron Burr, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

After a particularly deadly outbreak of yellow fever in 1798, Aaron Burr along with his associates petitioned to create a private company that would supply the city with water from fresher and “safer” sources. The Manhattan Company was thereby created. However, it was actually Burr’s intention to use the company as a front in order to establish a bank — an immensely complicated undertaking in that era. A brief annotation to the Manhattan Company’s charter allowed for excess stock to be used “in the purchase of public stock or in any other monied transactions or operations not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Unfortunately, since the company’s main goal was to establish a bank, The Manhattan Company was slow and inept at creating a systematic and safe water supply for the city, and the outbreaks of yellow fever persisted.

The Bank of New York — the oldest bank in the United States and founded by Alexander Hamilton — started a trend of banks moving temporarily northward to escape yellow fever, galvanized by a clerk at the bank’s Wall Street headquarters contracting the disease during the 1798 outbreak. Subsequent epidemics in 1803, 1805, and 1822 pushed other banks, such as Bank of the Manhattan Company and Phenix Bank, to the same block of land inhabited by the temporary sanctuary of the Bank of New York. This cluster of businesses resulted in the naming of the strip “Bank Street,” which is still present today in the West Village.


The Bank of New York, watercolor by John William Hill, The Phelps Stokes Collection, New York Public Library

1822 marked the last great yellow fever outbreak in lower Manhattan. One 1823 report of the epidemic by Dr. Peter S. Townsend recalled “the timely and almost total abandonment of all that part of the city south of Fulton-street…”  One citizen described how “[f]rom daybreak till night, one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandize and effects, were seen moving towards Greenwich Village and the upper parts of the city.” However, business was soon as bustling as before in their temporary Greenwich Village retreat:

Within a few days thereafter, the Custom House, the Post Office, the Banks, the Insurance Offices, and the printers of Newspapers located themselves in the village… where they were free from the impending danger, and these places almost instantaneously became the seat of the immense business usually carried on, in this great metropolis.


Excerpt from James Hardie’s “An account of the yellow fever, which occurred in the city of New-York, in the year 1822”

The rustic appeal of Greenwich Village would not last much longer. By 1837, construction of the Croton Aqueduct would begin: soon the city would have an abundant and clean water supply and the yellow fever outbreaks would subside. Greenwich Village would thereafter become home to factories and tenements — a far cry from its bucolic beginnings. However, before this development, the village provided sanctuary to the citizens of lower Manhattan, and allowed New York bankers to continue business as usual.

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