In 1832 in New York City, 100 people died of cholera. Of those 100, 98 were buried in a potter's field, a graveyard for the indigent. It was not at all difficult for some more wealthy and less stricken to believe cholera was carried from sinner to sinner in the very hand of God because it so frequently seemed to afflict only those the upstanding regarded as the dregs of society.
It took a little known scientist in England, a man named John Snow, to come up with the proposition that cholera, that scourge of nations, wasn't created by God's punishment, but instead a water-born disease that struck those who lacked good sanitation or didn't practice it. His discovery didn't occur until 1854, so no one aboard the St. Ange, on June 19, 1851, just a bit south of here, had any notion of a clear relationship between cholera and bad drinking water.
The language people still use to describe what happened aboard the St. Ange--and many other places in the early to mid-19th century--goes like this: "cholera broke out," almost as if it had a life of its own. It does. What the passengers aboard the St. Ange knew was that the storm of awful symptoms appearing suddenly meant cholera.
When it kills, cholera does so with astonishing quickness. From the moment symptoms appeared on board--excessive diarrhea and vomiting--until the sunken eyes in a blueish face close forever was sometimes simply a matter of hours. You knew you had it once it manifest itself. Some lived, some died, some were seemingly unaffected.
But to speak of cholera that way diminishes its deadliness. Where it attacked, many--thousands--died and died quickly. Suddenly there were innumerable deaths all around. Once it was clear that the contagion of cholera was aboard the St. Ange, the steamer pulled over at the mouth of the Little Sioux River.
If any aboard the ship held to the theory of God's punishment on the wicked, they must have been shocked at its victims on board because they included two Roman Catholic priests of eminent stature, Belgian born but trained and dedicated to mission work among Native people. Both had notable records of selflessness, but only one would do more.
Father Pierre-Jean De Smet left footprints--both figuratively and literally--throughout the West. Missionaries like De Smet were, once upon a time, spiritual heroes. Today, what they did is not so highly esteemed, in part because while they sought to bring the gospel, they also worked in conjunction with Washington to make Indians not Indian.
Aboard the St. Ange, Suddenly, Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet, was stricken so fiercely he determined he would die. His face had grown sunken and gray, even blue. His body was emptying all its fluids, his strength was gone. With what little he had left, he called on his friend and colleague, Father Christian Hoecken, to administer last rites, extreme unction.
More tomorrow. . .