Cholera, the Invisible Enemy, Invades Southeastern Michigan and Monroe


The list of people visiting the old Frenchtown and the newly named village of Monroe through their formative years included President James Monroe, Governor Lewis Cass, and Father Gabriel Richard. Deacon Jonathan Stevens and his wife Lucy Berry Stevens arrived in Monroe in the spring of 1834 to join his son, Jonathan Worthy Stevens who moved to Monroe County from Cuyahoga County, Ohio. They came to Monroe to stay and so did another unwelcome guest – cholera.

From 1789 through the 1820s, Father Richard of St. Anne’s Parish in Detroit often made the trip from Detroit to Monroe to monitor the trustees and property of St. Antoine’s Parish. He saw the church and parish through the War of 1812, a transition from a majority of French speaking parishioners to a majority of English speaking parishioners, and building a new church. After the War of 1812, new lands opened in Michigan Territory and a steady stream of English settlers came to join the old French inhabitants alongside the River Raisin. Along with Father Richard, they made a significant impact on St. Antoine Parish.[1]


Father Richard’s visits to Monroe ceased in September 1832. A letter that Father Francis Vincent Badin, from Detroit wrote to Bishop Edward Fenwick in Cincinnati explained the reason. Father Gabriel Richard had died of cholera at 3:10 a.m. the morning of September 13, 1832,, after returning from a mission to help cholera victims in Detroit in a weakened condition. Cholera had made devastating inroads in the Detroit population, killing at least 96 people, as well as Father Richard.[2]

Cholera’s 1832 Visit

In June 1832 officials in the Western District of Upper Canada and Detroit acted immediately when they received the news that a cholera epidemic hovered over the Detroit River region, ready to strike. On June 25,1832, the Detroit Board of Health issued guidelines to prevent and cure cholera, including a list of medicines and dosage amounts for adults and children. Detroit’s Mayor Levi Cook added regulations restricting boat and ship traffic in the Detroit River and forbidding ships from any other port to come closer than 100 yards to Detroit shores. Ship passengers couldn’t land until they had passed a health officer inspection, and ship, boat and foot travelers were forbidden to cross from the Canadian shore to Detroit.

A day later, magistrates in the Western District of Canada issued their own regulations ordering citizens to clean and whitewash their homes and privies and add lime to the whitewash when they cleaned the privies. They were instructed to clean their yards and fill or drain standing pools and cut ditches which would allow the Detroit River to flow into low laying land and marshes. Inns and taverns closed at 8:00 p.m. because popular wisdom had it that indulging in alcoholic drinks helped spread cholera.

By June 27 and June 28, 1832, Canadian magistrates had appointed boards of health and ordered hospitals opened on Bois Blanc Island and in the Western District Grammar School in Sandwich. They created the position of apothecary and chemist, a person charged with the responsibility of preparing medicines for the district. The Justices of the Charter Sessions followed Detroit’s lead and prohibited anyone from crossing the Detroit River from Detroit to Canada. Later, the Canadian Government empowered the magistrates to bar anyone suspected of having cholera to enter the area.[3]

Throughout the months of July and August 1832, officials and residents in the settlements in Southeastern Michigan, including Monroe did what they could to protect themselves from cholera, including building fences, stopping visitors, inspecting passengers in coaches, posting armed sentries on roads leading to and from their communities, and throwing strangers out of inns and out of towns. By August 15, 1832, 96 people had died in Detroit. Father Gabriel Richard, who showed the first signs of illness on 8 September, died on September 13, 1832 of cholera. By October 11, 1832, the worst of the cholera epidemic had ended for that cholera season, but the next one would come with the summer and last until the cooler temperatures of autumn.

The Cholera Experience

In his 2008 article, “The Black Cholera Comes to the Central Valley of America in the Nineteenth Century – 1832, 1849, and Later,” Dr. Walter J. Daly says that the cholera experience shouldn’t necessarily be considered as separate epidemics such as 1832,1849, 1866, and late 1870s, but instead as an epidemic without distinct boundaries of time or place, but with distinctive causes and effects. He wrote that the medical community had learned nothing about preventing or treating cholera between the 1832 and 1849 episodes, and that the only real differences were that by 1849 populations were larger, and transportation more rapid and less dependent on water routes. Modern people- moving improvements made moving and spreading easy for cholera too.

Modern science can identify the origins of diseases and suggest ways to counteract if not entirely cure them. Nineteenth Century physicians and local, state, and federal authorities didn’t always understand cholera’s causes or contagious capabilities. Some people blamed cholera on unpleasant smells or vapors and filthy living conditions. By extension, they could fasten the label “filthy living conditions” on groups they considered undesirable and inferior like the poor, black people, or immigrants. Others blamed cholera on sinful behavior and the wrath of a vengeful God.[4]

In this age of microbes, it’s hard to imagine the panic sweeping through a small village like the Monroe of 1834 when an unseen enemy like cholera visited friends and family, snatched some of them away to the burial ground and freed others to live their full lives. It’s easy to understand why survivors would blame the many deaths on the will of God or living conditions or people they considered undesirable.

Living conditions in Nineteenth Century Monroe and Michigan and the rest of the country as well, encouraged and welcomed a cholera visit. People practiced hit- or- miss sanitation. They dipped or pumped drinking water from shallow wells, rivers, or lakes, and water sellers peddled water from wells or rivers. Householders deposited sewage in their streams or in cesspools which often they allowed to overflow or seep into the water table. People and municipalities established water supplies and sewage facilities for convenience and they often stood so close together that drinking water had the odor and taste of sewage.

Treatment of cholera in the Nineteenth Century often created more problems than the disease itself. Doctors bled their patients, purged them, and dosed them with opium. They prescribed astringents like lead acetate, and others used oral salt solutions. Doctors had no standard, objective guidelines for cholera diagnosis. They considered cholera a severe and often fatal disease and mistook milder diarrheas to be symptoms of other diseases. According to Dr. Daly, this mistake in recognition and diagnosis led to the disease spreading more widely and confusion about its treatment.[5]

Cholera- Understanding the Visiting Enemy


 A few decades after the 1834 cholera outbreak in Detroit and Monroe, Nineteenth Century scientists Filippo Pacini and Robert Koch examined and isolated the cholera bacterium called Vibrio cholerae that causes the infection. Vibrio cholerea produces a powerful toxin in the small intestine that binds to the intestinal walls and interferes with the normal flow of sodium and chloride. This causes the body to secrete enormous amounts of water, producing diarrhea and a rapid loss of fluids and salts – electrolytes.  If the loss of fluids isn’t reversed, the person can die.

Cholerae bacteria live either in the environment or in humans. The bacteria occur naturally in coastal waters where they attach to tiny crustaceans called copepods, and they travel around the world with copepods as they follow their food source certain kinds of algae and plankton. The algae and plankton grow explosively when water temperatures rise and they also expand their population when urea in sewage and agricultural runoff contaminate the water.

When a person drinks cholera contaminated water or eats cholera contaminated food, he or she may not become ill themselves, but can pass along the bacteria in their stools. When human waste contaminates food or water supplies, both act as Petri Dishes for cholera bacteria. It takes more than a million cholera bacteria, about the amount found in a glass to contaminated water, to produce cholera in a person, so cholera usually isn’t spread through person-to-person contact. The most common sources of cholera infection are standing water and certain types of food, including seafood, raw fruits and vegetables, and grains. Symptoms of cholera infection include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and dehydration.[6]

Anguished Nineteenth Century people watched loved ones painfully die from cholera while being terrified of contracting the disease themselves.

A Lengthy and Tragic Cholera Continuation – 1834

The return of cholera to Detroit in August and September 1834 graphically illustrated its ability to quickly spread and kill. In the spring of 1834, Detroit’s population numbered 3,500. Cholera’s return in August caused the population to decrease by 700 by the end of September.  Doctors were authorized to dispense medicine and priests distributed medicine to their poorer parishioners. Poor people received their medicine for free, but other people had to buy it.

Business virtually suspended operations, grass grew in the streets, and flaming tar barrels were scattered throughout the city because people thought burning tar would disinfect the air. The custom of the time called for the ringing of church bells when someone died, but officials suspended the custom because frequent church bell ringing led to panic throughout the city. The 1834 epidemic was not the last for Detroit. Cholera returned several more times from 1849-1865.[7]

Cholera Terrorizes Monroe- 1834

Cholera affected small towns and villages, especially in the Midwest, more than cities because although relative population losses were similar the panic and flight were more destructive. Cold yearly statistics don’t reflect the terror in towns like Monroe. Cholera deaths occurred in a few days or weeks magnifying the effect. In some cases the yearly death rate exceeded the local population.  Some doctors, newspapers, and historians reported the blunt cholera facts, while others didn’t. In his biography of Dr. Robert G. Clarke of Monroe, John McClelland Bulkley wrote that Dr. Clarke was one of the first physicians to practice in the village and people respected him as a public-spirited citizen. Bulkley noted that the cholera outbreak of 1834 “caused some alarm in the settlement, and there were a few deaths which, with the fatalities of many cases in Detroit, did not allay the fears that an epidemic was to decimate the population.”

He added that the doctors checked the ravages of the disease and allayed people’s fears.[8]


Cholera and Memorial Place Cemetery


Photo Credit:  Lo Marie

Samuel Agnew donated the land for the first Memorial Place Cemetery, a quarter of an acre at the corner of West Front and South Monroe Streets. The cemetery was a Protestant Cemetery, but it had no name. Some of the first burials there included the remains of the men of the Kentucky Militia who died during the battles and massacre of the River Raisin in January 1813. Their mutilated bodies had lain on the battlefield for more than six months before concerned citizens gathered them up and buried them in the cemetery. Their remains were later exhumed and taken to Detroit and then sent to Kentucky. The cemetery was then abandoned. Cemetery and cemetery historian Lo Marie wrote that there are no burials in it.[9]

Samuel Agnew along with Daniel Mulhollen again donated a plot of land, this time for the second burial cemetery after the first one was abandoned. This cemetery is known as Memorial Place Cemetery, and it is located six blocks south of the first cemetery. Most of the burials in this second cemetery are many women and small children who died in the cholera epidemic of the 1830s, particularly 1834. The city didn’t maintain the cemetery and the last known burials were before the mid-1850s. Citizens agitated for the removal of the overgrown, neglected eyesore and finally in 1902, a Monroe women’s group called the “Civic Improvement Society,” intervened. The Civic Improvement Society convinced the State of Michigan and the City of Monroe to place a monument honoring the Kentucky Militia soldiers who died in Monroe and  in 1904,the large granite monument was placed at the front of the Memorial Place Cemetery.

Over the years, people referred to the Cemetery as the Kentucky Soldiers Park Cemetery because of the monument honoring the Kentucky soldiers, but there are no known Kentucky soldiers buried in the Cemetery. The State of Michigan chose the spot to place the monument honoring the soldiers, because the other cemetery was abandoned and the city of Monroe built over it.

In a case of history unfortunately repeating itself, the city of Monroe and its citizens allowed the second cemetery to deteriorate. Some markers were found in 2004, and in 2013, another group searched for markers. The 56 memorials listed with markers on the cemetery site are the only ones known to have markers.[10]

Some Monroe Cholera Victims

August 14, 1834

The Monroe Journal of August 21, 1834, reported that Eliza Bayles, the infant daughter of Hiram B. Hopkins, Esq., aged 9 weeks and five days died of cholera on August 14, 1834. Buried in Memorial Place Cemetery, Monroe.

 August 15, 1834

Lyman Hart. Died at age 27 of cholera on August 15, 1834, Buried in Memorial Place Cemetery, Monroe.

August 17, 1834

Archange Godet dit Marentette Navarre. Daughter of Rene Godet dit Marentette and Catherine Campau. Married John Mary Alexis Navarre on January 22, 1787. Died of cholera and buried on August 17, 1834. She is buried in St. Antoine Cemetery.

August 28, 1834

Thomas Medbury, died of cholera age 60, August 28, 1834.Buried in Memorial Place Cemetery, Monroe.

August 29, 1834

Daniel Cornell.  Died of cholera August 29, 1834. Buried in Memorial Place Cemetery, Monroe.

August 30, 1834

Betsy Saunderson. Died of cholera on August 30, 1834 at age 13. Buried in Memorial Place Cemetery, Monroe.

September 1, 1834

Hiram B. Hopkins. Died of cholera on September 1, 1834 at 31 years old.  His daughter, Eliza died two weeks before him in August.  The Michigan Sentinel of September 6, 1834, reported that Hiram had been ill with a fever for some times when he was stricken with cholera and didn’t have enough strength to fight the disease.  He came to Monroe about 1830 from Lockport, New York. He was an enterprising merchant and prominent member of the Presbyterian Church of Monroe. The newspaper story said that “his loss will prove particularly afflicting to the surviving members of his family.” He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery, Monroe.

The Monroe Sentinel reported that from August 15, to September 2, 1834, 15 Monroe residents died from cholera.

September 2, 1834

Sylvanus Wright Curtis, September 2, 1834. Died of cholera. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 3, 1834

Foster. Died of cholera at age 26 on September 3, 1834. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 4, 1834

Harriet Muncer.  Died at age 18 , September 4, 1834 of cholera . She is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

Mrs. Saxton. Died of cholera on September 4, 1834 at age 40. She is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 7, 1834

I.Mation Gray. Died of cholera at age 25 on September 7, 1834. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 8, 1834

William Tunson, age 7.  Died September 8, 1834. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 9, 1834

William Miller.  Died of cholera, age 2.  September 9, 1834. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

Dominic Robert was born on October 28, 1810. He died on cholera and was buried in St. Antoine Cemetery on September 9, 1834.

September 10, 1834

Sylvia Bourdeau Bissonnet. She was born on November 26, 1774, the daughter of Joseph & Mary Louisa Bordeau. Died from cholera and buried on September 10, 1834 in St. Antoine Cemetery, Monroe.

September 11, 1834

Tameretta Bailey, age 22. Died of cholera on September 11, 1834. She is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

Mrs. Beach. Died of cholera on September 11, 1834. She is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 12, 1834

Martin Stoddard.  September 12, 1834. Died of cholera at age 16. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 13, 1834

Maria Luce. Died of cholera September 13, 1834. She is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 14, 1834

William Wilmot.  Died of cholera, September 14, 1834. Age 43. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

David Wilson.  Died of cholera, September 14, 1834.  Age 49. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 15, 1834

Cynthia Carrier.  Died of cholera at age 49 on September on September 15, 1834. She is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

 September 16, 1834

Amanda Patten. Died September 16, 1834 of cholera at age 36. She is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 19, 1834

Avery G. Spalding, died September 19, 1834 at age 24.  Probably cholera. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

Dominic Lacroix. Died of cholera and buried on September 19, 1834. He is buried in St. Antoine Cemetery, Monroe.

September 21, 1834

Thomas Collier.  Died of cholera at age 5 on September 21, 1834. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 25, 1834

John Lane. Died of cholera September 25, 1834. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 27, 1834

Charles Burch. Died of cholera on September 27, 1834. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 29, 1834

Amelia Hermitage. Died of cholera at age 7 on September 29, 1834. She is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

September 30, 1834

Seneca Allen. She died of cholera at age 45 on September 30, 1834.

 September, 1834

Child of L. E. Bailey. Died at age ten months of cholera.  September 1834. Buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

Walter Colton.  Died of cholera at age 61. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery

Lands Gidley. Died of cholera at age 24 in September 1834. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

Earl Saxton. Died of cholera at age 35. September, 1834. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

 October 1834

October 11, 1834

Matilda Navarre was born on April 14, 1815. She died of cholera in October 1834 and was buried in St. Antoine Cemetery on October 11, 1834.

Stephen A. Hopkins, son of Hiram and Phoebe. Age 11 months.  Died of cholera in October 1834. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

Gosfin Stuart.  Died of cholera at age 28 in October  1834. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.


George M. Darrah.  Died of cholera, 1835. He is buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

The Stevens Family, Church, and Cholera

The Monroe Journal of October 16, 1834 reported that Deacon Jonathan Stevens had died on October 13 in Monroe at age 75. He had come to Monroe with his wife Lucy in the spring of 1834 to join his son, Jonathan Worthy Stevens, who moved to Monroe County from Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

Born in Southwick, Massachusetts, Deacon Stevens was an early settler of Hamilton, Madison Co. New York where he spent most of his adult life. He was a Deacon in the Congregational Church and a “man of much force of character,” and also a blacksmith and a farmer.

Jonathan and his wife Lucy Berry Stevens had ten children together,  three sons and seven daughters. His wife Lucy had died on September 15, 1834. They both died of cholera and they are buried in Memorial Place Cemetery.

For several months in 1855, Jonathan Stevens their son, stepped in when the Trinity Episcopal Church in Monroe didn’t have a rector. He served as lay reader, sexton, and treasurer and built the fires, cleaned the building, paid the bills and read the service. At one point, the church owned him $1,000. The church was his home and he attended every service. As he grew too old and feeble to stand at the lectern, the church members gave him a chair and every Sunday he sat and recited the liturgy. He gave so much to Trinity that the congregation called him “Bishop Stevens.”

The Monroe Commercial of August 25, 1870, published his obituary, calling him “a kind husband, an affectionate father, a sincere and reliable friend; as such he was universally respected. But more than all this he was emphatically a Christian gentleman – a man of God. It may truly be said of him that he fulfilled his Master’s command – ‘Do ye unto all men, as ye would they should do unto you.'” He is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Monroe.


[1] French River Raisin settlers and the Catholic Archdiocese of Quebec, Canada founded Saint Antoine sur la Rivere-aux- Raisins, Saint Anthony on the River Raisin on October 15, 1788. The parish and new church were officially named St. Mary’s in 1845.

[2] Notre Dame University Archives

[3] “A Tribute to Jean Baptiste Dumouchel – Part 2”,  Diane Wolford Sheppard. Michigan’s Habitant Heritage, July 2007.

[4] “The Black Cholera Comes to the Central Valley of America in the 19th Century-1832-1849 and Later. Walter J. Daly, M.D. Transactions of the Clinical and Climatological Association, 2008.

[5]The Black Cholera Comes to the Central Valley of America in the 19th Century-1832-1849 and Later. Walter J. Daly, M.D. Transactions of the Clinical and Climatological Association, 2008.

[6] .Cholera, the Mayo Clinic

[7] Diane Wolford Sheppard. “The 1832 and 1834 Cholera Epidemics in the Detroit River Area.”

[8] History of Monroe County Michigan:  A Narrative Account of its Historical Progress, its People, and its Principal Interests. John McClelland Bulkley. Volume I. Chicago, New York:  Lewis Publishing Company, 1913.  P. 83.

[9] Find A Grave Memorial 

[10] Ibid.

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