Michigan Settlers vs. Malaria, or How the Midwest Was Won

An exceptionally wet and rainy May means that it's been a brutal mosquito season this summer in Michigan.  But take heart: The condition is nowhere near as serious as it was in pioneer days.  If you lived back then, you would know what a real mosquito blight was.  Mosquitoes then spread a disease that we no longer associate with our region: malaria.

Early Michigan had an epidemic of malaria because there was far more standing water than today.  Thousands of square miles of wetlands were subsequently drained to drastically reduce the amount of mosquito habitat in the state.  But before that happened, the disease swept the state.  Willis F. Dunbar in "Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State," writes that the disease "was so prevalent that it was rather unusual to escape it."  Ruth Hoppin, who grew up in a pioneer family in St. Joseph County near Three Rivers, recalled that "the pale, sallow, bloated faces of that period were the rule; there were no healthy faces except of persons just arrived."  A. D. P. Van Buren, whose family came to Calhoun County near Battle Creek in 1836, noted that the first question asked of new settlers was whether or not they had contracted malaria yet, and "if answered in the negative, the reply would be, `Well, you will have it; everybody has it before they've been here long.'"   

The settlers' common word for malaria was ague (pronounced "ag-yew"), which derived from the Latin word acuta, as in febris acuta,  or "sharp fever."  Authors Madge E. Pickard and R. Carlyle Buley, in "The Midwest Pioneer: His Ills, Cures & Doctors," trace the malarial cycle from initial symptoms of lethargy through teeth-chattering chills that made the victim feel like "a harp with a thousand strings."  After a period of shaking like "a miniature earthquake," warmth followed that soon soared to "raging heat," racking headaches, and "copious sweating" until the fever broke.  They quote one settler who compared the torment to being pulled through a "thrashing machine."  The agony did not quite drive him to attempt suicide, but in its throes he yearned for "some accident" to happen that would "knock either the malady or [himself] out of existence."
Van Buren's brother experienced paroxysms of such ferocity that he "shook so that the dishes rattled on the shelves against the log wall."  Ruth Hoppin recalled that "my father shook with the ague every day for eighteen months."  The disease laid siege once to her entire family:  "There were ten all down at once, my mother the only one able to administer the cup of cold water and care for the sick."  Farmwork ground to a halt:  "Animals suffered for food."

The prevalence of malaria was long an obstruction to large-scale settlement of Michigan.  One rhyme of the times confirmed the pervasiveness of the disease in Michigan:  "And on every day there, as sure as day would break / Their neighbor `ager' came that way, inviting them to shake."  Another was popular in the east: "Don't go to Michigan, that land of ills / The word means ague, fever, and chills."

With each new ditch and drain, Michigan became more hospitable to habitation.  Van Buren cited a reason for these diggings:  "It has been claimed by some authorities that the mosquitoes were created as pests, and sent here for the purpose of compelling the settler to drain and improve the swamps, lowlands and marshes."

With fewer mosquitoes to transmit malaria, the disease eventually died out.  The process of land modification radically altered what Mother Nature first gave us, but it made Michigan a more healthful place and enabled later generations to avoid the anguish of "ague" that vexed 19th-century residents. 

Today mosquitoes still pose a health threat.  They are carriers of eastern equine encephalitis, which causes occasional human fatalities in Michigan, and of West Nile virus, a current concern still limited to northeastern states.

But at least we no longer have to worry about Michigan malaria.  We should thank our forebears who drained the swamps.  They were guided by the foundational principle that makes civilization possible—adapting land so as to produce human benefit—and which remains an essential principle for sound public policy today. 


(Daniel Hager of Lansing is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)

A wet and rainy spring has translated into another Michigan summer full of swarming mosquitoes. But current residents have it much better than their 19th-century forebears did. Early generations of Michiganians suffered terribly from widespread outbreaks of malaria, until thousands of square miles of wetlands were drained to drastically reduce the habitat of the disease-carrying mosquitoes.

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