Approaching the entrance to the Presbyterian Church, Hur could hear the faint moans of men echoing from within its walls. Peering through the doorway, he saw rows and rows of bodies: some moving, some not. It was May 1777 and another war was being fought within the village of Morristown, New Jersey: The deadly Smallpox epidemic.
The War of the Revolution had been raging for a year and following the Battle of Princeton, Col. George Washington marched his troops to Morris County, New Jersey. An area surrounded by swamps and mountains, Col. Washington surveyed the Morris County area, feeling certain it would be a good strategic base for his 2000 troops to winter. But the deadly killer, Smallpox, was unfazed by the protection of the landscape, leaving the soldiers with little defense.
As the 'fever' drifted from soldier to soldier, the victims began to outnumber the village's doctors and nurses and supplies for the sick diminished. Unprepared for such a devastating disease, the town leaders searched for alternate facilities to hold the sick and dying; converting many churches into hospitals.
Which was where Hur Osborne found himself standing, limp and exhausted, in the doorway of the Morristown Presbyterian Church on the 15th of May 1777.
Hur slowly scanned his eyes across the room filled with men seemingly stacked on top of the other. He pleaded for a doctor or nurse to come to his home, as his was also filled with disease. But there were none who could go. The doctors and nurses were already overburdened with the care of the sick soldiers; leaving few to help the villagers of Morristown.
Feeling conquered, Hur struggled to walk back toward his home, knowing he had little respite for his family. Approaching his house, he was frightened of what lurked behind the door and his fears became reality as he entered. Rebekkah, Hur's 15-year-old daughter had just passed. His wife, devastatingly weak from her own sickness, was swept away with grief but her demise would soon come, just three days after their daughter's death.
Hur Osborne and the villagers of Morris County, New Jersey experienced more death from disease during the year 1777 than most will know in a lifetime. Four days after Hur's wife died, an older daughter, my ancestor, also succumbed to the 'fever'. The enemy continued to seep through every village of Morris County; often crushing entire families within the same day. In all, 200 parishioners in the Presbyterian Church of Morristown, New Jersey died in 1777; just one church out of many, experiencing the same evil epidemic of Smallpox.
The story composed of my colonial ancestor's battle with the Revolutionary War Smallpox epidemic, was derived from published town histories and the 'Bill of Mortality' lists of the community churches. In colonial times, more than a century prior to mandated recording of vital records, the churches compiled and stored volumes of combined registries. Many are now in the collections of county libraries and historical societies; books rich with baptismal, marriage and mortality records. I found the 'Bill of Mortality' church registries of my ancestors on the Morris County Genweb site. Many of these church publications are now digitalized and searchable on Ancestry.com, Google Books and Archive.org.
During this week's celebration of the American Revolution, discover your colonial ancestor's records by searching their church registries and 'Bill of Mortality' publications.
The colonial churches; gatekeepers of the historical registries.
Keep searching for answers,
(Source: Thayer, Theodore, Colonial and Revolutionary Morris County; The Morris County Heritage Commission; 1975).