Reviving A Dutch Holiday with African Flavor

As spring moves toward summer, we are in the time of an historic celebration dating to New York’s colonial era known as Pinkster – the Dutch word for the religious holiday of Pentecost.

Pinkster was a three- to five-day celebration beginning the Monday following Pentecost Sunday held in Dutch Colonial New Netherland and later New York from the 17th century through the late 19th century.

This year, Pinkster began Sunday, May 31, and will run through Thursday. While revival of the Dutch version of Pinkster began in the Hudson Valley in the early 20th century, recently there has been a push to revive a unique expression of the holiday by enslaved Africans of that earlier time.

A ban by Albany city lawmakers enacted in 1811 against African Pinkster put an end to the tradition. But in 2011, this prohibition was symbolically lifted by the city after two centuries, opening the way for the celebration’s return to the Capital Region.

Past celebrations at Crailo State Historic Site and Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site have helped spread the word about this important historical event which documented early African cultural expression in our state.



Scenes from the 2019 Pinkster celebration at the Crailo State Historic Site and Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site.


Contemporary newspaper articles, a pamphlet of the ‘Pinkster Ode’ a poem detailing the celebration, and other documents about Pinkster celebrations describe African drumming, languages and other cultural expressions or Africanisms used to uplift spirits of the enslaved during a time of rest before the summer planting season. Pinkster also helped maintain cultural links between family and friends, even as they lived under the yoke of slavery.

To attend a Pinkster gathering, the enslaved often had to travel many miles to get to the appointed place. Walking, riding in a wagon or on a horse, by boat or any combination of these meant time and physical effort, when many were already tired from work.

There were enslaved who could not or chose not to attend these large gathering. Even when permission was granted, the travel requirements were often daunting. Despite all that, Pinkster was still celebrated, but in smaller groups or even perhaps alone.

The Dutch residents retained many of the old customs of their mother land, and no reminiscence of Holland was more earnestly kept in remembrance than Pinkster. This occasion by consent had been made a holiday time for the blacks, and they enjoyed it in a good, old fashioned measure of hilarity and carousing. The meadow in front of Col. Schuyler’s house, between it and the river, was the place usually selected for the celebration, and here they met and danced and frolicked with all the zeal they could… Occasionally they would go to Albany and aid their neighbors in drinking to Prince Charlie, but this was too often a hard day’s work and did not always pay for the trouble it cost in rowing down and back.”  — Troy Daily Times, 18 September 1874


A newspaper ad taken out by a slave owner offering a reward for an African man who had left to celebrate Pinkster and not returned.

In years past, the Pinkster celebrations brought people together to rejoice in spring and the opportunity to see family and friends again. Here at State Parks, our celebrations planned for 2020 have been cancelled as we live in the time of COVID-19 and social distancing.

However, like many of the enslaved we gathered to remember, celebrating African Pinkster does not have to stop because we aren’t able to gather in those ‘big’ places.

We can still celebrate Pinkster and we invite you to join us!


All photos by NYS Parks

Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, Bureau of Historic Sites, NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation


Resources To Host your own Happy Pinkster 2020 Celebration

Be a part of this spring gathering to honor those enslaved in New York, the African cultures they came from and the lives they lived here. Here are some of the ways:

ANCESTORS & LIBATIONS

Honoring the ancestors with libations opens African celebrations across the continent and throughout the diaspora. Pouring libations is the act of honoring the ancestors, those who have come before us by sharing water, one of nature’s greatest gifts. Prayers said or thoughts shared during the pouring of libations center around showing gratitude for what we have in our lives, honoring our ancestors or people important to us by calling their names, keeping the memory of them alive. Remembering the names and lives of loved ones in our own family and other’s lives is a great way to begin. In preparation, make a list of people you would like to honor, perhaps create a family tree to help you remember. How far back can you go over the week of Pinkster?

Libations can be poured on the ground, into a plant, or a few drops of water on your fingertips can be sprinkled on the floor. A simple glass or a special pitcher can be use. Create a ceremony of your very own and film it!

MUSIC – DRUMS PLEASE

African drums were played during Pinkster celebrations up and down the Hudson River Valley. Drums are voices calling to us, to the ancestors, and to the Divine. Drums bring joy, encouraging us to move our bodies to their rhythms freeing us of stress and everyday worries and concerns, as they did the enslaved. Other instruments were played too. Hands were clapped, pieces of metal were beat together to keep time or accent the drum’s rhythms. Voices were lifted in song. There are so many ways to produce music for your Pinkster 2020 celebration.

YouTube and Spotify are just two of the many places you can find African drum music. Create your own playlist or check out one of these amazing musicians!

Babatude Olatunji – a master drummer who was a great influence on many famous musicians, Including Carlos Santana and the Grateful Dead.

Fatala – Exhilarating traditional African music from Guinea-Bissau in West Africa.

Bolokada Conde—Experience the complex rhythms of the popular djembe drum.

DANCING

Where there’s music there is dancing! Moving our bodies to the rhythm or our own tune is a human activity we all can enjoy. Dancing takes many forms and there is often nothing better than taking a dance break to help you feel better. The enslaved in New York danced in both the African and European styles. Today, we can move in a more formal style or however we please. Take some of the music you found yesterday and get up and dance! Be sure to send a picture!

10 Traditional African Dances

Dance Africa 2020 – A virtual Celebration — The 42nd Anniversary of the oldest African Dance festival in New York.

GAMES

Games were a big part of the entertainment of Pinkster and life overall. Board games like Mancala and Nine-Men’s Morris, Draughts (checkers), other games like marbles, string games, cards, running games like tag, all the way to wrestling were just a few games children and adults enjoyed during Pinkster. Take a break and play a game today! Pull out your favorite board game, make your own Nine-Men’s Morris board and learn to play or go outside and jump rope, play tag or fly a kite. Inside or out, there are so many ways to play!

Nine Men’s Morris Board & Instructions

SPRING FLOWERS

Dressing up the Pinkster grounds with branches of flowering trees, and the official Pinkster bloom, a pale pink Azalea, were part of making things festive. Creating a place for your own Pinkster celebration can be simple and fun. Decorating with flowers immediately brightens up the space. Fresh flowers are great, so are those that are handmade. Coloring your own Pinkster blooms and hanging them up can do the trick as well.

Pinkster Bloom Coloring Pages

THE FEAST

The seasons of the year dictated what was available to eat during the colonial and New Nation periods in New York. Late May and early June offered very few garden or field crops for people to enjoy. Dried beans and grains, fresh dandelion greens, left over root vegetables from last year’s harvest, fresh eggs, fish, fowl, and small game filled cooking pots of the enslaved celebrating Pinkster.

Travel also restricted the amount of cooking equipment people could carry with them. Cooking in one or two pots, spit roasting, and baking or roasting in the fire’s ashes connected them to their African roots. Traditional Central and West African meals centered around a main dish (soup/stew), a side starch (pounded yam/rice), and fresh fruit for dessert. One pot soup or stew meals, a mixture of beans/meat/fish and vegetables or whatever is on hand, can be found in every culture in the world. For your feast cook up your favorite stew or try this delicious Vegetarian Peanut Soup adapted from several West African recipes.

Vegetarian Peanut Soup Recipe

The soups are often accompanied by a starch of some kind. For enslaved Africans in New York, many of whom came from the Kongo/Angola area, the traditional starch would have been a pounded yam dish called ‘foo-foo’ or rice. In New York many would make maize pudding or Johnny cake in its place. Native to the Americas, ‘maize’ was historically called ‘Indian Corn’ in cookbooks, but today we simply call it corn meal. Maize pudding or corn meal mush was popular with New York’s colonial Dutch, who called it Sapahn. Recipes for variations of this Native American dish can be found in cookbooks all over the world.

Maize Pudding

Create a Pinkster feast of your own and share your results with us! 

We look forward to joining you next year at a large gathering. Till then thank you for joining in our Pinkster 2020 Celebration!

LEARN MORE

New York is rich with a variety of information on those enslaved in New York and the African celebration of Pinkster. From the arrival of the first in 1625 until the end of slavery in 1827, Africans or people of African descent were a vital part of the development of our State and the region. Pinkster is just one of many ways to honor their memory, celebrate their lives, and rediscover the African cultures they were from.

Protect Our Waters: Don’t Pick Up Hitchhikers!

Now that summer is here, when you head to the boat launch for a day on the water, you will often run into a friendly face in a blue vest. These are Boat Stewards! Boat Stewards are educators who share their knowledge of invasive species and how to prevent boats from spreading such species into other waterbodies.

You can expect to run into stewards across much of New York State, since there are more than 200 Stewards who are part of various programs.  Here at the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, our Boat Steward program is run in collaboration with the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF).

Beginning the Memorial Day weekend, 20 Stewards are stationed at 25 different State Park boat launches. These experts can answer your questions about aquatic invasive species (AIS) within New York State, provide educational information on many species, and will help check that there are no aquatic hitchhikers on your boat or trailer!

Photo 5

A boat steward checks a boat the the Deans Cove boat launching station at Cayuga Lake State Park in the Finger Lakes Region.

All our stewards within the state will be wearing masks and social distancing for your protection and theirs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Please arrive with your boats and equipment already clean, drained, and dried and be willing to help our stewards conduct inspections while maintaining social distance. Please follow the protocols for social distancing and wearing masks in public while at the launches.

When you arrive or leave a boat launch, a Steward will ask to perform a voluntary inspection on your watercraft and encourage you to join them. Remember, please practice social distancing, and stay six feet away from Stewards while they perform their duties.

Inspections apply to both power boats and paddlecraft, like canoes and kayaks.

While completing the inspection, Stewards are on a mission to find all visible plant or animal material attached to the watercraft and trailer and will point out places on the boat where aquatic invasive species often get caught. Stewards also gather information from boaters through a short survey to help understand the movement of AIS across the New York State.

At many locations across the state, Stewards operate Watercraft Decontamination Stations, also known as Boat Wash Stations. Decontamination stations are a free high-temperature, high-pressure wash for your boat.

Phpto 4

A boat steward at Conesus Lake State Boat Launch, Livington County, at the uses a high-pressure wash to remove invasive species from a boat.

Boat Wash Stations are highly effective at eradicating aquatic invasive species we might not be able to see with our naked eye, such as young Zebra Mussels or Spiny Waterfleas. The ESF-NYS OPRHP program operates two such units located at Allan Treman State Marine Park on Cayuga Lake and Conesus Lake State Boat Launch.



When stewards are not at the launch, they are busy collaborating with many partner organizations to partake in all levels of invasive species management. They participate in sampling for AIS, mapping new infestations, and large-scale removals of invasive species such as Water Chestnut.

Since the program’s inception in 2014, our boat stewards have conducted more than 100,000  inspections and interacted with more than 250,000 boaters. In 2019, stewards intercepted 3,803 boats that were carrying invasive species.

Each of these boats could have led to a new introduction that has potential to cause significant harm to ecological, economic, and human health.

Species that Stewards most commonly find in the regions covered by our program are Eurasian Watermilfoil, Curly Leaf Pondweed and Zebra Mussels.


Cover shot- Boat stewards at the start of the 2019 season. (All photographs from NYS Parks and reflect 2019 boating season)

Post by Mallory Broda, Program Coordinator (Program Support Specialist), ESF- NYS OPRHP Boat Steward Program


Help Do Your Part to Protect Our Waterways

*     Clean, drain, and dry your watercraft and equipment thoroughly before visiting other waterbodies.

*      Inspect and remove debris and mud from boats, trailers, and equipment before and after each use.

*      Dispose of all debris and bait in trash cans or above the waterline on dry land.

*      Drain all water-holding compartments including live wells, bait wells, and bilge areas. If possible, disinfect with hot water (140°F) for at least 30 seconds.

*      Dry boats, trailers, and all equipment before use in another water body. A minimum of 5-7 days in dry, warm conditions is recommended.

*      Do not dispose of unwanted aquarium pets or bait fish in waterbodies, ditches, or canals.

#IProtectNYWaters

Welcoming Women Who Welcome Winter

Growing up in Western New York, I always looked forward to my family’s annual fall trip to Allegany State Park. Late every October we would pack a picnic lunch, put the dogs in the car, and head down to Allegany for a day of leaf peeping, hiking, rock climbing, and wilderness peace.

Some years it was sunny and 65 degrees, while others were a rain/snow mix in the 40s. Whatever the weather, it was always fun, always an adventure, and always absolutely beautiful.

Almost 15 years later, when I took the job as Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) Coordinator for New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, one of my goals was to help New Yorkers learn to love our long winters. That is when I knew exactly where I wanted to host a new annual winter workshop.

BOW workshops are designed to teach women a variety of outdoor skills over a three-day weekend. These programs provide information, encouragement, and hands-on instruction in outdoor activities including fishing, shooting, archery, hunting, trapping, outdoor photography, map and compass, survival, camping, canoeing, and outdoor cooking.

These workshops are designed primarily for women who have little or no experience with outdoor recreation.

For 26 years, BOW programs have offered women a unique learning experience, putting everyone on an even playing field to learn new skills from a dedicated group of qualified volunteer instructors.

Since then, close to 4,500 women from all over the state, aged 18-80+ have attended BOW workshops in New York, have embraced outdoor activities, met like-minded women, and challenged themselves. Participants leave our workshops feeling empowered, accomplished, and often with a new group of lifelong friends to join in outdoor adventures.

The first annual ‘BOW in the SNOW Winter Workshop’, was held February 7-9, 2020 at Allegany State Park.  The workshop was a success, hosting 55 participants from 23 counties in New York State, as well as three other states.

Participants ranged in age from 18 to 69 years old. Over the course of three days, these women learned a variety of outdoor skills including snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, fat tire biking, trapping, firearms safety, Dutch oven cooking, winter camping & survival, K-9 first aid, tree stand safety, ice fishing, and much more!

Allegany State Park was an ideal and beautiful location that delivered on snow just in time. Leading up to the workshop weekend, the normally snowy Southern Tier had seen little accumulation, and even less ice-up on its lakes.  While I was getting a bit nervous, I had faith that the lake effect storms of Lake Erie would come through.

Sure enough, the week of the workshop, all of New York experienced an intense winter storm that delivered the perfect amount of snow for our weekend.  While we ended up seeing some participants drop out due to travel restrictions and safety concerns, we had many who braved the storm and made it just in time to enjoy the weekend in an idyllic setting.

The Art Roscoe Nordic ski trails, the snowshoe trail at Stone Tower, and the fat tire bike trails hosted our classes with near perfect conditions. Although we didn’t have enough solid ice for the ice fishing class to go out on Red House Lake, our instructors adapted and offered fishing instruction on land followed by a delicious tutorial on cleaning and frying our winter catch! 

BOW offers a three-day workshop every fall and now a three-day workshop every winter. If you’re interested in joining us or learning more about BOW, please visit dec.ny.gov and search ‘becoming an outdoors woman’ to find out about all of our upcoming events. 

(Editors note: Check back on the DEC page for future updates as to scheduling.)


Post by Katrina Talbot, Wildlife Biologist & Becoming an Outdoors-Woman Coordinator


Interested in taking part in a future workshop? Here are just a few comments  from last winter’s workshop evaluations, underscoring the popularity and benefits of the program:

Working together with women in a group has been amazing. I learned to snowshoe and ski, and this weekend has made me so grateful.

This experience has taught me skills to allow me to enjoy winter in NY! I enjoyed sharing the weekend with strong, capable, empowered women!

This weekend was so much more to me than being curious and wanting to learn a new skill.  Although both of those were true (I learned to ice fish and obtained my trapping certificate, neither of which I had previous experience with), this was more of a personal goal. Every single person I met at BOW, including the instructors, were amazing, patient, kind, friendly, warm, knowledgeable, fun… just good people.  I commend the DEC for offering this program and from the bottom of my heart thank the volunteers and Katrina for her time, warm welcome, and dedication to this program.  The spirit and energy of the instructors was contagious. “


Front Line Nurse: A Tale of Sacrifice

As the Revolutionary War was drawing to an end, General George Washington wanted an award that recognized merit in the common soldier. So, he created the Badge of Military Merit _ the precursor to the Purple Heart _ while at his Newburgh headquarters in the Hudson Valley.

It was more than 150 years later when a New York resident and immigrant became the first woman to receive the Purple Heart for suffering wounds in wartime. And she was a nurse, a profession that has again finds itself at risk in the front lines during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

One night in August 1917 during World War I, a German aerial bomb exploded at a military field hospital in Belgium. It was about four miles behind trenches where hundreds of thousands of British, French, Belgian and German troops were fighting the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele.

Metal shrapnel ripped through a tent at Casualty Clearing Station #61, where 36-year-old U.S. Army nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald was rising from her cot to start her shift caring for wounded Allied soldiers. Jagged shards struck her face, damaging her right eye so badly that it later had to removed by doctors.


Beatrice Mary MacDonald in 1905 after completing her nurses’ training.

Although serving in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, MacDonald was a native of Canada, where she grew up in a large family on Prince Edward Island. She had come to New York to get her nursing training in 1905 and chose to live there afterward to pursue her career. When war came, she volunteered for the American war effort. She was part of a unit organized by Presbyterian Hospital, now part of New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Beatrice Mary MacDonald in her military uniform after recovering from her wounds.

After a six-week recovery from her injury, Macdonald returned to duty serving in military hospitals in France and Belgium. “I’ve only started doing my bit,” she said, according to material from her wartime scrapbook, which is now in the collection of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

In her scrapbook, the young nurse described her training to deal with one of the horrors of the battlefield _ poison gas. That included “. . . entering chambers containing a certain amount of Phosgene and other gasses, in order that we should be able to recognize them in case of an attack, and to become adept in adjusting our gas masks in less than ten seconds.”

She kept photographs of the tent where gas casualties were treated, including a shot of one area that was set aside for “hopeless cases.”


A gassed soldier being treated as the military field hospital where Nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald was stationed. (Photo Credit- Ann Fraser Brewer papers, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University)

The area at the military hospital set aside for the “hopeless cases” of gas attacks. (Photo Credit- Ann Fraser Brewer papers, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University)

After the war ended in 1918, MacDonald served with Allied forces in Germany until returning to the U.S. There, she resumed living in New York City to continue her profession, and later served as director of the Pennsylvania Hospital School of Nursing for 23 years until her retirement in 1956.

The war had been over for years when MacDonald received her Purple Heart in 1936, four years after the award has been reestablished under an order by President Herbert Hoover. The modern award was meant as a tribute to Washington’s original award, which he represented with a cloth or silk purple heart.

In authorizing the Purple Heart, the award was made retroactive to living World War I veterans like MacDonald, who was among thousands of male soldiers who subsequently applied for and received the award.

MacDonald received numerous awards in recognition of her bravery and is perhaps one of the most highly decorated women of World War I. Her commendation for the Distinguished Service Cross states:

“It is interesting to note that this cross is to be conferred upon a woman and a nurse. This war has, of course, taken the nurses, who are the ministers of mercy, up to the very front lines of battle, and because of the carrying of the war into the third dimension the airplane has, of course, made their task more perilous.”

MacDonald died in 1969, at age 88, in a nursing home in White Plains, Westchester County. MacDonald received a full military funeral at Long Island National Cemetery in Suffolk County.

MacDonald is one of many stories found at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, Orange County.  Opened in 2006, it is the first facility in the nation dedicated to the estimated 1.8 million recipients of the Purple Heart, which is awarded to American military personnel who have been wounded or killed by enemy action.

Currently, the facility is temporarily closed as it undergoes a $17 million expansion to add nearly 4,300 square feet of new and refurbished exhibit space, with an increased emphasis on stories of individual award recipients.

Other famous Purple Heart recipients include President John F. Kenney, and U.S. senators John McCain, Bob Dole, Tammy Duckworth and Daniel Inouye.

Although the Hall of Honor is now closed, the online database can be used to explore the stories of Purple Heart recipients like MacDonald and others. Purple Heart recipients or families of recipients can enroll in the database. Enrollment is voluntary and more information on that can be found here.

The expansion project will incorporate integrated audio-visual and media presentations, as well as museum-quality casework for each area with interpretive graphics, locally controlled lighting, touch-screen interactive monitors, and multiple large-format graphic displays. Once completed, the Hall will feature new exhibits that tell stories about joining the service, the day of the incident, field treatment and evacuation, the changing nature of warfare, the consequences of war, road to recovery and the ultimate sacrifice. The expanded exhibits will include more personal stories, interactive displays, and artifacts that highlight the experiences of featured Purple Heart recipients.

Currently, the online Roll of Honor database represents Purple Heart recipients from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, Samoa and the Philippines.


Cover Photo- U.S. Army Nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald in the ruins of a French town. All photographs from NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.

By Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks


COMMON MISPERCEPTIONS ABOUT THE PURPLE HEART

George Washington created the Purple Heart: FALSE

General Washington created the award called Badge of Military Merit in 1782. It was a heart shaped piece of cloth or silk. It was to be awarded for a “singularly meritorious act”. It all but disappeared after the American Revolution. It was never referred to as the “Purple Heart” in Washington’s time. That language was used in General Order #3, establishing the Purple Heart award in 1932.

All casualties receive the Purple Heart: FALSE

Only those casualties resulting from enemy action are eligible for the Purple Heart. “Non-hostile” injuries or deaths (e.g. disease or accidents)  are not eligible. The injury must require medical attention, be treated by a medical professional and documented. Numerous instances have occurred where the award was not made due to clerical errors, confusion after a battle or lack of proper documentation.

If you are wounded you automatically get a Purple Heart: FALSE

If the wounding was caused by the enemy, required professional medical attention and was documented, then the individual is eligible and should receive the award. However, there is a “paperwork process” that must be completed. Also, from 1932-1942 the majority of recipients had to apply for their awards as they were WWI (and earlier wars) wounded veterans, and therefore no longer in the military.

General Douglas MacArthur received the 1st Purple Heart: FALSE

While General MacArthur did sign General Order number 3 creating the modern Purple Heart on 22 February 1932, he did not apply for his Purple Heart until July 1932. By that time many WWI wounded veterans had applied for and received their awards (including the 136 veterans at the Temple Hill Ceremony held on the Grounds of what is now the Hall of Honor, 28 May 1932). General MacArthur’s medal however, was numbered “1”

The Government has a list of all Purple Heart recipients: FALSE

There is no list of Purple Heart recipients maintained by the Federal Government. The information is found on the record of the individual, or in copies of General Orders. This information has never been extracted to generate a list of all recipients.

Those wounded or killed in all wars are eligible for the Purple Heart: FALSE

When the award was created in 1932, it was open to any living veteran who felt that he or she was qualified. This resulted in a small number of recipients from the American Civil War and Spanish-American War. However, current regulations limit the award to those killed or wounded after 5 April 1917.

You have to be in combat to receive a Purple Heart: FALSE

The term “enemy action” has a much wider application than traditional combat. Changes in the regulations now recognize: injury or death while a prisoner of war; certain instances of friendly fire; as well as considering international and specific types of domestic terrorist acts.

Lt. Annie G. Fox was the first women to be awarded the Purple Heart: FALSE

Lt. Fox was the first known woman to receive a Purple Heart during World War II. For many years it was believed that she was the first female recipient. However (as you now know), Beatrice Mary MacDonald, an Army Nurse during World War I was wounded on 17 Aug. 17, 1917, when German planes bombed her hospital. The resulting wound caused her to lose her right eye. As with all other WWI veterans, she had to apply for her Purple Heart (Remember there was no Purple Heart prior to 1932). She was officially awarded her Purple Heart Jan. 4, 1936.

The first 136 Purple Hearts were awarded May 28, 1932 at Temple Hill, now the site for the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor: FALSE

Purple Hearts had been awarded prior to May 28, 1932. We know of one Civil War veteran who received his in April 1932. One of the Temple Hill day recipients also received his in late April and was formally awarded the medal at the Temple Hill Day ceremony.


When A Flu Reined In New York

As we New Yorkers endure the COVID-19 pandemic, the natural question for historians is: how did people react to epidemics in the past?

By now you may be aware of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed tens of millions of people worldwide. Could the number of deaths have been lower if they knew back then what we know now? Did they practice social distancing? Close businesses? Shut down schools? Limit transportation and government services?  Cancel public gatherings? Put people in isolation? Create temporary hospitals? Make people wear masks?

Spoiler alert…they did all those things. Reading about the steps people and governments took to limit the spread of the pandemic a century ago would feel shockingly familiar to us today. Our forbearers knew to do these things because the 1918 pandemic wasn’t the first to hit New York – not by a proverbial long shot.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a form of social distancing was the norm in times of pandemics. When Yellow Fever ravaged the northeastern United States beginning in the 1790s, residents of large cities like Philadelphia and New York fled dense urban areas for the countryside, if they had the economic means to do so. The same held true in scattered outbreaks of the flu in New York in the 1820s, and when a large pandemic hit in the early 1830s. 

There was, however, one particular influenza outbreak in 1872 that was so widespread, and so contagious, that no one in America could escape its effects. The 1872 outbreak crippled the economy, crashed every transportation network in New York State (steamboats, railroads, canals, streetcars), led to permanent changes in the Americans’ lives, and likely was one of the causes of the Great Depression – the Panic of 1873, which was called the “Great Depression” until the even-Greater Depression hit in the 1930s.

It was so bad that people were worried the 1872 Presidential election would be impacted by people’s inability to get to the polls (sound familiar?). For months, the disease was front page news on every paper in the country, but for all its devastating effects, the massive influenza outbreak of 1872 is hardly known or remembered today: it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page!  To be fair, though, it also didn’t kill a single person…

The 1872 influenza outbreak wasn’t a pandemic, or even an epidemic, it was an epizootic (or more properly classified as a panzootic), an outbreak of a highly communicable strain of equine influenza. It was a horse flu.

It started innocuously enough in the fall of 1872 with small reports about horse-drawn streetcars in Toronto being shut down due to the so-called “Canada Horse Disease.” Theses blurbs about the disease were buried on the back pages of several New York newspapers, and everyone seemed wholly unprepared for what was coming their way.

On October 21, the “Canada Horse Disease” hit Buffalo and in a matter of days, all of canal country was full of sick horses. Thousands of horses and mules worked the Erie Canal and shared stables, and they sent the contagious disease in every direction along the state’s watery superhighways.

Four men and a mule board a canal boat along the Erie Canal. (Photo Credit- Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum in Old Erie Canal State Park)

By Halloween, every equine engine in New York State effectively stopped working at the same time.  It was no longer the back-page “Canada Horse Disease,” it was the front-page “Great Epizootic of 1872.” Although most horses and mules ultimately recovered, the only cure was rest. A resting horse could not work, and without horses, industrial America was unable to function.  Why was it so devastating? Why were there so many horses?

If I asked you to picture a person and a horse in the late 19th century, you might think of this:

Or perhaps genteel Victorians on carriages:

You might not picture this:

New York City needed thousands of horses to pull streetcars and wagons, in these street scenes on Broadway and Center Street. (Photo credit- Library of Congress)

Post-Civil War America is commonly thought of as a time of rapid industrialization and mechanization, but in reality, horses and mules were still at the heart of every transportation system in the country and powered every aspect of life: they hauled people, freight, omnibuses (taxis) streetcars, fire engines, cavalrymen, carriages, canal boats, wagons, and anything else that needed to move. There were no cars, buses, trucks, subways, or motorcycles. There were horses, horses, and more horses on congested city streets.

Those cowboys pictured roping a buffalo on the plains might see ten or even twenty horses in a day. New York City and Brooklyn (a separate city until the 1890s) had a combined horse population of somewhere between 150,000 and 175,000 horses, and most were attacked by the horse flu.

On October 25th, the Utica Daily Observer reported 28,000 sick horses in New York City. Three days later, the Daily Saratogian reported that 7,000 horses in the city were stricken in a 24-hour period. In the end, the infection rate was around 90 percent. The horse flu impacted every aspect of American’s lives.

Grocers couldn’t deliver food.

Horse-drawn wagons at Haymarket Square in Chicago. (Photo Credit- Library of Congress)

Streetcars stopped running, stranding suburban commuters.

New York City relied on thousands of horses to pull its public streetcars. (Photo credit- Library of Congress)
Grand Central Depot in New York City with horse-drawn streetcars. (Photo credit- Library of Congress)

People couldn’t vote. The Buffalo Courier and Republic reported: 

There is considerable discussion in political circles, as to whether the sickness of so many horses through the country may not have an effect on the result in this and some other states by preventing country voters from getting to the polls on Tuesday, the [Presidential] election day.” Buffalo Courier and Republic Oct 31 1872.

Trains could run, of course, but what would they carry? Everything had to be delivered to depots by horse-drawn wagons, and when it arrived, it had to be distributed by more horse-drawn wagons. Railroads owned some of the largest fleets of horses in the 19th century. The same with steamboats:

“In the depots of the Erie, Morris and Essex and Pennsylvania railroads, a great quantity of freight is awaiting transportation, and the wharves of the large steamship lines are crowded with bales and boxes which cannot be moved.” Troy Daily Times October 26, 1872

The Buffalo Courier and Republic reported the same day that “of the 300 horses used along the New York City waterfront by stevedores, 280 have got the disease.”  A short while later, the steamboats couldn’t move even if they wanted to—they had no fuel. The Hudson River steamboats counted on a steady supply of coal from Pennsylvania, but that entire operation relied on mules, who got sick and couldn’t work. Mules pulled carts from the depths of the mines and then other mules pulled freight boats of the coal on the Delaware & Hudson Canal up to river.  By November, the Kingston Daily Freeman reported steamboat navigation was “nearly suspended” because of the lack of coal.

Eventually the Erie Canal—the economic lifeblood of New York State—was shut down. It would be like closing the Thruway today with all the economic shock that would create.

Horses pull a canal boat along the Erie Canal at the Schoharie Aqueduct. (Photo credit- Fort Hunter Canal Society)
Horses at work at the Erie Canal lock in Lockport, Niagara County. (Photo credit- New York State Archives, State Education Department)

The November 9, 1872 edition of Albany Morning Express chronicled the economic impact: “It is estimated that the horse epidemic will affect canal trade to the extent of delaying each boat a round trip, equal to the movement of one and a half millions of bushels of grain from Buffalo to New York.” A typical boat made seven round trips per season on the canal, and boats weren’t running even before the canal officially closed, so most companies felt around a 20 percent revenue drop.

The lost revenue and lost work time bankrupted companies and farmers alike, but one sector of the economy boomed – cure alls. The late 19th century was a period of unrestrained and unregulated quack remedies. There was no federal Food & Drug Administration, and anyone could create a “patent medicine” and advertise it as cure for… well, anything.

Clark Stanley, the man who was literally known as the snake oil salesman, patented his now-infamous elixir only a few short years after the epizootic. Veterinary medicine was not well developed in America in 1872 – the first veterinary school in America closed in 1866, and another wouldn’t open until after the epizootic. Although experts appeared in newspapers advising rest and fresh air were the only cure, New Yorkers and others turned to quick fixes offered at the drugstores:


Pharmacies across the state offered a variety of “cures” for the horse flu.


In the end, humankind’s relationship with the horse seemed to be what suffered the most from the Great Epizootic. For thousands of years, humans depended on horses for everything, but as we climbed out of depths of the Great Epizootic and the subsequent financial Panic of 1873, technology would slowly replace the horse.

An editorial in the Troy Whig seemed prophetic in hindsight that horse power would be supplanted:

Or, maybe it’s better straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth. In this illustration from the Nov. 16, 1872 edition of Harper’s Magazine, a flu-ridden horse imagines better treatment by his human masters after his recovery:


Cover Photo- Horses pull a canal boat along the towpath on the Erie Canal near Utica. “Erie Canal in the Mohawk Valley” (No. 2635, Rochester News Co., Rochester, N.Y.)

Post by Travis Bowman, Historic Preservation Program Coordinator (Collections), Bureau of Historic Sites


Resources

After the outbreak, the U.S. Government commissioned a report into it by James Law,  a faculty member of Cornell University, first dean of the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine, and a pioneer in veterinary medicine and public health in the United States.

Read his report here.

The official blog for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation

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