With all the disruption that the coronavirus has managed to create, it is a fitting subject this month to discuss pandemics.
While we would have rather discussed something like fishing, which we will do next month, this is a topic that has quite a lengthy history!
The Bible has tales of vicious illnesses that, according to who is telling the story, have been sent down from the heavens to punish mankind or to save God’s chosen people.
Because people in the past did not understand viral infections, these deadly diseases were called plagues. Ancient history is full of them.
A plague could devastate a city or a conquering army.
But we will stick to the history of Trousdale County and in that respect, we can travel back around 500 years.
When Columbus discovered America, he found a land that had been isolated from the rest of the world for a very long time. As a result, the people were different, the wild animals were different, the plants and vegetation were different.
And the diseases were different.
The Native Americans had never suffered mumps, measles or the even deadlier smallpox.
The men of the Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria were quick to share these with the native populations of the Caribbean and the New World.
We don’t have numbers because the first Americans had no written language and left no books or newspapers. But they did leave their abandoned villages.
It is suspected that as much as three-quarters of the native population of the Americas would die from these new diseases.
We do know this – in the late 1700s when the first white settlers arrived here in what is now Trousdale County, there were no Native Americans living here.
But there were plenty of vacant villages – villages that had not been lived in for over a hundred years.
Those early peoples, the Mound Builders, had suddenly vanished.
Their empty huts and towns showed no signs of warfare or fire or natural disaster. They stood as if the people had just gotten up one day and left.
Historians generally agree that the people who once lived in the simple mud and stick villages likely suffered a pandemic – one much more deadly than the pandemic we are now experiencing.
They had no clue as to what caused these illnesses, nor were they able to cure them. People either lived or died, and many more died than lived.
It is suspected that the people who survived the onslaught of disease were too few to maintain their way of life and left, or they may have associated the sickness with the villages themselves and fled them seeking safer places to dwell.
We do know that new tribes emerged in the years after this great dying off.
One of those tribes was the Cherokee, who kept Middle Tennessee as a hunting ground but not as a place to dwell.
A legend of the Cherokee that tells of their creation as a people is that they emerged from a hole in the earth.
Fifty years ago when I first moved to Trousdale County, a local fellow showed me a cave down by the Cumberland River. It was big enough to have bats and had a crude ladder made out of sticks to climb further back into its depths.
The fellow told me that his ancestors had once lived in this cave to escape an outbreak of yellow fever that had hit Hartsville, because the town was full of dying people and they were trying to get away from them.
I recall that story every time I read the Cherokee story of creation. Maybe they too fled to caves and emerged only when the disease seemed to be gone.
In any case, anywhere from 400 to 500 years ago, Trousdale County had its first pandemic. There would be more to come!