Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Guest Blogger Leigh - The Tragic Backstory of Smallpox Bay?

A veteran of the 2012 and 2013 field schools, Leigh has stepped up to be the site supervisor of our Smallpox Bay excavations. Besides interpreting the challenging new finds coming out of the ground, she presents here complementary historical research that helps us better interpret this site.

Interpreting and Reinterpreting Smallpox Bay

Even though there is a ruined structure marking the Smallpox Bay site, what this building was used for and who used it continues to be an enigma.  We thought the site was likely used as a quarantine house for those arriving in Bermuda who presented symptoms of smallpox, due to the name of the nearby bay and the fact that Dr. Forbes (who was interested in smallpox inoculation) owned Smiths Island in the 1750s on. But in the 2013 season we found no medical artifacts, nor evidence of cooking which would have been present at any place of convalescence.  Recent feature and artifact finds made in the 2014 season, however, are beginning to reveal how this site was used.

In the previous blog post, Ashley debuted a 20th Regiment button – but what is even better than one of those buttons is a second one which was found the next day in an adjacent square!  The presence of just one button could constitute an odd occurrence, but the second button more strongly established that soldiers in the 20th Regiment were indeed on Smiths Island.

While these buttons aren't as definitive as, say, glass medicine bottles containing smallpox treatments, to support our original hypothesis that the site was a quarantine house, they did lead to some interesting research on the 20th Regiment (sometimes known as the “Two Tens” from the XX Roman numerals they used) and how they fared in Bermuda.

This regiment arrived in Bermuda in November 1841, but Bermuda was not particularly kind to them:  in 1843 a yellow fever epidemic afflicted nearly the whole garrison. In the article “Fatal Epidemic in the West Indies” which ran in the December 5, 1843, edition of The Royal Gazette, St. George's in particular was described as “one vast sick chamber” where “fresh victims were daily being sacrificed to this yet insatiable malady.”  The same article noted that 120 members of the 20th Regiment had already died at that point in the epidemic.

In “Bermuda – Great Mortality” written 22 days later, the Gazette author remarks that “the Troops are now dispersed under canvass on various Islands, and the disease is abating.”  Smiths Island lies right across from St. George's which was plagued with the Yellow Fever.  Perhaps our stone structure was one of the many places soldiers fled to in order to escape from the epidemic.

As we are coming down on bedrock at Smallpox Bay, we are also finding numerous postholes cut into bedrock -- two of which lay underneath the stone wall of the house.  The stone wall seals these post holes, firmly indicating that a wooden structure using these posts predates the stone ruin standing on the site today.  There are still stories of other people from the past to be uncovered at our small, isolated site; hopefully the last few days of digging this season will reveal even more of them.

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