“Any disaster you can survive is an improvement in your character, your stature, and your life.” Joseph Campbell
By Betsy Cross Thorpe
This post is about one year in the life of Lucas Dawson. He was my grandfather’s grandfather. You can find his name near the middle of my maternal family tree.
The year in question is 1856.
My maternal family tree spans more than three centuries. There are roughly 119,424 days between the birth of the first and the last direct line relative on my mother’s branch of the tree. At the top is Matthew Rhea who was born in 1693. At the other end is Sawyer Siegrist, born in 2019.
The year 1856 falls in the middle of those two years.
Lucas was the youngest child of Thomas and Mary Ann Kirkland Dawson, farmers who owned a smallholding in the piney wood section of East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. Valued at $1,000, it was one of the smallest parcels of land in the area. They raised dairy cows for milk, chickens for eggs, hogs for meat, grain crops and corn to feed their livestock and family, and cotton to sell.
Lucas turned 12 on April 25. A Friday. On Sunday it started to rain. It rained for more than a week. A local publication reported that it was the heaviest rain from all accounts which have been visited on this part of the South for years. Farms, both great and small, were devastated by the immense damage done to young crops. Especially corn and cotton.
This turn of events caused hardship. The damaged fields failed to produce enough cotton to sell or food to last through winter. Countrywomen conserved food. They did so in part by serving smaller portions. Some meals were skipped altogether. It is likely that Lucas often went to bed hungry.
At this time, newspapers in the South covered outbreaks of Yellow Fever. They printed weekly reports issued by health officials on the islands of Bermuda and Cuba and in the cities of New York, Baltimore, Charleston and New Orleans.
People in Louisiana lived in constant fear of a Yellow Fever outbreak. On August 12, an article in one regional newspaper addressed that fear. Our towns were destroyed and more than decimated by the Yellow Fever in 1853, 1854 and then again in 1855 in the fearful scourges. So now, in the face of three annual epidemics that peopled our graveyards and clothed our houses as with the mantle of sorrow we wait.
During the epidemic of 1853, in Clinton, the town nearest the Dawson farm the population dropped from close to 2,000 people to 250. Some of those people died, others escaped to the countryside. One person who stayed wrote a letter describing conditions in the town. He wrote that one disadvantage of staying was a lack of food, that farmers who had chickens, eggs and vegetables to sell would neither come nor send anyone to town because they feared contagion. They knew to keep their distance. In spite of taking precautions many country people got sick and died from the fever.
The state of Louisiana had the highest death rate due to Yellow Fever than any other place in the country.
Fear of a fourth epidemic must have worried young Lucas. But fortunately for the people of Louisiana only a comparatively few numbers of cases were reported that year and only a small number of people died.
But 1856 wasn’t over yet.
On October 11 Lucas suffered what was probably the biggest tragedy of his early life. His father Thomas Dawson died 10 days after his 61 birthday. We now know that grief is both real and measurable and that it changes the psyche of a child forever.
Hopefully his grief made him mentally stronger. He endured hunger, fear of disease and grief the year his father died, but what lay in the future was much worse. A big war was coming and he would be part of it. Lucas Dawson would soon encounter hardships that his 12 year old self couldn’t possibly imagine. My hope is that he had some good years in between and that for a season life was kinder to him.