Death and Illness in the New Community

Posted by on January 4, 2022 in Blog Posts, Community & Family History, Featured Flag | 0 comments

We often wonder what illnesses affected our ancestors and caused their death. Although Rev. Bell was careful to record marriages and baptisms during the early years, he did not record all deaths. He, and other diarists of the time, would mention the name of someone who died in passing. For the early settlement years our most source is found on memorial stone in cemeteries of the area. An these records can sometimes be misleading as they were often erected years after the death occurred by subsequent generations.

Reproduction of Luke Fildes’ painting The Doctor, by Joseph Tomanek

Few deaths were officially recorded before the 1860s and it was only as time moved on that newspapers noted someone’s passing. Clues about a death can sometimes be found by comparing early census records. This only helps sometimes as the 1851 census for some townships has been lost and, at best, can only indicate a decade of death. Sometimes, a disappearance from the records only indicates that a family has moved to another community.

Establishing Cemeteries

The Old Burying Ground

On the 4th of July 1819 the Rev. Wm. Bell, Presbyterian minister at Perth, recorded that at a meeting of church members he was able to report Government approval for a non-denominational burial ground today known as the Old Burying Ground. Though the deed for this 4-acre plot was not formalized until 1821 the site was used for burials as early as 1817. The earliest date of death on a monument is for George Gray who died on the 10th of March, 1817 and the earliest recorded burial by Rev. Bell is that of Duncan McNaughton on the 10th of February the same year. Anecdotal evidence from the Catholic Priest Abbe de La Mothe also supports that this site may have been used for burials in 1817 and possibly earlier. The Cemetery is divided into 3 parts; the South half bordering Brock Street, for the Presbyterians; the middle 1/4 for the Anglicans and; the South 1/4 bordering Craig St. for the Catholics with a portion on the west part of the Catholic section purportedly used by the Anglicans but most of the monuments at this end are of members of the Catholic faith. (FindaGrave)

1821 – “Our burying ground had been cleared off some time before this, and now we determined to have it enclosed.  For this purpose I opened a subscription and raised about £10.  This was afterwards increased by Mr. Jackson‘s exertions, he having it in charge.  A contract was made with Peter Kerr, for about £20, to fence it with boards and cedar posts.

Saint Andrew’s Cemetery

Rev. Bell recorded that:

1820 – “On the 18 December I went out to Lanark, and preached, for the first time, among the new settlers, in Mr. Hall‘s house. As I intended to organize a congregation there, a meeting was held, and managers were appointed.  In the afternoon they and I went and selected lots of land for the church, manse, schoolhouse, and graveyard.

Burial Practices

Rev. Bell provides some insight into the formalities of early deaths and burials. In the new community he notes a variety of customs.

“It is customary among people from the United States, when a death takes place, to request some minister to preach a funeral sermon at the house, of the deceased to those who attend the interment. Sometimes an address is delivered to the attendants at the grave. I have not declined to do either of these when requested; but neither is very common in this settlement.

“The inhabitants being from different countries, there is a curious diversity to be observed in their manners and customs at weddings, burials, etc. In some cases, both men and women attend funerals to the burying ground, in others the men only. Some request their neighbours to attend, as is the custom in Scotland, in others they are left to attend or not as they think proper, as in the United States. The smaller number of deaths which occur in the settlement in proportion to the population is decisive evidence that the country is very healthy. There are always some deaths among emigrants at their first arrival, but those are chiefly occasioned by accident, fatigue, exposure to the weather, or intemperance.


In the absence of an established legal system, Rev. Bell often was called upon to assist with legal requirements arising from a death.

1821 – “I rode out to the Mississippi River to visit Mr. Cameron, one of my elders, who was ill, and seemed to be dying.  Before I left him, I wrote his will and attested his signature.  The duty of settling one’s affairs in health, is one which far too many neglect.  He died a few days after, and on the following Sabbath I preached his funeral sermon to a numerous congregation.

1822 – “On the last day of September a man named Malcolm Fisher, living in Bathurst, sent for me to come and see him.  I found him weak and apparently dying, but I could get little information as to the state of his soul.  O that men were wise enough to prepare for death before it come: for the sake of his poor wife and children I wrote his will, and with some difficulty got it signed, for even this matter he had not attended to, in the time of health.  He died about an hour after I left him.

1823 – “At one place in Bathurst I had, as an arbitrator, to assist in dividing the property among the family of my deceased elder, John Campbell, to prevent their going to law.  At another place, on visiting a very old man, William McNaughton, on his deathbed, I had also to write his will, and thus secured his property to the widow during her life.

“Early in April widow McNee called upon me one morning and requested me to write her will, which I did accordingly.

Illnesses Recorded in the Bell Diary

Exposure and Poor Living Conditions

1823 – “One very cold Sabbath morning, in February, John Robson called to inform me that he had seen a female Indian at the river side, very sick, and likely to perish from exposure to the storm if not taken care of.  He had been to the warden, who are the proper guardians of the poor, both of whom pitied her with all their heart; but neither of them would do anything for her and her child.  I advised him to get a train and take her and her two children, a boy and a girl, to Mrs. Cameron’s; which he did, and they were lodged and fed there till the mother got better.

1824 – “a more miserable hut I never was in; and it smoked so abominably that we had to sit with the door open all the time.  Even then the gas from the green timber on the fire brought tears from my eyes. The roof being covered merely with hemlock boughs, the heat of the fire melted the snow, which came down over us in rain, so that a dry spot to sit could not be found.  The inmates of this wretched hovel were much to be pitied.  Mrs. Anderson was at the time in delicate health, and after long illness, died no doubt from cold and exposure in this hut.

Alcohol Abuse

1824 – “Among the evils with which I had to contend, the vice of drunkenness was none of the least.  It prevailed in the settlement to a great extent; for such was the influence of the custom that nothing could be done without liquor.  Several of the half-pay officers died of this disease.  One of these in particular, Mr. Alston, gave me much trouble by his irregular conduct, before he came to his miserable end.  One day his wife called me to inform me that he had become quite deranged and had attempted to kill both her and his own child.  On going to see him I found him in a dreadful state.  He said he had been a bad man, and would soon be in hell.  It was evident he was suffering from delirium tremens.  He thought the devil was coming to take him away, and often saw demons about his bed.


1821 – “The first division of the Lanark settlers came out last summer, 1820, the second came out this summer. . . At this time wagons with settlers and their baggage were almost every day passing through Perth, on their way to Lanark.  Some of these people suffered great affliction; the Dick family for instance, in which were eleven children.  They lost both mother and father on the way out, and yet they were all provided for, and decently brought up. (The father drowned while travelling to Brockville while bathing in the St. Lawrence). Mrs. Dick died of distress shortly after.

1824 – “Near the end of July our second election, for a Member of Parliament, began.  On the first day, the fun of the morning was turned to sorrow before night, by a fatal accident.  John McLaren, our church officer, having gone with some others to the river to bathe, was unfortunately drowned.

Fever and Ague

When fever struck, it brought fear into the heart of the family

Fever and Ague‘ is a common illness found in many historical records. Ague is a fever (such as from malaria) that is marked by paroxysms of chills, fever, and sweating recurring regular intervals. The clouds of mosquitoes carried malaria to the village and it was a few years before the settlers would understand the cause of this illness and treat it with quinine.

1825 – “Up to this time the settlement had been remarkably healthy, but during the summer, cases of fever and ague began to appear. The summer had been dry and hot, yet few were sick in the country; but in the village, few families escaped without having one; two, or more sick.  This was supposed to be occasioned by the laying dry of the millpond, close by the village, in hot weather. . .

“During the summer we suffered much from fever and ague.  Whole families, in some cases, were laid up at once; and most families had some sick, one or more.  Not one of my family escaped.  So discouraged were some that they talked of selling out and leaving the place.  It is a vexing disorder though it seldom proves fatal.  When it continues months, which it sometimes does, it leaves those suffering in a very debilitated state.

“Till the introduction of quinine, I had baffled all medical skill that could be procured. But in the latter part of the summer it began to be used, and seldom failed to afford relief.  I escaped for a while, but my time came at last.  For more than a year I suffered either from the disease or its effects, till I was reduced almost to a skeleton.  Yet all this time I continued to preach every Sabbath, though often in a weak state.

1826 – “In the autumn I was much employed visiting the sick, who were at this time more than ordinarily numerous.  At the communion, in September, many were absent from sickness, and some were taken ill in the church and had to leave it.  In the evening I was taken ill myself, passed a restless night, and was worse in the morning.  Every day I became worse till Thursday, when my disorder turned to fever and ague.

“As few die of this disease the sufferers receive little sympathy from others, yet their sufferings are great, especially at the commencement.  The previous symptoms are, a severe pain in the head and back, with general debility.  After the remittent fever was formed, I had the attack only every second day.  On my well day, as it is called, I felt weak but had no sickness, and this fortunately was on Sabbath, so that I preached without much difficulty.  On Monday I was sick all day, and able to attend to nothing.

“After suffering about a fortnight I got better, and continued so about a month, when I had a new attack, but not so severe as the first.  The prospect for the settlement was now very discouraging.  Hundreds were suffering from fever and ague, with little hope of improvement.

“In the course of visiting my congregation this fall, the pain of my long and disagreeable journeys was increased by my weak state, and a new attack of fever and ague, which lasted about ten days.  It was at last removed by the use of quinine, which had now come into general use, being found to be the only effectual remedy.

1828 -“In July, having to assist Mr. Buchanan at the sacrament, Mrs. Bell went along with me. . . On our return home on Monday, we found both John and Isabella sick and in bed, with ague and fever, as it appeared to us; but John’s turned out to be a fever of a more dangerous nature.  He was restless, and during the following night he got worse.  In the morning Dr. Wilson bled him and prescribed what medicine he thought suitable.  For more than a week we attended him day and night, suffering severely.  But more days were allotted him and after some time he recovered.

“In August, when the weather was very hot, the settlement became very sickly.  The sickness however was not confined to our neighbourhood; but over all the continent of North America, it was the sickliest season I had ever heard of. One day I had been attending a funeral, while the heat was excessive, and coming home very sick, found all my family sick and in bed.  The next two months scarcely any of us was a day well.

“But we were no worse than our neighbours, if that was any consolation.  Though there were some sick in every house, all around us, I was seldom well enough to visit any of them.  Yet I preached every Sabbath, though reduced to a skeleton and in a very weak state.  As soon as the hot season was nearly over, I began the annual visiting of my congregation at their own houses.  On this occasion it was like visiting a hospital.  In the Scotch line for instance, I traveled and visited ten miles, and found only one family all well.  In some houses there was scarcely one well enough to attend on the rest.

“At our communion in September, not more than 80 members were present, and but a small congregation. Upon the whole it was a very discouraging time. On the following day I went to
visit Mr. McPherson‘s family, now suffering under lake fever.  As I staid (sic) some time with them, there is reason to fear that I caught the infection.

“Next day both Mrs. Bell and I were confined to bed.  This was the commencement of a long and serious sickness to both, not soon to be forgotten.  Sickness, during harvest, prevailed to such an extent, that on some farms, the crop rotted on the ground for want of hands to cut it down.  Most of our immigrant population were greatly discouraged, and not a few of them talked of returning to their native land. . . . As the winter approached the health of the settlement began to improve. 

1829 – “For some weeks after this I was kept busy visiting my congregation, and especially the sick, of whose at this time the number was great.

“Near the end of this year my son Robert was visited with a disorder of an inflammatory nature, from which he suffered severely for some weeks.  So alarming was his case at one time that, Dr. Wilson who attended him, called in the assistance of Dr. Thom.  They both attended him till he was well.


1834 – “While visiting my congregation; so great was the heat that I suffered much from sickness.  One of these days, travelling all the afternoon in a drizzling rain, my clothes were wet through.  Returning home late in a very dark night, I became chilled with cold.  I had not been long in bed when I dreamed that I lay upon a brush heap, with a sharp pointed stick hurting my side.

“As the pain increased, it soon woke me to the reality of my situation.  Inflammation had commenced, attended with a burning pain in my right side.  My restless tossings soon awoke my wife, who gave me all the assistance in her power.  All remedies for some time proved inefficient, as nothing would remain on my stomach. For some hours I suffered severely. Towards morning I obtained some relief, but more than a week elapsed before I was as well as before.


Often called ‘wasting disease’, tuberculosis was common and deadly.

1832 – “By the mail of the 28 July we received a letter from our son Andrew, informing us of his wife’s death.  How short lived are all human enjoyments.  They had not been married more than three months, and we never had the pleasure of seeing her.  She died of consumption.

1835 – “On my return to Mr. Lowrie’s, I found a man come to request that I would go and visit his wife, who was supposed to be dying.  I went with him, and after travelling about seven miles on a very rough and crooked road, through a wild and uncultivated country, we come to an opening in the forest, where were about a dozen shanties or log huts, upon a tract of fine land.  In one of these I was introduced to the sick woman wasted by consumption.

1844 – “Soon after William’s death (a son) we had placed his son, with Mr. Morrison in Bathurst, as a boarder for the benefit of his education.  On Saturday, 17 April; I received a letter from Mr. Morrison informing me that the boy was ill; and wishing a doctor sent to see him.  Mr. Malloch went out with Dr. Wilson, the same afternoon, and brought him home to our house.  Inflammation of the bowels was the disorder under which be suffered at the time, but symptoms of consumption had been observed for some time before. During the first week he appeared better; but though he complained of no pain, it was evident he was every day becoming weaker.  Dr. Wilson paid him every attention; but it was soon evident that his disorder was beyond the power of medicine.  He gradually declined till the morning of the 29th when he expired; at the age of 10; as calmly as if he had merely gone to sleep.


Unhygienic conditions where drinking water became contaminated with animal or human waste often led to cholera outbreaks. Patients suffered great distress and died quickly. The mortality rate was very high.

1831 – “Early in the summer the cholera morbus made its appearance in Quebec and Montreal, and soon spread alarm all over the country.  In each of these cities upwards of a 1000 lives fell victims to this dire disease.  In Perth every precaution was taken to prevent its introduction.  A board of health was established, including all the ministers and magistrates in the place.  Not more than 3 or 4 died in the village of this disease.

“At the next meeting of the Board of Health, Mr. Harris laid the accounts from Bytown before us.  During the month of August there had been, at that place, 90 cases of cholera, and 27 deaths.  How easily had we escaped, with 3 cases, and 2 deaths, in the same time.  The Governor had placed £500 at our disposal.  It was all expended, chiefly at Bytown.

1834 – “The weather at this time was very hot, and the cholera was raging in the lower province, and along the line of travel in the upper province.  Quebec and Montreal had already suffered severely, but this for some time was concealed, and even denied by the newspapers of these cities, to prevent injury to trade.  But at length the truth had to be told, and alarm quickly spread over the land.  In the summer of 1832, the number of deaths in Montreal was about 1200; in Quebec 1400.  In 1834 the accounts varied from 1000 to 1200 in each of these cities; at all places along the navigable waters in about the same proportion.  No decided case of cholera occurred in Perth, but there were five or six deaths not far from it; two of them connected with my congregation, on the Rideau Canal.  Fears were entertained by many that the disease would spread through the country, but happily this did not take place.


Many of the accidents that happened in the community involved horses and poor roads. Many of these incidents are detailed in the post Travel Challenges in the New Settlement. Others suffered injury while felling trees, building cabins, managing livestock, but rarely when encountering wildlife.

Maternal and Child Death

Puerperal fever was a devastating disease. It affected women within the first three days after childbirth and progressed rapidly, causing acute symptoms of severe abdominal pain, fever and debility. Puerperal fever is due to an infection, most often of the placental site within the uterus and thought to have been spread through birth attendants like physicians and midwives who make contact with the disease and carry it from patient to patient. Many women died and other birth complications.

Children died frequently as little could be done to remedy the difficulties that they encountered. Many of the childhood illnesses such as measles, mumps, chicken and small pox proved to be deadly or debilitating.

1837 – “On the 9th February, our daughter, Mrs. Malloch, had a son rather prematurely.  Re was very weak and died next morning.  He obtained the fate that Job so earnestly desired.  The knees did not prevent him, nor did he suck the breasts of his mother.  He merely opened his eyes on this world and closed them forever.  So brief is human existence, and so short lived our dearest enjoyments.

Scarlet Fever, Pox, Scarlet Fever, Diptheria and other such illnesses

1838 – “In October our youngest son, George, who had been for some time a clerk with his brother at Smith’s Falls, was taken ill.  It turned out to be a very bad case of scarlet fever.  We knew nothing of this for five days, till Ebenezer sent up a boat with three men to take his mother to see him.  Near night, in a cold wet evening, she went off; and after much hardship and fatigue reached the end of her journey before midnight.  Next day being Saturday, I could not leave home, but two of his brothers, on hearing that he was dangerously ill, went on horseback, and on their return somewhat relieved my mind by the information that he was a little better.

“As soon as public worship was over on Sabbath, I set out to see him.  Snow had fallen in the morning to the depth of three or four inches; but it had now melted, and a heavy rain not only wet me to the skin, but made the clay road almost impassable.  On reaching the Falls I was happy to find that our son was still improving, though very slowly.  The death of several young people, by the same disease, the week before, had spread great alarm in the neighbourhood; and Dr. Acheson who attended George felt some uneasiness on his account; as he had never seen a worse case of scarlet fever.  He could scarcely speak, but his mind was calm and resigned to the will of his heavenly Father.  As I had still several days’ visiting of my congregation to do I returned home on Monday, and proceeded with the discharge of this duty.  But his mother remained with him a fortnight longer, till she thought he was out of danger.

“But how fleeting and insecure are life, health, and all human enjoyments.  On the 3rd November, and only a few days after Mrs. Bell returned home, a messenger on horseback came in great haste to inform us that George had had a relapse, and was dangerously ill; indeed worse than he had been before.  Dr. Acheson at the same time sent us word to send Dr. Wilson without delay.  But he not being at home we sent Dr. Nichol.

“I procured a light wagon in all haste, and his mother and I set out for the Falls, without a moment’s delay.  The road was in a dreadful state, and at one of the worst places I was thrown out of the wagon, head foremost, and had nearly fallen under the wheel.  The wrist of my right hand was so much hurt that it was lame for years afterwards. On reaching the village late at night, we found that the doctors, after consultation, had bled George and applied two blisters.  In the morning he had been so ill that all who saw him thought he was dying, but he was now a little better, and our hopes were again revived that he might yet recover.

“This being Saturday night, I had to return to Perth before the morning.  The night was very dark and wet; but after conversing with George some time, I left him in the care of his mother and proceeded homewards, 16 miles, many an anxious thought occupying my mind, both on his account and on account of the duties I had to discharge on the coming day.  I had not only the ordinary duties of the Sabbath before me, but a funeral sermon on the death of one of my elders, who had died a few days before; and the ordinary time for preparation had been otherwise employed. The road was very bad, my progress slow, and my journey in the dark seemed long and dismal.

“On reaching home, an hour before sunrise, I found a wagon at the door, and two more of my sons about to start to see their brother, but I advised them not to go till the afternoon when public worship was over.  All day I felt resigned to the will of God, but still prayed fervently for my son’s recovery.  In the evening when Dr. Nichol returned, he called to inform me that George was worse, and that he had no hope of his recovery. Still, I did not despair, believing that with God nothing is impossible.  Our prayers were answered; his disorder took a favourable turn; and he was brought back from the very brink of the grave.  His recovery was gradual, but slow, and it was some months before we could remove him to Perth.


Apoplexy is a malady, very sudden in its attack, which arrests more or less completely the powers of sense and motion; it is usually caused by an effusion of blood or serum in the brain, and preceded by giddiness, partial loss of muscular power, etc. Today it is often synonymous with experiencing a stroke or cerebral hemorrhage.

1844 – “The first week in August brought one of the severest afflictions we were ever called to endure.  Before this William had been visited with more than one fit of apoplexy but had always recovered.  On Saturday 3rd he had a severe attack, and we expected every minute would be his last.  We prayed with him, but this was all we could do, for he seemed to be unconscious of what was said or done.  Ebenezer and a man named Ross, sat up with him all night. In the morning he seemed a little better, but still could not speak.  In the church I preached as usual, but with a heavy heart.  On visiting him; when we returned home, we found him worse.  Both when I prayed; and when I spoke to him, he seemed sensible; but could not speak so as to be understood.  At 4 P.M. he breathed his last.

Unexplained Deaths and Death by Other Causes

1821 – “On Saturday evening, just as I was going to bed, I was called to visit a man who was suddenly taken ill.  He died before the morning, leaving a widow and nine children among strangers.  He had arrived but a few days before and had worshipped with us on the last Sabbath.

1824 – “On the 7th of February . . . I had gone to attend the funeral of Miss Adams, a young woman who had died at the age of 18 years. . . The people being assembled to attend the body to the grave, I made an address to them on the duty of preparing for death in the time of health.

1845 – “The 19th (August) was the anniversary of our daughter’s marriage with Mr. Malloch; and in the afternoon she and her husband had a picnic party on their farm at Sweetbank.  The day was fine, the party cheerful and the rural feast upon the grass was relished by all present.  But little did we think that it was the last of the kind we should ever enjoy together.

“Our only daughter, Mrs. Malloch, had been in delicate health for some years before this from a liver complaint.  She had the best medical advice; and everything that affection could suggest was done to prolong a life dear to us all.  But when death is in the cup all means will fail.  For some weeks she had been worse than usual; and though a slight improvement gave us hopes of her recovery they were of short duration.  After suffering severely for a few days and nights, on Friday 29th January at 11 A.M. she breathed her last, surrounded by her weeping relatives. 

“Her brother George who was greatly attached to her had been sent for a few days before and seldom left her till she died.  At the grave when she was buried he delivered a suitable address, for I was unable to do it myself.  The funeral was the largest ever seen in Perth, and the procession extended more than a quarter of a mile. 

1848 – “On the l9th February the death of our third son John at the age of 42 again plunged us in affliction.  He had been in a declining state for about a year but still hopes were entertained that he would get over it.  Mr. Malloch and I made arrangements for the funeral which was attended by more than 200 of our friends and neighbours.

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