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Letter from 1867 describes yellow fever epidemic

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The 1867 historic yellow fever epidemic in Navasota and Texas is well documented but a letter written Sept. 29, 1867 has been recently discovered in an abandoned house that was about to be destroyed in northwest Arkansas’s Benton County that ‘chillingly’ tells of the horror.

This history column began a couple of weeks ago when Navasota librarian Gloria May received a phone call from Arkansas that she referred to me. I quickly returned the call to hear about a letter discovered by a couple who realized its historical significance and reached out to provide a copy.

The letter was written by a James Heagerty to his brother Richard Heagerty. It begins, “Dear Brother, I seat myself to write to you this morning. I am not well. I am just getting over a severe spell of chills and fever. I am three and a half miles from Navasota. I am building a house for a man out here. I came out here to keep out of the way of the yellow fever. When I left at least two-thirds of the people that remained in town have died.

The distress surpasses anything you have ever seen. At one time there was not well ones enough to wait on the sick and bury the dead. One man died in the schoolhouse and was nearly well eaten up by the rats and cats when found. Another boy about 15 that his father went off and left at home to take care of the express office business died upstairs and not one to see to him or even give him a drink and was found only by the blood that run from his mouth and dripped through the ceiling on the floor. His father had a young wife and took her and the rest of the family out of danger and left his child a victim of the epidemic.

Another man was dragged after he had died, to a gully and covered up in the gully. A great many were buried by the negroes and they are paid from 10 to $20 apiece and they did not half bury them, so much so that when it rained it washed the dirt off them, so that the grave yard stunk so that no one could go near it on account of the bad scent of the dead bodies.”

The letter horror stories continued, but Heagerty also spoke of having to use a six-shooter to collect debts owed him and states: “I am now looked upon in this country different to what I was there, because men that are mean enough to try to take advantage of another are afraid to try me and it is the only way to get along in Texas to let man know you are right up to the match.”

Heagerty’s brother Richard and family can be found on several ‘public member trees’ on James is listed as born about 1834 in South Carolina to John and Mary Heagerty. Brother Richard and many Heagerty’s are buried in the Barron Cemetery in Benton County, Arkansas. Both brothers had served the Confederacy.

There is no death date or other information on James. Did he die in Navasota’s epidemic, a gun match, or…?

(Written by Betty Dunn, Two Rivers Heritage Foundation. Visit for more information or to become a member.)