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Governor Joseph Alston’s Record in the War of 1812

July 13, 2014 in American History, general history


Joseph Alston was born in 1779 to a wealthy family in South Carolina. He attended the College of New Jersey, which was later renamed Princeton, but he never graduated. He studied law and was admitted to the bar, but he never practiced. He was a planter by trade and one of the wealthiest men in South Carolina.

Joseph Alston also had political ambitions. In furtherance of same, he married Theodosia Burr, the daughter of Aaron Burr in 1801. He was a member of the Democratic-Republican party, the same one that Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr belonged to. The marriage to Theodosia Burr took place on the eve of the resolution of the complicated election that would catapult Jefferson to the presidency and made Aaron Burr vice president. It was during a period of time when Burr’s fortune was on the rise, and prior to the duel with Hamilton and the the falling out with Jefferson that eventually snuffed out Burr’s career prematurely

The marriage to Theodosia, together with his status as a wealthy landowner and businessman, enabled Alston to win elective office. He served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from November 20, 1805 to December 10, 1812. He was a speaker of the house from 1809 to 1812, and he was chosen to be Governor of South Carolina beginning December 1 of 1812.

Joseph Alston’s wealth came primarily from rice plantations, and the labor on which his business depended was by and large slave labor. Because of the warm weather and  the humidity, and because  the rice paddies harbored many mosquitoes, malaria was a disease to contend with. At the time, the causes of malaria were not known, but successful planters knew that the best laborers — and the ones most likely to survive the swamps —  were those imported from the Senegambia region in West Africa where they were already likely to have survived a childhood bout of malaria. For males between the ages of fourteen and eighteen they paid,  in today’s money , between $11,000 and $23,000. With such an investment on the line, they wanted slaves who were likely to survive the difficult conditions.

While on average two in three West African children fell victim to malaria and died, those who survived to the age of fourteen were immune to the disease. On the other hand, the white population of South Carolina did not undergo the serious trials of their black counterparts and largely avoided exposure to malaria by going up into the mountains or leaving on some other vacation during the summer months. When Aaron Burr first gave his consent to the marriage of his daughter to Joseph Alston, the plan was that she would spend her summers up North with her father. But Burr fell on hard times, went into exile, and had only just returned to New York a ruined man in 1812.

In June of 1812, the Alstons were not able to go elsewhere to avoid exposure to malaria. War had just been declared against Great Britain. Joseph Alston had duties in the state militia. He had to stay where he was, and so did his wife, and  their ten year old son, Aaron Burr Alston,  was exposed to and died of malaria.  Alston’s grieving wife, Theodosia, boarded the Patriot on December 31, 1812 for a trip to New York to see her father and disappeared into the mists of time. But Alston’s troubles were only just beginning.

When he tried to muster the militia to prepare for war, he encountered unexpected resistance. The problem was not that the men refused to serve against the British. The enemy they most feared was malaria. Many  openly disobeyed orders, refused to serve, and when the Governor attempted to have the ringleaders tried for desertion, the court found in favor of the accused. A contemporary account of the court’s reasoning can be found in John Belton O’Neal’s Biographcal Sketches of Bench and Bar:

I knew Mr. Stark well, and had much to do with him as Solicitor; and I have no hesitation in saying, that the objection, which was urged against him, that he was ” too severe” was altogether untrue. He was a firm, just man, in the discharge of his duty; but there was no one who sooner yielded to the just claims of mercy than he did. In 1814, Mr. Stark and myself defended Colonel Starling Tucker, before the Court Martial ordered to try him, on charges preferred against him by the Commander-in-chief, Governor Allston, in relation to the service of the first class of the militia, ordered into service from the brigade, then ranked as the second, now the tenth. (Biographical Sketched of Bench and Bar, p. 68)

.The chief reason that was given in mitigation of harsh sentence was that the men required to serve were  “unaccustomed to the climate.”

 Immediately after the regiment encamped, a council of all the officers of the line assembled, to consult as to what should be done, as to the detailed order to throw up the tête du pont, and they unanimously advised that it should be disobeyed; and everyone from the highest to the lowest so pledged themselves. This was not only disobedience, but mutiny, and might have been visited by serious consequences; but there was a great palliation in the excited state of the men’s minds, and their belief that the duty to be done under a stern disciplinarian, and would probably be at the sacrifice of many lives, who were unaccustomed to the climate.  (James Holdridge, John Belton O’Neal, sources.)

That South Carolina freemen were unaccustomed to the climate of South Carolina, though many had been born and bred there, whereas the imported slaves on the plantations in the area were accustomed to the climate, is one of the many ironies of the situation.

Alston was so incensed at having his orders countermanded and the courts siding with the deserters, that he decided to disband the militia altogether and sent everyone home. However, when a British force landed on St. Helena Island,  and the coast of South Carolina was all undefended, he was forced to reverse himself. He returned to the state legislature and asked for and  was granted greater war powers for mustering the state militia. But the British could not have been more immune to malaria than the Americans, so they do not appear to have stayed on St. Helena Island for long. There appears to be no record of an engagement with the enemy there.

Although the cause of malaria and effective treatments for it were not known at the time, the South Carolina planters and other free whites in peacetime found ways to protect themselves and reduce  their children’s exposure to the disease, while  the slaves on their plantations could not. This resulted in higher infant mortality among the slaves, but  those who survived to adulthood had  genetic immunity that they could even pass on to their children, while a whole generation of military age free men did not. Yet the slaves could not serve in the military unless they were first freed, and the freemen could not serve effectively without exposing themselves to the deadly disease.

As for Joseph Alston, his service as governor ended on December 1, 1814. He was not well for the remainder of his life, possibly suffering himself from symptoms of malaria. He died on September 19, 1816. Today he is remembered chiefly for the fact that he had once been married to Theodosia Burr.

  Theodosia and the PiratesTheoFinalWindlass


The African Slave Trade and South Carolina

African-American Heritage and Ethnography

Biographical Sketches of Bench and Bar — online

James Holdridge

John Belton O’Neal, Biographical Sketches of the Bar and Bench of South Carolina, II:69-73


Members of the 19th General Assembly — South Carolina

South Carolina Governor Joseph Alston

Starling Tucker

Malaria – The Mystery Plague of Colonial America

June 30, 2014 in American History, general history, History

The mosquito, a deadly foe to mankind.

Despite modern advances in medicine, there is a plague (one of many) that still haunts mankind around the globe and that is malaria.  Malaria is a parasite spread by the female mosquito that affects your blood cells. Somewhere in the world, every thirty-five seconds, a child unnecessarily dies from this horrible disease.  Of course today, we know that it is spread by the lowly female mosquito — who despite modern technology, modern medicine, and awareness has managed to outwit the humans who live within its many kingdoms.  To understand the way that malaria and the mosquito have changed history, a trip down memory lane to Colonial America will yield a good bit of understanding.

Beginning with the first Europeans setting foot in the Americas, the would-be colonists and explorers, quickly became profoundly aware of their own mortality in the face of such diseases as yellow fever, smallpox, and malaria.  Thanks to a compatible climate, those living in more Southern and temperate locations, such as Georgia, Louisiana, and the Carolinas would soon face an overwhelming reality exemplified by this quote:

“They who want to die quickly, go to Carolina.”

Along with people in the Louisiana and Georgia, during in the late 18th and 19th centuries in South Carolina, especially around Charleston, had such a high mortality that less than 20% reached their 20th birthday.  Most of those who died did so because of malaria, or because of being in a weakened state after a bout of malaria.  It’s almost unimaginable that so many mothers and fathers would be burying their children so young.  Anyone who has experienced such a loss knows that this life event alters your life forever.

Another staggering set of statistics, just in the fifty years that one group, England’s Society for the Propagation of Gospel in Foreign Parts, was sending young men to South Carolina – of the total fifty young men (one per year), only 43% survived, and many resigned within five years of setting foot on South Carolina soil due to poor health from malaria.  And, of course, it goes almost without saying the medical lack of knowledge as to what caused malaria back then, and how to treat it also was another gravestone upon many.  It left much of the South a place to die rather than a place to live.  Perhaps, no greater community suffered from the spread of malaria than those in and around South Carolina for more than a century (except those living in The Floridas and coastal Louisiana).

“More die of the practitioner than of the natural course of the disease.” – Dr. William Douglass

In Colonial days, the cause of malaria was unknown, and when people don’t know something they are scared of — they make up theories and stories as to why their loved one has departed from them.  Different groups of people had different names for malaria.  It was called ague; bilious fever, country fever, intermittent fever, remittent fever, tertian fever, and mal aira.  Colonists believed that the fever, by whatever name, was caused by the methane gasses that could be seen arising from any nearby swamp, often referred to as “vapors” or miasmas” arising from the putrefaction in vegetation in the swamps from rotting plants and dead animals.  People literally believed it came from bad air that attacked you somehow mysteriously in your sleep.  Many of the folk tales of African slaves and the Acadians in Louisiana, had central themes tying folk monsters of the swamps such as the feux-folet of Cajun folklore being somehow connected to this disease.

Additionally, deaths in Colonial America continued well into the early 1900s —  when colonies became states, yet quackery, medical ignorance, poor hygiene, barbaric medical remedies such as blistering, phlebotomy, and purging all continually played a huge role in the malaria disease cycle.  However, there was an obscure fact that is often ignored when it comes to malaria — and that is the role of the crops that early colonists and rural America chose to grow and how it contributed to the problem.  In other words agriculture, plus temperate climate, plus natural terrain, all played a huge role in the spread of malaria.  The female mosquito may have carried the disease, but we unwittingly invited her as a house guest when our early settlers decided to grow rice and indigo.

This was particularly true in the coastal regions of the Carolinas, Georgia and Louisiana, where the spread of malaria was quickened because rice and indigo cultivation.  In order for both crops widely grown for commercial value, the necessary irrigation and pools of stagnant shallow water were important in making such places is a virtual mosquito growing nursery.  Furthermore, the African slaves who worked the fields became the most likely first victims of malaria bearing mosquitoes.  In turn, a mosquito biting a person with the malaria parasite spread the disease to rich and poor.  The blood thirsty mosquito does not discriminate.

There are countless examples in history of this, one such Carolina example is that of a ten-year-old boy, the only son his parents would ever have.  His father was the governor of South Carolina, his mother the daughter of a former U.S. Vice President, and yet no amount of money could protect him from malaria.  Aaron Burr Alston, died from a mosquito bite, despite having a family rich enough to sleep under a “Pavilion of Catgut Gauze” the choice of the rich in terms of what we call mosquito nets today.  Like countless others of unfortunate victims to malaria, the world will never know what this one little boy or his descendants could have accomplished — a common bond between every malaria victim.

The grave of Aaron Burr Alston who was another loss to history by malaria.

The grave of Aaron Burr Alston who was another loss to history by malaria.  His father, Joseph Alston was buried in the same grave.  

Breeding sites for the female Anopheles mosquito were also naturally prolific between great thunder storms and annual hurricanes.  Drainage especially around both agriculture and towns were another contributor to the huge problem.  It was reported that mosquitoes were so thick that they could blacken an arm in sheer numbers at times and were documented in the deaths of killing cattle by suffocation of the nostrils.  While malaria by itself, actually doesn’t kill the vast number of people who succumbed to it, malaria does weaken its victim’s resistance to other diseases they wouldn’t have normally been bothered by.  Side effects after having had malaria are:  anemia, fatigue, proneness to infections, pneumonia and a greatly weakened immune system.  Once over the initial bout of malaria, victims were also likely to have reoccurring attacks of malaria and never really recover completely.

Malaria also preys on the defenseless, infants, small children, and the elderly were all groups that had high mortality rates.  Women often contracted malaria during pregnancy were also prone to miscarriages, premature labor, and death.  It was the leading cause of death for Colonial Southern women.  More people would die in the Americas from it than all of the deaths from wars fought within our borders, especially during the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

Soon, it would become apparent that cinchona bark, similar to quinine was an effective cure, but the people of that those days still lacked the ability to understand the true cause and carrier of the disease.  Others favored alternative remedies and ineffective healing attempts,  such as St. John’s Wort, mustard plasters, wormwood, and foxglove.  Prevention methods of the day were the burning tobacco to clean the air, mud baths, blood letting, and mercury pills – all equally ineffective at best.  Even netting around beds for the lucky who had them was not connected in the minds of people to stopping malaria – only a way of keeping biting and itchy insects off them while they slept.

Fast forward to today, where malaria is still a plague but not longer a mystery, except to the puzzle as to why mankind has not eradicated the disease now that we know the cause.  How many more people will die from the bite of a mosquito?  Will history continue to be altered because of malaria?  This one quote says it all:

There are more people dying of malaria than any specific cancer.” — Bill Gates



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