Cholera Epidemic in Galt 1834

As I sit at my desk on a beautiful, sunny April 2nd, the news is flooded with details of the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020. People around the world are urged to isolate themselves to help slow down the spread of Covid-19. As a genealogist, I cannot help but think about how viruses affected our ancestors. Certainly this is not new, the world has experienced pandemics in the past, but the world in 2020 offers its own challenges.

I was reviewing my family tree, looking for any of my ancestors that were affected by the Spanish Flu in 1918. The Canadian Encyclopedia reports that this epidemic “killed between 20 and 100 million people, including 50,000 Canadians”. There are certainly parallels that can be drawn between these two pandemics that were 102 years apart. In my research, I have yet to find an ancestor that died from the Spanish Flu although there must be stories about how my family was affected.

Digging deeper into my tree, I remembered one of my ancestors dying at a fairly young age due to cholera. This was my fourth great grandfather John Christian Snyder. There is a lovely memorial stone in the Wanner Mennonite Cemetery in Galt that gives some detail on his life and that he died in 1834 of cholera.

John C Snyder and Catherine Shantz memorial stone

Now, to my non-medical knowledge, cholera is not something that one isolated person gets, certainly not in rural Ontario. With a quick Google search for cholera+1834+waterloo, I was introduced to the cholera epidemic of 1834 that swept Ontario and hit the village of Galt, particularly hard. As it turns out, about 20% of the inhabitants of the village, would perish within one week, due to cholera. And, a number of neighbouring villages were also affected. So what happened?

In 1832, cholera was found in Britain. At that time, emigration was increasing to various points around the World. There were many ships that sailed to Canada and made their way down the St. Lawrence as far as York and even Hamilton. Unfortunately, many ships were affected by all kinds of disease, including cholera. Emigrants would disembark and many would make their way up the Brock Road into Wentworth, Waterloo and Wellington counties to reach their final destinations. Of course, they would not only be bringing their families, their belongings, but also sickness.

In the Village of Galt, there was another occurrence that happened in the summer of 1834. That being a stop for a Travelling Menagerie, a pre-cursor to what we know today as a Circus. The Gregory, Crane & Company’s travelling menagerie was to do a show in Galt on July 28th, 1834. As this was a new type of event for citizens, it was an unknown, and it drew interest from people from miles around, bringing them into the Village to see it.



From the History of Galt, by the Hon. James Young, it was described as follows:
“Amusements in the nature of travelling companies were then almost unknown in the new settlement of upper Canada, and the announcement that a menagerie of wild beasts would exhibit in Galt on the 28th of July caused universal interest far and near. For nearly twenty miles around, the coming exhibition was talked about until it became a topic of absorbing interest.” My ancestor was surely one of those drawn in from neighbouring Kossuth to see the show.

On the days leading up to the show, the wagons of animals and performers arrived into the village. The day and the show were further described by Mr. Young to be “intensely warm, in fact a regular scorcher and, from all accounts the collection of wild animals was meagre and the dens and their occupants were extremely filthy. The odour was so marked as to detract seriously from the comfort of the audience, and the entertainment was hardly over when rumours began to prevail that the company had brought the much dreaded disease of cholera with them to the village.”

An article was posted on March 27th, 2020 at called “Flash from the past: Cholera makes a call in 1834 Galt”. In it, it tells of more than 200 deaths occurring within the one week between July 28th and August 3rd 1834. The show happened on Monday, by Wednesday the two local doctors were so over-wrought with patients that another doctor was called in, and by Thursday, the village was essentially shut down.

In the History of Galt, Young described “the harrowing scenes, which occurred, can never be erased from the memories of those who passed through them. The agony of the stricken, the swiftness of death, the crude board coffins and the hasty burials, in some cases within a few minutes after the last breath was drawn, turned the recently hopeful village into a charnel-house from which many fled in despair, whilst all but a few were paralysed with fear…Such widespread mortality in so small a community and in so brief a space of time recalled the ravages of the plague in London and is almost unprecedented on this continent.”

I am not sure why he was, but I am thankful that John Snyder seems to have been the only victim of this pandemic within his family. On the Waterloo Region Generations website, I can find John C. Snyder listed as one of the victims of this epidemic. He is said to have died on Thursday, July 31st, 1834 – just four days after the show, and at the age of 42 years. Along with this information and a book by Ezra E. Eby called “A Biographical History of Waterloo Township and other Townships of the County: being a history of early settlers and their descendants mostly of Pennsylvania Dutch origin”, I have been able to learn a great deal about my ancestors. John Christian Snyder was born on the 1st of February 1792 in Franklin County, Pennsylvania to parents Christian Schneider (1758-1850) and Elizabeth Erb (1770-1818). He married Catharine Shantz (1792-1854) on September 10,1814 in Waterloo, she the daughter of Christian Shantz (1769-1857) and Hannah Paul (1772-1845). A number of families had emigrated from Pennsylvania to the Waterloo area in the early 1800’s. They were considered to be Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch) who had purchased land in the Waterloo Tract and were early pioneers and founders of the area.

John and Catharine would have 9 children during their 20 year union, including by third great grandmother Elizabeth Snyder (1827-1910) who would in 1846, marry Moses Clemens (1825-1892), son of Abraham Clemens and Elizabeth Strohm. The Clemens family was also one of the early pioneer arrivals from Pennsylvania.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s