History & Profiles

BL Longform: San Juan Bautista and the great smallpox epidemic

The struggle to survive a deadly disease in 1868.

For San Juan Bautista, it began with a stranger traveling from Los Angeles. And it ended with three-quarters of the city infected and over 150 dead.

Epidemics are nothing new, as the town had seen smallpox, measles, and cholera before, particularly in outbreaks that decimated the Native American population.

In 1868, smallpox resurfaced in California. First cases appeared in the major port cities of San Francisco, Monterey and Los Angeles, and soon spread by travelers across the entire state.

First outbreak. Santa Cruz Sentinel, July 28, 1868
First outbreak. Santa Cruz Sentinel, July 28, 1868

The July 18, 1868, issue of the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel warned of outbreaks in Santa Cruz and Soquel. In Watsonville, they reported the death of a man named Corbett who was tended to in his sickness by his business partner, who contracted the disease himself and died a few days later.

On July 23, 1868, the Monterey Gazette wrote that “it becomes the duty of everyone to get vaccinated.” A week later, the Sentinel warned, “All who are not vaccinated should at once attend to it, as there is no danger if this preventative is universally resorted to.” Speculation that the disease was coming from China led to Asian immigrants being inoculated as they got off incoming ships.

Quick action seemed to stem the tide of the disease. Dr. Charles Canfield, who was originally from San Juan, vaccinated over 650 patients in the Monterey area. By the end of September, there were only isolated cases in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

Then, at the end of October, came the inevitable second wave. Jules Kahn, in his “Histoires Californiennes,” described what happened.

“A sick stranger arrived in San Juan,” Khan wrote. “He was placed at the National Hotel where he lay abed. A young doctor had come to establish himself in San Juan. Called to the sick man who was feverish and complained of pains in the kidney, he diagnosed an intermittent fever. Several days later an eruption showed itself on the body of the sick man and the doctor ordered a purgative. But the fever kept rising and the sick man was delirious. The doctor seemed not to understand his case.”

Some local residents came to offer help with the man’s care, including James Collins, who had recently had smallpox. Looking at the stranger, he said, “If that man hasn’t got the smallpox, then I never had it.”

After eight days, the man died, his body covered in black boils.

The next day, the bartender at the National Hotel became sick. Two friends of his, volunteer firemen, helped take care of him. The bartender died, and his friends became sick.

A few days later, 20 more people in town were sick with smallpox. Some of them had been among the people who had tended to the stranger.

The young Dr. Westfall, feeling out of his depth, called in Dr. F. A. McDougall from Sacramento. McDougall lived in San Juan but was serving at the time as state Senator.

He was greeted by a crowd and, standing on a billiard table, told the group, “Wherever you are or wherever I am, if ever one of you is in need of me, don’t hesitate to let me know and I will always be of service to you.”

McDougall made the rounds and identified the disease as smallpox. He made suggestions for treatment and then quickly left, refusing to stay any longer than necessary in his own hometown.

On Nov. 2, 1868, the Alta California reported five deaths in San Juan including a prominent citizen of the town, George Crane, who died of the “horrible disease.” By Nov. 13, things had gotten much worse. The Santa Cruz Times published a letter from John Whitney, the postmaster of San Juan, to a Captain Brown in Santa Cruz, giving an account of the city’s struggle.

Death of George Crane. Daily Alta California, Nov. 10, 1868
Death of George Crane. Daily Alta California, Nov. 10, 1868.


“I have kept a correct account of all cases and you can rely on them,” Whitney wrote. “We have 122 cases and 23 deaths from smallpox. The cases are generally lighter but it is so difficult to get anyone to take care of the sick. Whole families are down with it. It is perfectly fearful. Those who are well are worn out. Many who could go have fled the pestilence.”

Whitney pleaded with the people of Santa Cruz for help.

“Means to pay expenses are difficult to get,” Whitney wrote. “To their eternal disgrace, some who are rich contribute little or nothing to alleviate the suffering. I learn this morning the people of Salinas have raised a subscription. Will not Santa Cruz do something? Everything is at a standstill and gloomy in the extreme and God knows when it will stop.”

Whitney's Plea. Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, November 14, 1868
Whitney’s Plea. Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, November 14, 1868.

The next day, the Sentinel reprinted Whitney’s letter with their own editorial remarks.

“We understand that the Board of Supervisors have as yet taken no steps to control this fearful disease which is now raging with such terrible fatality in San Juan or to assist the poor families whose members are all prostrate and helpless. Such stupidity of the part of the Board is criminal.”

Captain Brown began a drive for funds and was able to gather $200 from the citizens of Santa Cruz in a few weeks. By that time, San Juan was quarantined, and “all needless communication” was suspended. The stagecoaches and delivery wagons no longer came through town. Residents were not allowed to leave. A “pest house” to quarantine victims was built on the banks of the San Benito River, near where the Betabel RV park stands today.

Kahn described the house as having 24 beds, which were all occupied. Coffins were constructed and stored outside the house.

The sick who had families stayed at their homes. The rest were sent to the pest house.

Isaac Mylar, author of “Early Days in San Juan Bautista,” wrote: “The unfortunate victims of the disease who had no one to care for them were sent to this lonely spot. The disease proved to be of the most malignant type. Nurses could not be obtained anywhere, although as high as twenty dollars a night was offered to them.”

With the town doctor being untrained in this disease, townspeople relied on published health advice, quack remedies, speculative cures and pure nonsense.

The Pajaro Times advised, “Disinfectants must be used. There is virtue in carbolic acid, chloride of lime, etc, but there also is a virtue in personal cleanliness and proper food.” Another paper recommended the liberal use of sliced onion in every room of the home. It was standard practice to burn the clothing and bedding of victims, but some of the locals pushed that idea too far.

According to Kahn, a store on Second Street was set on fire “in hopes it would purify the air and so chase away the epidemic.” It was quickly put out and a night patrol was set up to stop any future arson.

Kahn mentions people were warned that vigilante justice with a quick trip to the hanging tree would be applied if there were any further attempts: “One always finds a bit of cord for those that deserve it.”

Alcohol, of course, became a convenient standby. Kahn wrote, “The bars were very lively because rumor had it that alcohol was a good preventative.” And of course, those bars were also instrumental in spreading the virus.

James Collins, the man who first identified the disease in town, tended patients at the pest house. Because he had previously contracted the disease, he was immune to it. Part of the pay for workers in the house was alcohol—a bottle of whiskey a day.

Kahn wrote, “It was alleged that they drank heavily to ward off the disease. It is scarcely fair to blame them for this as the work they had to perform and the sights they saw was enough to drive any man mad.”

By Nov. 10, there were over 100 deaths and, according to the Sentinel, “the gravediggers go about their business and the dead cart is actively engaged. The citizens are now doing all that lies within their power to alleviate the distress of those who are suffering under the affliction of this terrible disease.”

Each night, carts filled with the dead were taken to the San Juan Cemetery and buried. The haste with which they did the job is testified to by the occasional bodies that fell off the carts on the way, only to be discovered lying by the roadside or in the streets on the return trip.

Only the most important people got headstones; common folk were buried in mass graves.

San Juan was running out of food, medicine and supplies. The quarantine kept any deliveries away and desperation began to set into the city.

Two men snuck through the quarantine and headed to Monterey for food and supplies. One account claims they disguised themselves in Native American clothing.

On the outskirts of town they changed into fresh clothes, but once they entered they were recognized and ordered to leave. Some compassionate residents were given time to gather some supplies for them to take back to San Juan.

On Dec. 1, the Daily Alta California reported, “A citizen of Watsonville, temporarily at San Juan, returned to his home and shortly died of confluent smallpox. Soon after several children were taken down with the loathsome disease.” From that one case, Watsonville went into a third wave, with 30 cases and six deaths in a matter of days.

Medical supplies were scarce and the one treatment that could have helped—vaccination—was never ordered by the San Juan doctor, whom Kahn referred to as “incompetent and untrained.”

“While the epidemic raged, no one had been vaccinated at San Juan,” Kahn wrote. “The young doctor had not suggested it. Perhaps he had not known enough to do it!”

The Pajaro Times assured their readers on Dec. 10 that in San Juan, “The small-pox seems to be abating rapidly.”

But they were wrong. The disease raged on and by the end of the month, the Sanitary Committee of San Juan estimated that three-quarters of residents had suffered from smallpox “in a more or less degree.”

It was noticed that the victims of the disease were, with one exception, the “Californians,” not the European immigrants. The immigrants would have been vaccinated when coming into the country, the Californians would never have gotten the treatment.

On Jan. 23, 1869, the Monterey Gazette wrote that “not a case of smallpox exists in San Juan, and only one or two that are rapidly convalescing in the vicinity. We are glad to learn that business is commencing to recover from the paralyzing shock it received.”

Sanitary Committee Report. Pajaro Times, February 4, 1869
Sanitary Committee Report. Pajaro Times, February 4, 1869.

By Feb. 4, The Pajaro Times reported that the Sanitary Committee of San Juan declared the epidemic nearly gone, adding, “The people of San Juan have had a terrible siege and we are glad they are no longer under this terrible visitation.”

They placed the cost of containing the epidemic in town at $3,073.95, with $2,814.34 raised and $259.61 still being owed, “which will doubtless be paid them from the Monterey County.”

When it was over, in the town of roughly 1,000 residents, more than 150 had died from smallpox in less than three months. This number does not include the critically ill who were brought from surrounding areas to live their last days in the San Juan pest house. Nor does it include any Native Americans who lived outside the town.

These were, again, people who were stricken and had no families to care for them. They were buried without ceremony the evening they died and their number remains unknown.

For the Gazette, the future of San Juan was bright, predicting that “San Juan, from its position and surroundings, is destined sooner or later to become the most important town in the county and we trust that neither pestilence, fire, nor flood will hereafter rise to again check its rapid march to prosperity.”

San Juan had more disasters and catastrophes to deal with in the years to come but, for the moment, hope was again restored.


BenitoLink is grateful to Wanda Guibert of the San Juan Historical Society for access to the Milliken Papers and to the unpublished Glenn Farris translation of Jules Kahn’s Histoires Californiennes (1925).


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.