Yellow Fever in Virginia – Family Legend or Truth?

To anyone other than a genealogist, getting excited when you learn about a tragedy in your family history is kind of morbid. But I wouldn’t say the word “excited” is exactly the right term. Interested. Fascinated. Connected.

In July of 1870,  my third great grandfather, Orlando Shrum,  was a successful young brickmason in Halbert Township of Martin County, Indiana.  His 27 year old wife, Martha Horsey Shrum, was just a few weeks pregnant with their second son, Frederick. Their  first born son, Mark, had just turned one year old a few weeks earlier. Mark was my great-grandfather

The enormous markers of Martha and Frederick Orlando Shrum at Spring Hill Cemetery, Shoals, Indiana

Less than four years later, Orlando, his wife and baby Frederick would all be dead, leaving  5 year old Mark without a family.

I remember my mother telling me with great pity in her voice that they all had died at once due to a yellow fever epidemic. Orlando’s brother, Alfred Shrum, lived in Washington, Indiana about 30 miles down the road. He had nine children of his own, but he came to get  Mark and brought him home and raised him as one of his own. My mother remembers her grandfather telling her that he was so scared the first night in their house that he slept behind the wood stove in the kitchen.

I haven’t yet been able to confirm if it was yellow fever that took Mark’s family, but it definitely was a leading cause of death in that area during the mid to late 1800’s.

What I have found so far is that Orlando died first in December 1871, just a few weeks before Christmas. He was just 29 years old. Two months later in February of 1872, baby Frederick died. Death records in Indiana weren’t kept by counties until 1882 so finding a cause of death will require some extra digging. Both are buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, in Shoals, Indiana.

Martha lived another two years, caring for their young son, Mark, alone. She died in September of 1874 at age 31. She is buried next to her husband in Spring Hill.

I can’t imagine the grief Martha endured losing her young husband and child right after each other. How was she able to support herself? What did she die of?

Thankfully, my great-grandfather’s life turned out to be a very good one. Mark grew up to be a successful osteopathic doctor in Lynn, Massachusetts and lived a long, happy life with his wife Luta. He never forgot his Indiana roots and brought his family back there often to visit.


I have joined an online challenge by Amy Johnson Crow to write about 52 ancestors in 52 weeks. I’m so far behind it is not even funny. But Amy says its not about how much you write, but that you just keep writing. So here I still am.  I’m writing about the prompt “Family Legend.” You can join any time and find all the details here: 

Click here to sign up for the 52 Ancestors Challenge 

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