Saturday, December 14, 2013

In Search of Quarantine Island

Documents from two soldiers of the 56th US Colored Infantry
who died of Cholera at Quarantine Island.

Prior to this year, I had never heard of Quarantine Island. But several months ago, it came to my attention when some friends and colleagues of the St. Louis African American Genealogy & History Society told the story of soldiers from the 56th US Colored Infantry who died of cholera in 1866.

The regiment was from Arkansas, but many of the men were formerly enslaved in their home state of Missouri. Man enlisted in Arkansas, would serve there and even fight there, and towards the end of their service they left Helena Arkansas for St. Louis to be mustered out. But as fate would have it, many men became gravely ill. Some died aboard the steamer taking them to St. Louis. Others were treated at either Jefferson Barracks, or placed on Quarantine island, and within a few days, 175 men would succumb to this disease.

Most were buried on Quarantine Island. They would remain there till 1939 when industry demands required that their bodies be moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. They were moved but sadly, they buried in a mass grave at the cemetery.

The story unfolded this year when the genealogy group began to research this story and decided to see if
they could honor these men who never made it home. The group worked hard and finally on August 16, 2013, they were successful in having the men honored with a moving ceremony for them.

While research continues on these men and their history, by the St. Louis genealogists, I was a bit curious to learn more about where they were initially buried, Quarantine Island. I learned that as the course of the river changed, and as there were more interests by industry, the course of the Mississippi River was altered and within time Quarantine Island disappeared.

But on a search to see what part of the river the island may have been, I came across a fascinating video by the Missouri History Museum. The Video was about an island unfamliar to me, called Smallpox Island. This was a place where early in the Civil War, men who had contracted smallpox were taken to be treated and in most cases, to die. But what caught my attention in this 18 minute video that mentioned Quarantine Island.

In that video Alex Fees, was the producer and host, and he asked some questions about the history of the island. He began pointing out the names of other islands that he had previously heard before, including Quarantine Island.  He spoke with Dr. David Meyers, a professor and historical re-enactor, and he also spoke with  Barnes Bradshaw of the museum with good questions about Smallpox Island.

In that video, Dr. Terry Norris, District Archaeologist with the US Army Corps of Engineers also spoke about Smallpox Island. He also mentioned a confederate prisoner of war camp near Alton Illinois. When an epidemic of smallpox arose, the residents of Alton were concerned about the patients with smallpox infecting the larger population. A small island called Sunflower Island, was closer to the Missouri side of the river and it was selected to become the site where these men infected with smallpox would go. I did wonder if Quarantine could have been Smallpox Island, because of the fact that smallpox was one of those diseases that the population would have wanted to distance itself from, thus the concept of putting patients in "quarantine" made me wonder.

But the illness that affected the Black soldiers of the 56th US Colored Infantry was not smallpox, but cholera, were known to have caught cholera on the Steamer Continental and when they arrived in St. Louis, many were placed on an island referred to as Quarantine Island. Again, I asked ---is this the same island? 

The records indicate that the soldiers were buried right there on Quarantine Island. In the video Dr. Norris mentioned that the prisoners from 1862 were buried on Sunflower Island--Smallpox Island as well. And in the 1930s interest arose in that area, when construction for Lock and Dam #26 began.

My curiosity continued while watching the video, as Dr. Norris pointed out that interest in Civil War soldiers buried along the Mississippi arose when construction brought up skulls and other remains of these prisoners. Apparently the construction site for the Lock and Dam was in the exact place where Smallpox Island was. 

So, did Smallpox Island "become" Quarantine Island? It was explained that as the river course was changed during construction of the Lock and Dam, Smallpox Island simply disappeared from the surface. It was filled in by the river, never to be seen again.

Meanwhile 1939 another reburial decision was made to remove Union Soldiers to Jefferson Barracks. But these were the 175 Black Union Soldiers of the 56th US Colored Infantry who died of cholera in 1866. Their story was a bit different, as it was said that though they were removed, there were somehow place no longer in single graves, but this time upon arrival at Jefferson Barracks, their remains were placed in one mass grave. Two memorial stones saying "Unknown Soldier" were placed above this now mass grave and Quarantine Island where they were once buried was now free to erode with the changes in the river. And as  the construction needs of the community, and this island too, was simply forgotten.

So was Smallpox Island the same as Quarantine Island?

Smallpox Island got public attention again in the 1980s when the newer Melvin Price Locks and Dam were constructed. While much of the soil was being moved that came from the same area where Smallpox Island once was, human remains were found. It was then noted that there had already been so much disturbance of the resting place of those soldiers, a decision made to not try to obtain all of their remains, but to erect a memorial was built with the names of the men who died at Smallpox Island, at the small abutment in West Alton MO, which is according to their research, where Smallpox Island once stood.

NOTE: At 11 minutes 30 seconds on the video (11:31) the question was asked: "Smallpox Island, Quarantine Island, is this all one and the same?" Dr. Terry nodded and said "Smallpox Island, Quarantine Island, Sunflower Island, there're several more names that came and went, during the late 19th century and early 20th centuries."

So now we have three names, "Smallpox Island", "Sunflower Island", and "Quarantine Island". Yet, the video made no mention of the men of the 56th US Colored. If they died on the same island, I thought how sad that they were not mentioned.

Then I noted some additional information provided by the National Park Service. The remains of many Union soldiers were transferred from Smallpox Island, that was also known by another name--Arsenal Island. And according to the park service another name for Arsenal Island was Smallpox Island.  So now there is yet another name for Smallpox Island--Arsenal Island. 

Again the question---were Arsenal, Smallpox, and Quarantine Island the same? If this was the case, I was completely perplexed as how the history of the US Colored Soldiers were completely omitted by a video featured on the Missouri History Museum. In addition, I located a website that actually posted the names of the men whose names were placed on the West Alton MO monument, and none were US Colored Troops. Surely there could not be such a blatant omission of black soldiers!

I watched the remainder of the video, and even said aloud, "why was there no mention of the soldiers from the US Colored Infantry who had contracted cholera?" And these men are known to have originally had personal burials on Quarantine Island. But something occurred to me. One of the most significant policies during that time was also to segregate men of color from white soldiers.

So although Dr. Terry said that they were one and the same, I began to wonder if there was a strong possibility that Quarantine Island was a different island entirely and Black soldiers may have been treated and died of cholera from this different island.

I had a discussion about this with genealogist and researcher Sarah Cato, of St. Louis, who is spearheading the effort in the St-L AAHGS to honor the men who were put in the mass grave. From her research, the men were re-interred at Jefferson Barracks in 1939 from Quarantine Island. I suggested that we both look high and low for a 19th or early 20th century map that might show the Mississippi River and reflect any island called Quarantine Island.

Then Thursday a break came from Ms. Cato! She had gone to work, and she had located a map!! And this map was printed in 1909 and it had two significant islands marked, in the Mississippi River. Arsenal Island and Quarantine Island! "Arsenal and Quarantine", I asked just to be sure. She replied, "I am sending you some email with the image."

Within a minute the email arrived and there it was, an image of the Mississippi River, with St. Louis on the left side of the river, and the state of Illinois on the right side of the river. And sure enough---there were two islands clearly marked. To the north was Arsenal Island, and further south, closer to Jefferson Barracks and extending southward, was Quarantine Island.

The map appears on the website HistoricMapworks. On that site came an old map of St. Louis County, and there if one zooms in are two significant features in the Mississippi River. One was called Arsenal Island and further south was another island, Quarantine Island. They were not one and the same!

(The Map of St. Louis County is found HERE.)

Zooming in closely one can see two distinct islands clearly marked on the map.
Images of Map from HistoricMapworks, reflecting Arsenal Island and Quarantine Island as two different islands.

Since I realized that the map was one of St. Louis County and not of St. Louis City, I decided to see if I could find another map also reflecting the two different islands. I came across one map that I didn't expect to reflect anything, because this map was of St. Louis County, but it was printed in 1857, which was four years before the Civil War. But since this was a searchable map I decided to examine it.

To my surprise--the islands in the Mississippi River were reflected on the map, and there were two distinct islands again. This site reflected Wagner's Map of St. Louis County. And this map also revealed that there were was an Arsenal Island and a Quarantine Island.

Arsenal Island (Later known as Smallpox Island) in 1857

Quarantine Island in 1857

So-- once again here was evidence that they were not the same islands! And it is now understood why the 56th US  Colored Infantry would not have been in the video, as their history was different, they died in two different places, and they were treated on two distinct islands.

I understood how Smallpox Island---also known as Arsenal Island disappeared when work began on the Lock and Dam project, and it is now completely gone. However, I wondered if anything remained of Quarantine Island. I notice two things in common on both maps. Quarantine island was close to the Illinois banks of the Mississippi River, and there was a small canal that ran between the island and the Illinois river banks. Could the traces of the island be seen today?

I decided to use Google Maps to see what could be seen from an areal view.  I had to get my bearings first, and on both maps I could see that Quarantine Island would be adjacent to Jefferson Barracks if one were to draw a horizontal line. The island extended southward, and came to almost a pointed shape at the southern most tip. So I looked for something similar using Google.

On one of the older maps, I noticed that Quarantine Island appeared to be on the same latitude as Oakville and an area known as Cliff Cave. I noticed on the satellite image, that after locating Oakville and Cliff Cave which is now a park, to the right, in the river, I saw what appears to be the remnants of a land mass that might have been an island. The land mass comes to a point on the southern most post, and I believe that what little that remains of Quarantine Island has been located. Now, I cannot say with certainty as most likely an archaeologist and cartographer would have to confirm it. However, by the location and the placement of the island this could very well be the southernmost part of an island that was part of Civil War History, USCT history, Mississippi River history and American History.

Image from Google Earth. The red arrows are pointing to a small canal between this island and the Illinois river banks. Could this possibly be the southernmost tip of the old Quarantine Island?

The story of the men who died of cholera at the end of the War, intrigued me. 

Their being buried on a tiny island, then having had their graves disturbed and their being re-interred, in a mass grave saddened me.

And so little knowledge about these men and where their first burial site may have been on today's maps, worried me. 

So, I went in search of Quarantine Island, and I do believe that I have found it.

* * * * * *
(Special thanks to Ms. Sarah Cato for finding the first map that opened the doors to this part of the history of the men of the 56th US Colored Infantry.)