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The “Children’s Epidemic” of 1775

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

Small pox, a contagious and painful disease with a very high mortality rate, was a constant threat in colonial Massachusetts. In late 1774, isolated cases appeared in Boston and several outlying towns, and gradually spread during the spring and summer of 1775. By the fall, it had reached epidemic proportions in and around the city, which was then under British occupation following the military encounters of April 19 of that year. The outbreak was so severe that George Washington refused to allow anyone from Boston to come into his army’s encampment. But the deadly disease did reach the village of South Dedham, with devastating consequences.

The population of the South Parish was around 450 in 1775. Records show that from 1765 through 1774, between 6 and 7 residents died each year, the majority were adults.

August through December of 1775, however, was different. During those months there were 23 deaths, 17 of them children (14 occurred in September and October). Several homesteads, including those of Silas Morse, Benjamin Fuller, Nathan Morse, and Jeremiah Kingsbury, suffered the loss of more than one child.

Three of these children are buried in Old Parish. Moses Kingsbury, was 16 when he died on October 5; his sister, Abigail, who died a few days later, was 9. David Colburn, the 4-year-old son of David and Rebecca Colburn, died on September 27. Moses and Abigail are buried at the crest of the hill, surrounded by family. A short distance away, David Colburn’s small gravestone stands alone.

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