Looking north across St. Joseph Bay to the site of Old St. Joseph. Once Florida’s largest city, it was depopulated by yellow fever in 1841.

More than 175 years have passed since a dreaded illness called yellow fever all but wiped Florida’s largest city from the face of the map. Now a South Florida newspaper is warning that the “yellow jack” could be on its way back.

The Sun-Sentinel reported on Sunday (5/6/2018) that fears are growing that a yellow fever outbreak in Brazil could spread to the United States. The sickness is carried by the same mosquitoes that carry the dread Zika virus and, according to the report, last year’s Zika scare could turn into a “yellow fever panic” this year. Click here to read the full article.

If the words “yellow fever” send chills down the spines of historically-minded people in Northwest Florida, there is a very good reason. The deadly disease nearly destroyed the Panhandle city of St. Joseph in 1841:

Graves of yellow fever victims in the old St. Joseph Cemetery at Port St. Joe, Florida.

We regret to learn that the yellow fever has made, and is making, dreadful ravages among the scanty population of this heretofore healthy place. Up to last Friday, we are informed, there had been, out of a population of 4 or 500, about 30 deaths from this disease. Those of our own citizens, who had gone thither in quest of a healthy residence during the summer months, have returned to Chattahooche, and some few continued their flight to this place. The disease was brought to St. Joseph by a schooner from Havana, laden with fruit, &c. At the time of her arrival she had two hands sick on board, who, with praiseworthy humanity, were transported on shore, and the diligent attendance which they met has led to this melancholy result. [I]

At its height, St. Joseph with around 12,000 citizens was the largest city in Florida. The Constitutional Convention met there in 1838 to draft the constitution that led to Florida statehood. Dreams of commercial success faltered in the years that followed and the population fell to around 6,000 people as the community rebranded itself a coastal resort. Then came the yellow fever.

The grave of Capt. George Kupfer, who died of yellow fever and was buried in St. Joseph in the year before the deadly outbreak.

There had been a brief outbreak of the disease in 1840 after the deceased captain of a ship from Boston was brought ashore for burial. It was the 1841, epidemic, however, that leveled the once proud city.

The bringing ashore of the two yellow fever victims sent the community into panic. Citizens fled into the interior, seeking safety from a disease that they feared more than any other. As the Tallahassee Sentinel noted in the article quoted above, the population dropped almost instantly to around 400-500. Many of those who remained were sick and many died.

The total death toll of the St. Joseph outbreak is unknown. Legend holds that there are mass graves in the historic Old St. Joseph Cemetery, which is all that remains of the original city. Whether this is true or not, there are many graves in the cemetery that date from the summer of 1841.

Historical marker at old St. Joseph Cemetery in Port St. Joe, Florida.

Among those who are reported to have died in St. Joseph were Nancy Hynes Duval, the wife of former Florida governor William Pope Duval; Robert Beveridge, founder of the city of Marianna; Joseph Webb, publisher of the Florida Journal newspaper; Richard C. Allen, a Calhoun County delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and the wife and sister of Leon County delegate George T. Ward.

The disease passed as quickly as it arrived. The St. Joseph Times reported that by September, all was safe again:

The fever has entirely disappeared from our city, suddenly and we trust forever. – There has been no case of it since last month and for the ill timed and unfortunate visit of DR. GIBSON, who died on the 29th ult., we should have had no death here since the 10th August. We can again say, and with truth, that St. Joseph is now one of the healthiest places in Florida. Many families who had fled from the pestilence, have returned, and our population is rapidly increasing. [II]

Brick crypts in the old St. Joseph Cemetery in Port St. Joe, where unmarked mass graves are said to exist.

Dr. Gibson, referred to in the report, was Dr. Edward Gibson of Tallahassee. He had gone to St. Joseph to rescue his wife and children who were there for summer vacation. Gibson was the former editor of the Washington Telegraph and Tallahassee Floridian.

St. Joseph’s dreams of a return to prosperity were not realized. Most of its population never returned and devastating hurricanes in 1843-1843 further damaged the prospects of the town. Fewer than 50 residents remained after the second of these storms, making their living by fishing in the bay and adjacent waters. The post office was discontinued in 1854 after 19 years of service. St. Joseph was no more. The modern city of Port St. Joe, Florida, stands on the site.

To learn more about historic St. Joseph and the yellow fever epidemic that leveled it, stop by the Constitution Convention Museum State Park at 200 Allen Memorial Way, Port St. Joe, Florida. The museum features exhibits and artifacts about the history of St. Joseph and is open to the public Thursday-Monday. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the admission fee is $2 per person. Please click here for more information.

The old St. Joseph Cemetery is also open to the public during daylight hours and can be found at 2482 Garrison Ave., Port St. Joe, Florida. This map will show you how to find it:

[I] Tallahassee Sentinel, July 23, 1841.

[II] St. Joseph Times, Sept. 21, 1841.