Retrospect, Summer 2014 Page: 10
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Smallpox Epidemic of 1899 Brought Fear;
Changes to Denton County
The settlers in the 1800s faced many
obstacles; Indian raids, lack of supplies,
isolation, but the onset of illness may have
been the most feared.
Of the serious epidemics faced by
early settlers, smallpox by far gave the
citizenry the most concern. The high death
rate-an average of 30% but ranging up-
wards to 60% for adults and up to 80%
among children in some outbreaks-could
decimate a community in quick order. Its
highly contagious nature also added to the
According to scientists, the disease
existed in human populations for as long as
10,000 years ago. In spite of Edward Jen-
ner's discovery of a vaccine in 1796, im-
munizations were still uncommon by the
end of the next century.
Serious outbreaks in Texas occurred
beginning in the fall of 1898; the worst oc-
curring in Laredo. By early 1899 the
deaths in the Laredo community had
reached over 100. In Denton County the
late severe cold snap in February 1899
was accompanied by a reports of smallpox
in Lewisville, Roanoke and Garza. All
would prove false, but by summer the num-
ber of actual cases would rise and Denton
County would be gripped with the fear that
a full-fledged epidemic might break out.
The first report came in from the Little
Elm area in June. It is remembered in the
book 100 Years in the Little Elm Communi-
ty and referenced in a February 28, 2007
Denton Record-Chronicle article by Nita
The county health officer, Dr. Frank E.
Piner, went to the farm of Jack Salmons
and found that their daughter had smallpox.
Mrs. Salmons and others would eventually
contract the disease, too.
Anyone who had contact with the in-
fected were quarantined; tents were set up
on the farm to house neighbors and friends
who had been exposed. Of those confined
to the camp, the number of those who
came down with smallpox reached five. All
recovered except for Mrs. Salmons, the
only direct fatality of the outbreak.
Mrs. Salmons and a child that she
gave birth to prematurely while ill were bur-
ied on the farm. The Salmons family would
wait over ten years to insure the contagion
had subsided before moving the bodies to
the Little Elm Cemetery for reburial.
The Dallas Morning News reported in
their August 4, 1899 edition that the forty to
fifty detained at the camp were discharged
and the quarantine lifted the previous day.
The paper also reported that Dr. Piner was
on his way to Pilot Point to establish anoth-
er detention camp after three residents
were exposed to a smallpox case in
The Denton County Commissioners
later directed Dr. Piner, Dr. I. S. Rogers
and A. W. Robertson to inspect the house
to see if it could be fumigated. They report-
ed that they were in the process of disin-
fecting the structure with coal oil when a
lighted match accidentally set it afire. The
county commissioners later voted to pay a
Mr. Hume, the owner of the house rented
by the Salmons family, $150 for destroying
The Pilot Point scare turned out to be
just that-a scare. A handful of smallpox
cases occurred in August but were the
milder form and large scale quarantines
were not necessary.
But the danger of another outbreak
was still in the air and by September-
cotton picking time-it was real and this
time its toll would be heavy.
In the September 5, 1899 edition of the
Dallas Morning News it was reported "A
suspicious case of what is believed to be
smallpox is reported from near Argyle."
The suspicion would prove true and this
time the smallpox outbreak would be espe-
cially virulent and deadly.
The outbreak began on the farm of
Henery Foster, southeast of Argyle near
what is now FM 407. Again, Dr. Piner
would set up another detention camp that
would grow to about forty detainees. Of
these, twenty-one came down with small-
The first death came soon after the
camp was established. Foster's wife, Eliz-
abeth Sarah Douglas Foster, died on Sep-
tember 9. After a ten-day lull, the daughter
of Will Lane died, followed four days later
by the death of the Foster's seven-year-old
daughter, Ida Myrtle. Two days later, on
September 25, Henerey Foster and his
fourteen-year-old son, Henerey Clarence,
succumbed to the disease. Their deaths
were followed by that of Jack Hickey, a
neighboring farmer. The seventh and final
death occurred on September 30 when the
little girl of Joseph Schoppaul died. Four of
these are confirmed by the records of
Shepard and Magill undertakers who sup-
plied the coffins; the other three from re-
ports in the Dallas Morning News. The
fourteen others who contracted smallpox
All of the victims of this outbreak were
buried on the Foster farm and remain
there, still. The site is listed on the Histori-
cal Commission's cemetery list as "Foster
Family Cemetery" not to be confused with
the Wolf-Foster Cemetery in Northlake, a
few miles southwest.
One of the notable efforts that came
from the Foster outbreak is that the county
commissioners led an effort to establish a
"Smallpox Relief Committee" in every com-
munity in Denton County to raise funds to
help the families of those affected. The
onset of the disease coincided with the
beginning of the cotton harvest and those
detained lost much if not all of their crops.
By the time the detainees were released, it
was mid-October and much of the cotton
left in the field was beyond its prime.
There were other isolated cases of
smallpox in the county at the time but all
recovered. One positive that came from
the outbreak was that many Denton County
residents rushed to be vaccinated. The
October 1 edition of the Dallas paper re-
ported that Denton drugstores had sold
"probably 5,000" dosages of the vaccine.
Denton County Commissioners also
decided to establish a "pesthouse" for the
county where all future smallpox sufferers
and those exposed would be sent. In Feb-
ruary 1900 they purchased from future
Denton County Sheriff W. S. Fry twenty-
five acres of land south of Denton along the
Katy Railroad tracks for this purpose. A
house was constructed and for many years
smallpox cases were sent to that location.
Smallpox continued to crop up in Den-
ton County, even into the 1920s and
1930s. Today, smallpox has been de-
clared eradicated, the world's last case
being recorded in 1977.
Editor' s Note: a substantial portion of the
information in this story came from the ar-
chives of the Dallas Morning News.
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Denton County Historical Commission (Tex.). Retrospect, Summer 2014, periodical, Summer 2014; Denton, Texas. (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth542488/m1/10/?q=%22dr.+piner%22: accessed January 24, 2022), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; .