Some of the county entries in the Mortality Schedule of the Federal Census are wonderfully informative. One branch of my family is from the “burned county” of Nansemond, Virginia. The 1850 Mortality Schedule gives a great little snapshot of life and death in Nansemond:
There has been no particular malady in the County during the year ending 1st June 1850 except Asiatic Cholera & this was principally confined to two localities Viz the precincts of Suffolk, and the vicinity of Hargroves in the Lower Parish of Nansemond County, most of the cases which proved fatal were among the negroes, or persons in the lower ranks of society who were [illegible] together in small and badly ventilated habitations, surrounded by an impure atmosphere, caused by a want of cleanliness and accumulations of filth in the neighborhoods. Nearly every case could be traced immediately to the imprudent eating of vegetables. Those persons who occupied comfortable habitations, who were in a situation to possess the comforts of life and refrained from a vegetable diet, escaped with impunity.
There is an abundant supply of good water in the County, a great many easy fine springs, the water of which is probably as pure as any can be found in Eastern Virginia. The climate is mild but variable. In the fall of the year Bilious fever and Fever & Ague prevail to a limited extent, but of a character much more mild than formerly. The disease most dreaded & which proves most fatal, is Bilious Pleurisy, prevalent in some portions of the County during the winter & Spring. The soil is generally good; there is an abundant quantity of mud of very find quality in the County and near the banks of the Nansemond River, there are beds of shells near the surface, varying from a few inches to several feet in depth, affording an almost unexhaustible means of improving the soil to any extent which may be desired. In the Nansemond River, within the boundaries of the County, there is a natural bed of oysters of a superior quality probably equal to any in the United States, from which an immense quantity is annually exported to the Northern States, besides those which are used for home consumption. The timber which naturally belongs to the region is, on high land, principally oak & Pine; on the low lands, Cypress, Juniper, Maple & Ash.
The Dismal Swamp which lies partly in the County and the remainder in Norfolk County and in North Carolina, exhibits to the historian some remarkable facts. From examination it appears that the whole swamp lies upon a bed of Shelly Mail, varying from six to twelve feet from the surface, and from a recent analysis containing sixty five percent lyme. The growth of the Swamp is chiefly Juniper, cypress and gum. That part set with Juniper is remarkably spongy and in very dry weather, will burn free for several feet in depth. Out of the reef or sponge are recovered large quantities of Juniper trees, which have been down for ages which make the best quality of Juniper Shingles.
Lake Drummond, lying in and surrounded by the table land swamp is a body of pure fresh water 5 by 7 miles in extent and from 12 to 20 feet in depth. On stumps at the bottom of the Lake, Charcoal is found which gives rise to the idea that the Lake was first formed by fire burning the reef. A large number of hands are engaged in getting shingles and timber in the Dismal Swamp and they are always remarkably healthy; this is attributed by many, to the fact that they are compelled to drink Juniper water, that is water impregnated with the juices of the roots from Juniper trees, which is supposed to be peculiarly healthy. This water has indeed attained such a reputation for its sanitary qualities as to have become to some extent an article of export and has been sold in Richmond and other cities, to invalids and others, on account of its purifying and invigorating properties.