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A family decimated by smallpox


Nathaniel Geary (1631-1679) and Anne Douglas (1637-1691)


The early colonies were subject to outbreaks of contagious illnesses. Smallpox had been known throughout most of recorded history, and small outbreaks occurred sporadically in the early years of Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony. The first significant outbreak within the European colonies was in 1666 in Massachusetts. Earlier in the century, in 1633, an outbreak among some of the native tribes in the area of Plymouth Colony decimated the tribes.


A much larger outbreak began in 1677 in Massachusetts and lingered through the beginning of 1679. The Boston area was particularly impacted. The total number of deaths is difficult to estimate but at the height of the epidemic in September, 1677 30 people died in a single day. These were tremendous numbers for a town with a population of about 3,000 at that time. Many families were impacted, but one particular example is the family of Nathaniel Geary (Gery/Gary) and Ann Douglas who were living in Roxbury at the time of the epidemic.


Nathaniel Geary was born about 1631 in Bishop Stortford, Hertfordshire, England and came to New England with his parents Arthur and Frances (Warman) Geary. Nathaniel was admitted to the Roxbury church in 1652. In 1658, he married Anne Douglas and they settled in Roxbury. He and his wife had 11 children in their 20 years of marriage. Two of the children died before the 1677-79 smallpox epidemic. Mary, who had a twin Elizabeth, died in infancy, and a daughter Hannah died in 1670 at age 11 years.


Then the smallpox epidemic struck and four members of the Geary family died in a period of two months. Daughter Rebecca died 19 February 1678/8 at age 10 years, infant daughter Dorcas died 21 February 1678/9, followed by daughter Deborah on 8 March 1678/9 at about age 3 years. This was soon followed by the death of Nathaniel in April 1679 (his estate was probated 29 Apr 1679). Anne Douglas Geary married for a second time 7 June 1683 to Thomas Bishop. Anne died 16 September 1691.


One early method to reduce the mortality of smallpox was called variolation first used in the colonies about 1721. This involved inoculating a person with material from a smallpox patient hopefully to have a mild form of the illness and thereby generate immunity. This method had a death rate of 2.4% compared to a rate of about 15% for those who contracted full forms of the illness. Edward Jenner’s immunization method based on cow pox was introduced in 1796.


Click here for the family group sheet of Nathaniel Geary and Anne Douglas:



Brainerd, Lawrence. (1918). The descendants of Arthur Gary of Roxbury, Massachusetts. Boston, MA.


Kohn, George C. (2007). Encyclopedia of plague and pestilence: From ancient times to the present. Infobase Publishing.


Massachusetts Medical Society. The story of smallpox in Massachusetts. Retrieved from



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