Smallpox Cemetery on the Nanticoke River

Town of Woodland DE Suffers Smallpox Outbreak 1903

Woodland Ferry Nanticoke Delaware
The Woodland Ferry crosses the Nanticoke River in Woodland Delaware

There was a smallpox outbreak in the little village of Woodland, Delaware in 1903. The outbreak was carried in newspapers all over the country because a large percentage of while most outbreaks in the early 1900s involved one to three people in a village, Woodland had over twenty-five, and that was a fourth of the town’s total population. the population contracted it and the village was quarantined.

On December 9, 1903, the Evening News in San Jose, California ran the story that it had picked up on a newswire, “Dover, Del., Dec 9. – An epidemic of smallpox prevails at Woodland, a town near Seaford, Del. Out of a population of about 100 persons there are twenty-five cases of the disease. The town is quarantined.”

Hal Roth, in his book You Still Can’t Get to Puckum writes that a lifelong resident told him, “My grandfather was living on the other side of the river at the time and traveled by shad barge between his farm and Seaford, paddling upriver on the flood tide and returning on the ebb. He stayed close to the other side of the river hoping he wouldn’t catch it.” The same resident also told Hal that his grandfather wouldn’t help turn the dirt for the graves for all the money in the world because they believed that smallpox never dies. And this belief was one of the reasons so many died in Woodland.

The fear of smallpox caused residents in surrounding communities to insist that their state government and law enforcement station guards at the entrances to the village and allow no one to leave. People were left with no ability to get supplies, medical attention or food. Some literally starved to death.

The American Medicine Journal, published out of Philadelphia, wrote the following in its July – December 1903 issue:

Smallpox Victims Dying from Neglect in Delaware. – Woodland, a village 6 miles from Laurel, is suffering from a smallpox epidemic, and so strictly is the town quarantined that of the 10 deaths which have occurred, eight are said to have been due to absolute neglect and starvation. The president of the Laurel Board of Health appealed to the State Board to send aid to the stricken town and was informed that no funds were available. Only one family in the town has regular medial attention, the other victims being too poor to guarantee payment. Meetings were held in Laurel church, and money collected for relief purposes. There are 35 cases in a population of 100. The suburbs of surrounding towns are patrolled to prevent refugees from Woodland entering.

Those who died in the Woodland smallpox outbreak were wrapped in sheets and buried in a mass grave that was never marked. It is true that people were afraid to handle the bodies or even go near the graves. They feared that the virus didn’t die with the victim. So victims were usually buried at the far end of a graveyard away from the other graves – but in most places, this would only be one or two people. Woodland had so many that a mass grave was the wisest choice of the day.

No one knows for sure where the burial site is. There are two local stories about where that mass grave is located. One belief is that the burial site is somewhere behind the Woodland Church and the other is that it’s across the road from the church on the little spit of land between the river and the road. This seems more likely for two reasons. One is that there isn’t a whole lot of land behind the church where a community could inconspicuously bury ten to twenty-five people and keep them a “safe distance” from the other graves. And secondly, people would be less likely to forget where they buried that number of people if it were in the church graveyard.

That spit of land across the street would have been wider one hundred years ago and being across the road it had a natural separation. Years of erosion and development around the ferry have possibly washed some burial site away. 

Just a few yards from the suspected site of the smallpox cemetery is the murder site of Jacob Cannon. Further down the road about a mile is Maggie’s Bridge where Maggie Bloxom was beheaded and still believed to haunt the bridge.