Jefferson, South Dakota Nearly Wiped Off Map by Smallpox
Jefferson, South Dakota is a 'gateway' of sorts to many folks driving up Interstate 29 from Iowa.
For high school sports fans (and historians) in the Sunshine State the first phrase that comes to mind when they think of Jefferson is, perhaps, 'girls basketball'. Jefferson is home to 500+ friendly folks, and is part of what's called the Sioux City, IA-NE-SD Metropolitan Statistical Area.
If you love great food, racing, maybe their annual 'Days of '59' celebration or just a relaxing time visiting with friendly South Dakotan's, well, make a stop in Jefferson and say 'Howdy'!
And it all was almost lost - the entire town - to a hideous epidemic.
Founded in 1859 (hence the annual 'Days of '59' celebration) by 1867 twenty five or so French-Canadian families called Jefferson home. All was going well in this small rural community. Then came the winter of 1880-81 and a smallpox epidemic.
How did smallpox arrive in Jefferson?
Well, as the story goes, more immigrants arrived on their route to settle in the South Dakota Territory (South Dakota wouldn't become a state until 1889) in a town called Yankton. And they apparently brought smallpox with them
It ravaged Jefferson and nearly wiped the town off the map. The town was quarantined for weeks. No one in, no one out. No railroad service. No mail service. No nothing.
By February of 1881 about 150 cases of 'black smallpox' were reported in and near the new community of Jefferson, Dakota Territory. More than 82 people died.
But Jefferson survived. And thrived. Was it the hearty will of these people, these folks that dreamed of building a new life on the plains of this new place, this 'Dakota Territory'? I'd say yes.
So you might want to take some time soon, pull off that busy 'ol Interstate 29, stop into the town of Jefferson, South Dakota, maybe have a cup of coffee and some warm conversation. Oh, and ask them about those girl's basketball teams that dominated the state tournament 'back in the day'.
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