The Murky History of Colonizing Near Water

Theodora Christopher // In 1854, John Snow presented his theory that the rapid spread of cholera in London was due to the local water supply.[1] This was the first scientific documentation of a waterborne disease.[2] Research has since shown that illnesses such as botulism, dysentery, and typhoid are waterborne diseases, and that contaminated water can be a culprit to outbreaks of disease. Modern sanitation has decreased the prevalence of these diseases, but in early colonial America these advancements did not exist. There is limited research about this topic, but some historians have made vague references to the role of water systems in disease spread settlement, positing that “many pathogens, or disease-causing organisms, are linked to water flows.”[3] Expanding upon this research would allow for a better understanding of disease transmission and how many diseases may have been spread due to contaminated waterways. From time spent in the archives, I have found some details that support the connection between the spread of disease in colonial Boston and its waterways.

When researching the impact of urban space on the health of colonial Boston, I found references to the “Muddy River” and “dirty marsh” in the early records of Boston’s history.[4] It is striking how important urban sites such as the Old North Church were built near reservoirs described as “muddy” and “dirty.”[5] One explanation for why colonial Bostonians might not have connected the quality of their water supply with the state of their health might have been their tradition of drinking beer (colonists would drink fresh water rarely, if at all). However, sources show that colonists used reservoirs for healing practices, bathing, swimming, and washing clothes, which may have contributed to the spread of disease.[6]

The water in colonial Boston was described by historical witnesses as “hard, highly colored, often odorous, saline, bad-tasting, and sometimes polluted.”[7] This turbidity was the consequence of a lack of regulation regarding water quality that dated back to earlier traditions of using water in Europe. There were no precautions taken to protect reservoirs from outhouse waste, animal waste, trash disposal, and runoff from tanneries and slaughterhouses. As Bostonians recognized, animal waste was a major issue: ordinances were passed in 1667 to keep “all swine which shall be found within the bounds of the Towne of Boston out of the ground of the Owners… yoake and ringed.”[8]

The Old Dock was one bustling center of commerce in colonial Boston. This was a main point for trading, and thus waste accumulated in the surrounding waters. Tradesmen such as coopers would “[water] their hoops there” which further contributed to the contamination.[9] Yet despite the poor conditions of water sources in colonial Boston, sites central to the townspeople’s lives were built near these reservoirs, as they were key for trading.[10] As Christopher Pastore notes, the Atlantic shore “…frequently harbor[ed] disease, [and] coasts were known to kill with caprice.”[11]

We see in the archival record the important role of communal watering-places in spreading diseases in seventeenth century Boston. Smallpox, perhaps unexpectedly, was one such disease transmitted through proximity to water. The Boston Records states that those who had smallpox must “ayyr[e] [clothes and sheets] out of theire houses.”[12] Smallpox is transmitted through face-to-face contact and direct contact with contaminated objects—such as sheets and blankets.[13] If these items were washed in shared watering places prior to airing them out (as was historically customary), other community members near the reservoir would thereby have been placed at risk of infection. Additionally, contaminated water sources may have contributed to the prevalence of diarrheal diseases during this time, which the Boston Records confirm often occurred.[14] Many diarrheal diseases are caused by consuming water that that has been contaminated by animal waste; if the residents of colonial Boston inadvertently consumed water when swimming or bathing this may have contributed the prevalence of diarrheal diseases.[15]

Yet the Boston town council did implement some legislation to control water conditions and mitigate disease during this time. Between 1692-1708 trades considered a nuisance, like tanneries and slaughterhouses, were removed from the city limits. This was key to water cleanliness because the runoff from these facilities would flow directly into Boston’s water systems. In 1711, the legislative body in colonial Boston placed fines on those who used “the old Dock” to dispose of dirt or trash.[16] The legislative body recognized the need to prevent contamination of water sources and spread of diseases, even though medical science in this period looked to miasmas, not germs, as the source of their illnesses.

It is easy to think of waterborne diseases as a thing of the past, but it is important to recognize the impact that they continue to have in the present day. In colonial Boston, water sources were described as dirty and contaminated, but the details on how the quality of the water contributed to the spread of disease is understudied. Outbreaks of illnesses like smallpox may have been catalyzed by the congregation of colonists near these contaminated water sources for bathing and household chores. Despite today’s technological advancements, it is astounding to see that over five million deaths per year are due to waterborne illnesses.[17] The WHO estimates that roughly 2 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water.[18] Researching the spread of these diseases in relation to water sources in colonial America can shed light upon some causes of death in early American history and adds to the history of waterborne illnesses that still affect us today.        

Theodora Christopher is a Pre-Med student at Northeastern University and is a part of their Medical Health and Humanities program. The MHH Initiative funded the research for this blog post.

The cover image is the 1722 Bonner map of Boston, courtesy of: Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library.


[1]Kathleen Tuthill, “John Snow and the Broad Street Pump on the Trail of an Epidemic,” UCLA Department of Epidemiology, last modified November 2003, accessed May 4, 2020,                                                         

[2]National Research Council (U.S.), Indicators for Waterborne Pathogens (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004), 17, accessed May 4, 2020,,shib&db=e000xna&AN=121272&site=ehost-live&scope=site.                                                         

[3]Pastore, Green, and Bain, “Water Resources.”

[4] Boston (Mass.). Record Commissioners., A Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston : Containing the Boston Records from 1660 to 1701. (n.p., 1881), 1-14.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ernest Griffith, Cities in the Wilderness: The First Century of Urban Life in America, 1625-1742 (1940), 689, accessed May 4, 2020,

[7] Martin V. Melosi and Joel A. Tarr, eds., The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), 22, accessed May 4, 2020,                                                         

[8]Boston (Mass.). Record Commissioners., A Report, 65.                           

[9]Griffith, Cities in the Wilderness, 650.

[10]Christopher Pastore, Mark Green, and Daniel Bain, “Water Resources Played Important Role in Patterns of Human Settlement,” Environmental Science & Technology 44, no. 23 (2010): 8798, accessed May 8, 2020,                                                         

[11]Christopher Pastore, Between Land and Sea: The Atlantic Coast and the Transformation of New England (n.p.: Harvard University Press, 2014), 13,                                                        

[12]Boston (Mass.). Record Commissioners., A Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston : Containing the Boston Records from 1660 to 1701. (n.p., 1881), 119.

[13]New York State Department of Health, “Smallpox,” New York State Department of Health, last modified October 2011, accessed May 28, 2020,

[14]Boston (Mass.). Record Commissioners., A Report, 65.

[15]Griffith, Cities in the Wilderness, 689.


[17]A. Malik et al., “Water-Borne Diseases, Cost of Illness and Willingness to Pay for Diseases Interventions in Rural Communities of Developing Countries,” Iran Journal of Public Health 41, no. 6 (June 30, 2012): 39.                                                         

[18]World Health Organization and UNICEF, Progress on Sanitation and Drinking-water: Joint Monitoring Programme Update 2013, 3, 2013, accessed May 8, 2020,                                                       

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