FOUNDING FATHERS COLUMN: A look at Onesimus

This is an American history educational moment of those who made a difference during the Revolutionary War era and how they served our country.

During the American Revolutionary War, George Washington fought two enemies: The British and smallpox. British troops were reasonably healthy due to herd immunity and voluntary inoculation.

David Streater

Herd immunity included the Redcoats sailing in close quarters from Europe. Nonetheless, when the British resigned from Boston in 1776, it was partially due to the smallpox epidemic.

America was suffering from smallpox, a gruesome and life-threatening contiguous disease. It caused excruciating misery manifesting as bumps, crusty blisters, high temperature, blindness and likely death.

The dawn of relief came from Onesimus, an enslaved African, and Rev. Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister.

Onesimus explained to Rev. Mather that while still in Africa, he underwent variolation.

Variolation is a simple procedure of transferring diseased matter, via a thread, from a smallpox-infected individual to a small incision on a healthy person’s body.

Rev. Mather asked questions about variolation and learned it was also practiced in Turkey, China and elsewhere.

Physician Zabdiel Boylston was intrigued with Onesimus’ and Mather’s information and conducted his own medical treatment inquiry.

Dr. Boylston learned that people who were not variolated were almost six times more likely to die from smallpox. Thus, Dr. Boylston inoculated two servants and his 6-year-old son, which produced positive results.

During the following year, Dr. Boylston inoculated 242 people, and only six died from smallpox.

These results led George Washington to order all recruits to be inoculated immediately upon enlisting into the Continental Army, along with being issued their uniforms and equipment. This mandatory procedure continues in the military and elsewhere.
Undoubtedly, the prosocial and pioneering actions of Mathers, Washington and mainly Onesimus helped save a generation and beyond, eventually eradicating smallpox. Onesimus’ achievement was historically ignored for decades. Yet, in 2016, he was celebrated as one of the most outstanding “Bostonians of All Time” by Boston Magazine.

Please visit your Charters of Freedom setting at 144 N. 2nd St., Albemarle. A Charters of Freedom setting consists of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They are on permanent display. Please visit our website (FoundationForward.com) to learn more about our existing settings.

Teachers are encouraged to contact Dr. Streater for information and complementary student education materials to enhance experiential field trips to a Charters of Freedom settings. Contact Dr. Streater (david.streater@mymail.barry.edu) for engraved legacy paver information and complementary educational materials.

Dr. David Streater is the director of education for Foundation Forward, the organization which placed life-size replicas of the United States Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, also known as the Charters of Freedom, in downtown Albemarle. He is a retired college instructor/administrator and a retired probation and parole officer/administrator. In addition, he is a criminologist with an acute history interest, served in the Navy, is a resident of Burke County and is a graduate of Pfeiffer University.