The Harrison Township Cholera Cemetery (AKA Paul Peters Farm Cemetery) was established as a small family/community cemetery as early as 1804 to serve as a burial ground for the Renick family, one of the first and most prominent families to settle Pickaway County (Van Cleaf, 1906). While archival material regarding the cemetery is limited, research has indicated that at least 15 individuals were buried at the site during its use as a cemetery for the Renick family and surrounding community. Local history indicates that the site was subsequently used as a resting place for victims of the infectious disease cholera, suggesting that the actual number of individuals buried at the site may be much greater and possibly include multiple inhumations related to at least two epidemic events that took place in 1833 and 1849. The cemetery remained in use until 1859.

It is estimated that cholera, an infection of the small intestine caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, has killed tens of millions of people worldwide through various pandemics since 1815 (Daly, 2008). While cholera is scarcely seen in industrialized countries in the present day, there are still serious outbreaks in the developing world. Today, the bacterium exists in two distinct strains (i.e., Classical and “El Tor”), which vary in how lethal they are to the human host. It is suspected that only one strain is responsible for the epidemics of the 19th century, but direct (i.e., archaeological) evidence has not yet been gathered to ascertain actual pathogen molecular variation and virulence.

In the United States, cholera is believed to have spread inland from major coastal cities through the newly established canal systems and along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Documents suggest that cholera reached the area surrounding Harrison Township by 1833 (Bareis, 1902), and again during another wave in 1849. In total, Ohio experienced five epidemics of cholera during the nineteenth century with varying degrees of mortality across the state (Hutslar, 1996).

Documentation of these epidemics is limited in more rural areas such as Harrison Township in the 1830s. This is due to a variety of reasons including the fact that news of a cholera outbreak was bad for the local economy. Also, during the outbreak of 1832, cholera was painted as a disease of the poor, unclean, and morally reprehensible. Oftentimes, the appearance of the disease was attributed to African Americans and immigrant workers, usually from Ireland and Germany (Daly, 2008). The poorest segments of the population were in fact disproportionately affected by the disease because of the poor living conditions they experienced, but due to their low social standing they are practically invisible in the historical record.

In an article published in June of 1998 for the Circleville Herald, Darlene Weaver writes in reference to the Harrison Township Cholera Cemetery: “The first burials in this cemetery were those of the workers on the canal. The site is near the old canal bed”. This entry refers to the workers engaged in the construction of the Ohio-Erie canal in 1833. No official records of the epidemic could be found in local publications at the time, but the event was incorporated in local oral history and the appearance of cholera was noted in historical records of the surrounding area shortly after the initial outbreak in 1832 (Drake, 1832, Bareis, 1902). It is believed that as many as 50 canal workers were interred in the cemetery, thus leading to its denomination as a cholera cemetery. While writing on the cholera epidemics in 19th century America, Charles Rosenberg (1962) states,

“Even in rural areas, Irish workers on canals and railroads were often the first and sometimes the only ones to suffer from cholera”.

These workers, given their low socioeconomic status would presumably be buried in a haphazard manner, most likely in a mass grave to rid the living of the disease as quickly as possible.

The Harrison Township Cholera Cemetery was established in the early phases of the settlement of the area by non-native peoples, prior even to Pickaway’s establishment as a county. This small plot of land is believed to have remained largely undisturbed over the years, save for the excavation and subsequent use of the Ohio-Erie Canal located just to the north of the cemetery. The entire canal system of Ohio went through drastic changes in use and maintenance in its relatively short lifespan. The railroad network within the state of Ohio grew from 375 miles in 1850 to 2946 miles in 1860 (Huntington & McClelland, 1905). This rapid growth of the railroad and the implications it held in terms of the speed with which people, and especially commerce, could be moved essentially rendered the canals obsolete by the time of the Civil War (Huntington & McClelland, 1905). Small sections of the canal remained in minimal use until a flood ended the canal era in Ohio in 1913.

However, the Ohio-Erie Canal was, at the time it was built, the easiest and most reliable way to transport goods to, from, and through the vastly wooded and unsettled Ohio frontier. Prior to the canal, the primitive road system led many traders using the Ohio River to float goods down to the Mississippi and ultimately the port city of New Orleans. The population of Ohio soared after it was officially made a state in 1803 (pop. approx. 45,365) and by the completion of the Ohio-Erie Canal in 1832 it had reached over 930,000. After the proven success of the Erie Canal in New York, Ohio legislators passed a proposal on the construction of the Ohio-Erie and Miami Canals in February of 1825, and ground was broken on the Ohio-Erie canalway on July 4, 1825 at Licking Summit (Gieck, 1988). The work of digging the canal was slow and exhausting, it wasn’t until October of 1828 that the work on the section of the canal between Licking Summit and Circleville would commence and not until September of 1831 would water be introduced to the canal past the town of Circleville (Van Cleaf, 1906). At the time of construction, the Ohio-Erie Canal was referred to as “the great artery which will carry vitality to the extensive cities of the Union” (VanCleaf, 1906). The workers who took up the task of digging the 308 miles of Ohio-Erie Canal were predominately Irish and German immigrants (Hatcher, 1940; Gieck, 1988). These workers were paid 30 cents per day (sunrise to sunset), given simple board in shantytowns close to construction, and received a “jiggerful of whisky” in many cases (Huntington & McClelland, 1905).

Jack Gieck, in his extensive coverage of the history of the canalways of Ohio writes of the immigrant canal workers:

“Many died from malaria, typhoid, and smallpox, and from occasional epidemics such as the cholera scourge of 1832… Many a canal worker, we are told, was placed in an unmarked grave alongside, or occasionally in, the canal bed” (1988). IRLAB believes that the Harrison Township Cholera Cemetery may contain burials of these forgotten individuals.


The excavation of the Harrison Township Cholera Cemetery is a multifaceted project with potential important implications for reconstructing relatively unknown events in the history of the county, for shedding new light on the lives of individuals too poor to be visible in official histories, and for gaining insights on a disease that reaped millions of lives during the 19th century and that still persists in the developing world. Specifically, the primary goals of the excavation are:

  • Locating individual and mass graves, which, following years of neglect and several episodes of vandalism, are no longer If gravestones can be found, they will be erected to mark actual grave locations, thus restoring the cemetery’s original appearance.
  • Reconstructing the life conditions of the individuals buried at the site (for both cholera victims and non‐epidemic burials);
  • Providing accounts of the life and social identity of canal and farm workers, who are often stereotyped and almost invisible in historical accounts due to their low socioeconomic status;
  • Investigating the presence of Vibrio cholerae at the site by conducting soil analyses aimed at amplifying and identifying ancient DNA, ultimately with the goal of studying human/pathogen interactions;
  • Comparing skeletal and genetic characteristics of cholera victims and non‐victims to determine whether certain factors predisposed individuals to perishing from the disease and possibly improving modern approaches to treating the


The Harrison Township Cholera Cemetery is a roughly 2400 m2 plot located on the east side of Picway Road, in Harrison Township, Pickaway County, Ohio. While records regarding the lives of immigrant canal workers and the various cholera epidemics which swept through the area are very limited, records of the establishment and evolution of Pickaway County and the townships within are remarkably complete. With the help of the Pickaway County Historical Society, IRLAB was able to obtain land ownership maps of Harrison Township from 1844, 1858, 1871, and 1909. The evolution of the usage of this land lends itself well to archaeological investigation. The width of the canal, long dried up, located to the north of the cemetery falls well within the expected width of the original canal bed and towpath.