2nd QUARTER 2015



Devastation of Smallpox on American and Canadian Indians
O. Ned Eddins

Indian Horse     Indian Alcohol      Indian Trade Beads     Indian Trade Guns       Trail of Tears


Vaccine History      Vaccination        Plains Indian Smallpox      Indian Genocide       Amherst       Churchill      Responses      References

Native populations of the Americas lacked immunity to the infectious diseases that  ravaged Europe and Asia for centuries. Sparse populations on the Plains and the pristine valleys of the Rocky Mountains prevented a buildup of communicable diseases. The "white man" diseases…measles, chicken pox, typhus, typhoid fever, dysentery, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and after 1832, cholera…devastated the American Indian. Lumped together, these diseases did not equal the havoc of smallpox in terms of number of deaths, realignment of tribal alliances, and subsequent changes in Canadian and American Indian Cultures.  

Smallpox in the New World:

Some of the African slaves brought by Columbus to be used on the sugar plantation of the West Indies carried the smallpox virus. In 1495, fifty-seven to eighty percent of the native population of Santa Domingo, and in 1515, two-thirds of the Indians of Puerto Rico were wiped out by smallpox. Ten years after Cortez arrived in Mexico, the native population dropped from twenty-five million to six million five hundred thousand a reduction of seventy-four percent.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, various sources estimate native population in North and South America at ninety to one hundred million. It is impossible to arrive at the number of Indians in the Americas killed by European diseases with smallpox the deadliest by far. Even the most conservative estimates place the deaths from smallpox above sixty-five percent (Bray).

Stearn and Stearn estimated there were approximately one million Indians living north of the Rio Grande in the early sixteenth-century. By the end of the sixteen hundreds, smallpox had spread up and down the eastern seaboard and as far west as the Great Lakes. Bray estimated by 1907 there were less than four hundred thousand Indians north of the Rio Grande. This precipitous decline was not due to smallpox alone. Other diseases played a role, as did intertribal warfare and conflicts with the United States army.

The first major outbreak of an infectious disease on the eastern coast of North America was between 1616-19. The Massachusetts and other Algonquin tribes in the area were reduced from an estimated thirty thousand to three hundred(Bray). When the Pilgrims landed in 1620, there were few Indians left to greet them. Many observers believe this infectious disease was smallpox. Researchers believe smallpox reached the Atlantic Coast of what was to become the United States either from Canada or the West Indies.

It was inevitable European diseases would run rampant through the indigenous populations of the Americas. The native populations of North and South America had no immunities, or genetic tolerance, to any of the European diseases, and not all white Americans had immunities to them either. The estimate is about twenty-five percent of the emigrants lacked immunity to the smallpox virus.

With the exception of man's oldest disease, Malaria, the scourges of mankind have resulted from dense populations living in small compact areas…overcrowded cities with little or no sanitation. Before the arrival of the white man, the Plains Indians as primarily hunter-gatherers were free of communicable diseases.  

Smallpox passes through the air in droplets discharged from the nose and mouth. It spreads from the lungs of an infected person into the lungs of a susceptible person. Smallpox can survive years on the clothing and bedding used by smallpox victims. In the early seventeen hundreds, a smallpox outbreak in Quebec resulted in many deaths.  In 1854, a pipeline laid through where the victims had been buried resulted in another smallpox outbreak.

One exception to the lack of communicable diseases is Syphilis. It is commonly believed syphilis spread from Native Americans to Europeans. There is developing DNA evidence to suggest syphilis (Yaws) was in Europe prior to Columbus's time.

History of Smallpox Vaccination:

An English physician, Edward Jenner observed dairymaids with a relatively mild disease called cowpox were immune to smallpox.  On May 14, 1796, Jenner infected James Phipps with serum taken from a dairymaid, Sarah Nelmes. After being infected with the cowpox, Phipps survived repeated attempts to infect him with smallpox.

Despite Jenner’s vaccination procedure, smallpox still took its toll during the next hundred years; 800,000 Russians died from smallpox in the eighteen hundreds (Bray). By 1840, smallpox vaccination in Britain was free for all infants, but the mortality rate in  vaccinated infants was so high many mothers did not vaccinate their babies. Vaccination was made compulsory by an Act of Parliament in the year 1853; again in 1867; and still more stringent in 1871. Deaths from smallpox in the first 10 years after mandatory vaccination was 33,515, and from 1864 to 1873, the figure more than double to 70,458 deaths (Compulsory Vaccination in England by William Tebb). 

Eighty-eight years after Jenner's first use of serum (lymph) for vaccination, William Tebb wrote:

The lymph used [for vaccination] was of unknown origin, kept in capillary glass tubes, from whence it was blown into a cup into which the lancet was dipped. No pretence of cleaning the lancet was made; it drew blood in very many one can estimate the number of healthy, innocent children, as well as adults, who are inoculated with syphilis or other foul disease…An article in the Glasgow Herald for March 4th, 1878 stated: it is, indeed, a most serious matter to find that the deaths from the 15 diseases have increased in England and Wales from 124,799 in 1847, to 217,707 in 1875, whilst the population has only risen from 18 millions to less than 23 millions.

Vaccination in America: 

Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse introduced vaccination to the United States in 1800. Due to contamination and lack of preservation, the vaccines were often infected with bacteria.,  An article in the New York Times for June 19th, 1880, stated:

A former surgeon of an immigrant steamer informs me that it is the usual custom of steamship surgeons to get a large supply of vaccine virus at one time, and use it until it is gone, however long. This will serve to account for the serious and fatal cases of septic poisoning following Vaccination, so common in the United States, according to the information communicated by correspondents, and also for the various efforts now being made in several States to get the Vaccination Laws abolished.  

How effective was vaccination?:

...Not only had poor sanitation and nutrition lain the foundation for disease, it was also compulsory smallpox vaccination campaigns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that played a major role in decimating the populations of: Japan (48,000 deaths), England and Wales (44,840 deaths, after 97 percent of the population had been vaccinated), Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, Holland, Italy, India (3 million -- all vaccinated), Australia, Germany (124,000 deaths), Prussia (69,000 deaths -- all re-vaccinated), and the Philippines. The epidemics ended in cities where smallpox vaccinations were either discontinued, or never begun, and after sanitary reforms were instituted (Smallpox Vaccination).

Historians and many others have asked, “Why weren't the Indians vaccinated against smallpox?” In 1832, Congress appropriated twelve hundred dollars to begin the fight against smallpox in Indian country. One year later, actual expenditures were down to seven hundred and twenty-one dollars. Based on this, there are those that believe the Government deliberately withheld smallpox vaccine from Native Americans, and thus committed Indian Genocide.

If this is what you believe, consider this....why is there a controversy raging today over the safety of vaccinating large numbers of Americans with the smallpox virus (see, Smallpox Vaccination). With a perceived danger from vaccination based on today's medical technology, what would have been the danger in the early eighteen hundreds to vaccinating American Indians with no immunity to European diseases? 

Smallpox vaccination of the Native Americans could have had disastrous results. Contaminated serum and the cowpox virus could be as deadly to Native Americans as the smallpox virus. Native American Indians lacked immunity to European diseases and to the domesticated animals of the Europeans.

To understand the problems associated with any vaccination program in the eighteen hundreds, the efficacy of the vaccine and the dangers of introducing other diseases must be considered. Completely unknown at the time were such health safeguards as sterile procedures, sterile instruments, sterile vaccine, refrigeration, attenuated viruses, overnight transportation, etc, etc. During the eighteen hundreds, many Americans feared vaccination more than they did the risk of catching smallpox. 

Lack of funding for a smallpox vaccination program and the Amherst letters have been taken by some writers and organizations to justify the cry of Indian Genocide. To this charge, I have one many Native American Indians, with a well-founded distrust of the white man, were going to have their arms scratched with something out of a bottle which had previously wiped out entire Indian villages? If the Indian Nations had been vaccinated with the cowpox virus, the ensuing death loss among Native Americans would have raised a hue and cry across the land...then the cry, and rightly so, would have been the Government is committing genocide by vaccinating Indians with the cowpox virus.

A reader referred me to this site on an interesting and unique vaccination program by the King of Spain, Carlos IV, to vaccinate Spanish subjects around the world.

Francisco Xavier Balmis, (1753–1819), was a pioneer of international vaccination. Born in Alicante, Spain, a physician and army surgeon Francisco Xavier Balmis, was the author of the first translation into Spanish of Moreau de La Sarthe’s book on vaccine. In his edition, Balmis added a foreword to make the book more complete and understandable to the Spanish readers of both hemispheres.
Recognition of his work in this translation and his previous travels in America to collect plants and medical data, made him the best candidate to conduct his own project of spreading the vaccine in all Spanish territories from Spain and through America to the Philippines.
By order of King Carlos IV, an expedition sailed from La Coruña with the aim of sailing round the world and spread Jenner’s vaccine overseas. On board the corvette "María Pita" were Balmis as commander of what was already called "Real Expedición Filantrópica de la Vacuna", Antonio Salvany as second in command, three surgeons, two first aid practitioners, four male nurses, and 22 orphan children.
Besides the usual medical items the expedition carried two thousand copies of Balmis’ translation of Moreau de La Sarthe’s book, which were to be handed to the medical and political authorities everywhere they were to stop along their journey.
The vaccine was maintained during the journey by sequentially vaccinating arm to arm every 9 or 10 days the 22 children who thus constituted a living transmission chain.
The expedition and the men who took part in it were an example of the spirit of that century of enlightenment, philanthropy, and a faith in science and ability of men to know and change the world. It took almost four years to complete the voyage round the world, and that task can now be considered the first global campaign in what we now call public health, and a success in spreading world wide Jenner’s vaccine that cannot be praised enough.

It would be interesting to know the efficacy and mortality rate from Balmis' vaccination program. The procedure used by Balmis was far superior to the use of the non-sterile cowpox virus, but Balmis technique was basically what Larpenteur did with the Indian women at Fort Union.

Smallpox and the Plains Indians:

A smallpox outbreak in 1780-82 followed the distribution and trade route of the Indian Horse (Haines). An outbreak in 1800-02 spreads from the Plains Indians to the Indians along the Pacific coast. Despite heavy losses during these periods, the most devastating outbreak of smallpox was yet to come.

In 1832, the first steamboat, a small side-wheeler named, Yellow Stone, reached Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. The use of steamboats on the Missouri allowed large quantities of trade goods to move up and down the river. The buffalo hide trade now become more important than the trade in furs. Remote Indian villages brought their buffalo hides to the American Fur Company posts. This set the stage for ensuing disaster.

In June of 1837, the St. Peter arrived at Fort Clark which was sixty miles north of present day Bismarck, North Dakota. Knowing there were men aboard the boat with smallpox, F. A. Chardon and others of the American Fur Company tried to keep the Mandans away from the boat, but to no avail. The two Mandan villages providing aid to Lewis and Clark during the winter of 1804-05 were devastated. Thirty-one Mandans out of a population of sixteen hundred survived the epidemic...these figures vary, but needless to say, it was devastating to the Mandans.

The 1837 smallpox outbreaks were initially confined to the Indian tribes living by, or had come to trade at, the upper Missouri River trading posts. The Mandan and the Assiniboine nations suffered the highest number of deaths. The 1837-40 smallpox outbreaks were said to have a ninety-eight percent death rate among those infected (Bray).

                                                                     Mandan - Hidatsa Lodge

Hundreds of lodges like the one above stood as mute testimony to the devastation of smallpox. As Chittenden wrote:

No language can picture the scene of desolation which the country presents. In whatever direction we go we see nothing but melancholy wrecks of human life. The tents are still standing on every hill, but no rising smoke announces the presence of human beings, and no sounds, but the croaking of the raven and the howling of the wolf interrupts the fearful silence.

The St. Peters continued on to Fort Union arriving there on June 24, 1837. The only Indians at the post were the Indian wives of thirty employees. Hoping to control the infection before the Assiniboine arrived for the September trade, Larpenteur noted:

...prompt measures were adopted to prevent an epidemic.” The measures taken were to vaccinate the Indian women. According to Larpenteur, “their systems were prepared according to Dr. Thomas’ Medical Book and they were vaccinated from Halsey himself…the operation proved fatal to most of our patients.

...About fifteen days afterwards there was such a stench in the fort that it could be smelt at a distance of 300 yards. It was awful--the scene in the fort where some went crazy, and others were half eatin by maggots before they died.

The smallpox outbreak was during the hottest part of the summer. Jacob Halsey, who was in charge of Fort Union,  had been infected coming upriver on the boat. Five months later, he claimed only four died from the attempted vaccination. Halsey statement is in contrast to Larpenteur comments, and his account seems highly unlikely based on the virulence of the smallpox virus. 

Assiniboine arrived at the post while the “controlled infection” was in full force. Infected Assiniboine carried smallpox back to their lodges in Canada. From Fort Union smallpox spread to Fort McKenzie near the junction of the Marias and the Missouri rivers. Basically, the same story was repeated with the Blackfeet. There is no way to know how many Indians of the upper Missouri, the Plains, and Canada were infected with smallpox. Estimates on the number killed range from sixty thousand to one hundred and fifty thousand.

The American Fur Company traders can certainly be criticized for the handling of the 1837 smallpox outbreak, especially the vaccination of the Indian women. However at the time and under the prevailing circumstances, the traders did the best they could. Even though the Indians were repeatedly warned to stay away from the posts, they insisted on trading their goods. It is hard to believe there was any malicious intent on the part of the fur traders when the fur company’s economic survival depended on the Indian buffalo robe trade.

The Indian Culture played a part in the high death rate. The use of the sweat lodge-cold water plunge may well have doubled the fatalities among the Plains tribes (Haines). This is not meant as criticism of the Sweat Lodge which was, and is, extremely important in the Indian Culture, but to point out the Plains Indians had little or no concept of the dangers involved with the white-man diseases.

                                                                     Brass Fur Trade Bucket

Despite warnings from the traders, Hidatsa, Arikara, Blackfeet, and Sioux warriors played a significant role in the spread of the smallpox. Warriors saw this as an opportunity to take lodge items, horses, and even scalps from corpses in enemy villages, and thus carried the smallpox virus back to their own people.

                                                      Metate with Mano

Indian Genocide:

Added Note: I have had a lot of emails from liberal activists on Indian Genocide. Most of them were so ridiculous I didn't post them. Here is my position on Indian Genocide...There is absolutely no question some settlers, some military leaders, some government officials, and some states i.e., Georgia and especially California would have exterminated all Indians...But...There is absolutely no evidence the American Government had an official (or as some claim unofficial) policy of exterminating all Indians...Or ...the American military distributed smallpox blankets to any Indians.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines genocide as the systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group. Based on this definition, genocide was not carried out by the United States Government against the Indian Nations. It can be argued Government policy was directed toward wiping out an ethnic culture, but not genocide of an ethnic group. President Jefferson believed the American Indians were fully capable of being integrated into the American way of life, but not in the savage state. President Jefferson wrote:

The Indian of North America was as ardent as the white man, free, brave, preferring death to surrender, moral and responsible without compulsion of government, loving to his children, caring and loyal to family and friends, and equal to whites in vivacity and activity of mind.     

Based on the broad definition of genocide used by the United Nations,, genocide was carried out against the American Indians. Based on the UN definition if a man or woman murders their family, they are guilty of genocide, but this is not the view of most people, including me.

The argument for Indian genocide is based primarily on letters written by General Jeffery Amherst during the French and Indian War (1754 - 1763). Correspondence between General Amherst and Colonel Bouquet mentioning spreading smallpox to Indians does not mean this was ever carried out. Assumptions derived from letters and oral traditions are not proof of anything. Oral traditions tend to change over time and with the times. The stories also tend to change in a manner convenient to the tellers…if you tell a story long enough, it acquires the semblance of fact.

The following information comes from the Peter d'Errico website.

Indian forces under the command of Chief Pontiac laid siege to Fort Pitt (June 22, thru July, 1763). Several weeks before the siege (May 24th, 1763), William Trent, commander of the local militia, wrote:

"Out of our regard for them  (two Indian chiefs) we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.

The above paraphrased quote from William Trent's Journal has been taken as the major evidence for using smallpox blankets...but...the full quote by Trent is subject to a different interpretation.

"[May] 24th [1763] The Turtles Heart a principal Warrior of the Delawares and Mamaltee a Chief came within a small distance of the Fort Mr. McKee went out to them and they made a Speech letting us know that all our [POSTS] as [at] Ligonier was destroyed, that great numbers of Indians [were coming and] that out of regard to us, they had prevailed on 6 Nations [not to] attack us but give us time to go down the Country and they desired we would set of immediately. The Commanding Officer thanked them, let them know that we had everything we wanted, that we could defend it against all the Indians in the Woods, that we had three large Armys marching to Chastise those Indians that had struck us, told them to take care of their Women and Children, but not to tell any other Natives, they said they would go and speak to their Chiefs and come and tell us what they said, they returned and said they would hold fast of the Chain of friendship. Out of our regard to them we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect. They then told us that Ligonier had been attacked, but that the Enemy were beat of."

The full quote indicates the giving of the blankets was a gesture of gratitude towards friendly Indians. At this time, there is no evidence Captain Ecuyer, Commander of Fort Pitt, knew the blankets were infected with smallpox. Several weeks later, June 13, 1763, Captain Ecuyer wrote to Colonel Bouquet:

 Fort Pitt is in good state of defense against all attempts from Savages, who are daily firing upon the Fort; unluckily the Small Pox has broken out in the garrison, for which he has built an Hospital under the Draw Bridge to prevent the Spreading of that distemper.

The above quote from William Trent's Journal was written two months before the exchange of letters( July 13-26, 1763) between Amherst and Col. Bouquet. In a footnote of a letter (July 16, 1763) to Colonel Bouquet, Lord Amherst wrote:

"Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them".

Bouquet replied he could use infected blankets as a means of introducing the disease among the Indians, but was wary of the effects it would have on his own least twenty-five percent or more of Bouquet's soldiers were susceptible to the smallpox virus.  

The Amherst-Bouquet letters have been used to support the proposition of germ warfare against native populations. Amherst may have discussed it in correspondence with Bouquet, but there is no evidence Colonel Bouquet carried it out. As he mentioned in his reply, Bouquet was afraid of what it would do to his own men and with good reason. Amherst-Bouquet letters written in 1763 were twenty-three years before Jenner’s work on vaccination, and one hundred years before Pasteur advanced his germ theory. The only thing known about smallpox in 1763 was…age, color of skin, social status meant nothing to the smallpox infected person died or, if lucky enough to survive was often disfigured for life. No matter how bad Amherst wanted to be rid of the Indians, it seems doubtful if Bouquet would unleash a disease on his soldiers which had already killed millions of his own countrymen.

The greatest source of the smallpox virus among Indians was from the infected blood of mutilated soldier, raids on surrounding settlements, scalps, clothing, and utensils. Returning from Fort Pitt to Indian villages up and down the East coast, many warriors carried smallpox infected war trophies. Contaminated warriors spreading the smallpox virus is never mentioned by proponents of Indian Genocide; it does not fit their biased agenda.

I have no interest whatsoever in smallpox, except its relationship to the fur trade. In 1837, the major trade item at the upper Missouri River posts was buffalo hides, which were supplied almost exclusively by the Plains Indians. Needless to say, the buffalo hide trade came to a screeching halt for the next few years.

What I do have an interest in is historical truth and accountability. A University of Colorado teacher, Ward Churchill, published an article on the United States Army giving out smallpox blankets to the Upper Missouri River tribes leading to the smallpox outbreak in 1837. Churchill's article is not a matter of a different interpretation of the facts. It is an outright lie he fabricated without a shred of evidence to back up his claims. The references Churchill cited to support his article totally disagreed with what he wrote. No college professor should be able to publish an article of lies, or plagiarize a painting, like Ward Churchill did and remain a college teacher. 

The picture on the left is from Thomas Mails' book The Mystic Warriors of the Plains. When Churchill sold the painting on the right, he claimed it was an original painting. Churchill's defenders would like to make this a first amendment issue, but it is not. Churchill is guilty of plagiarism, falsifying publications, lying about his ancestry, and possibly academic standing...his masters thesis cannot be found at Sangamon State in Illinois. Deep down what irks me the most about Churchill is the stupidity of the "enlightened liberal activists" defending him.

Why does this matter? The use of smallpox blankets as a means of Indian genocide by the Unites States Army and  the Government is in current textbooks used in the educational system (responses).

Except for the two blankets given out at Fort Pitt, I challenge anyone to offer documented proof, of smallpox infected blankets being deliberately given to Indians as a means of spreading smallpox.

The smallpox virus created havoc all over the world for hundreds of years, but for a one- or two-year period, influenza killed as many people as any known virus. The influenza outbreak of 1918-1919 killed approximately forty million people. An estimated six hundred and seventy-five thousand Americans, including Native Americans, died of influenza. This was ten times as many Americans as were killed during World War I. Of the U. S. soldiers who died in Europe, half of them fell to the influenza virus, not to the enemy...nobody claims this was genocide.

Government treaties, bureaucratic bungling, the Washita, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, and Bear River massacres, along with forced relocation resulting in the Trail of Tears and the Navajo Long Walk created some of the darkest chapters in this country’s history. However, this does not mean the United States Government conducted a systematic and planned extermination of the American Indians.

American history is what it was and should be accurately portrayed. Good and/or bad, America's roots is its history. To over emphasis the good or bad in terms of political correctness, or a political agenda, destroys the very foundation of America. For America to remain great, Americans must have pride in the history of America...destroy American pride and you destroy America.

As some of the replies to my comments illustrate, I have been criticized for my remarks on Indian genocide and radical activists. I am opposed to anyone distorting our historical heritage be they radical left wing liberals, or radical right wing conservatives.

The Indian Smallpox article was written by O. Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming. . Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.




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