Pandemic – How far we’ve come – and how far we have to go
Smallpox is one of the most deadly diseases in history. Its exact origins stretch back into the mists of time, but it was likely the disease responsible for the 434B.C. epidemic in Greece.
Smallpox probably arrived in the Americas at Veracruz with the arrival of Panfilo de Narvaez on April 23, 1520. The indigenous peoples had no experience of it, no resistance, and no antibodies. Germs, viruses, and vaccines were unknown. Magnifying glasses came in the 1300s, and Galileo’s simple microscope came in the 1560s – Leewenhouk’s microscope not until 1668. Neither the Spaniards or the Aztecs had a clue why. it killed most of the Aztec army and 25% of the overall population. If you ever wondered how Cortes’s small force could defeat the Aztec empire – it wasn’t weaponry. It was a disease. The Spaniards said that they could not walk through the streets without stepping on the bodies of smallpox victims.
In the 1600s, the disease spread in Plimoth Colony, wiping out many Mohawks, Wampanoags, and even intentionally spread to Native Americans on gifts of blankets, as a means of defense.
Fast forward one hundred years – due to the sparseness of population, slow travel methods and lack of contact, the disease spread slowly to Canada and the northern portion of the current United States. In Europe, a vaccine based on cowpox saved lives and found its way west. But the Hudson’s Bay company delayed deploying the vaccine, and in some cases, it collected dust on trading post shelves. Epidemics in Boston caused people to flee south, spreading the disease further.
Communities that were decimated in the 1730s by smallpox include the Lower Loup, Pawnee of Nebraska, Cherokee, and the Kansa.
By 1832, the federal government established a vaccination program for Native Americans. Congress passes the Indian Vaccination Act and appropriates $12,000 to hire physicians to vaccinate Native peoples living near white frontier settlements. Settlers, who fear that Indian populations will spread the disease to them, support the act—although the history of the spread of smallpox has, more often than not, been one of transmission from whites to Indians. The program was largely ignored, or the vaccination only given to whites. Coincidentally, the same year the US Supreme Court ruled that Native Americans must be treated as separate sovereign nations.
In 1837, a steamboat, the St. Peter, traveled up the Missouri River to Fort Union from St. Louis and infected people along the way, marking the beginning of the outbreak. Seventeen thousand Native Americans died. Practically the entire Mandan nation was wiped out. A thriving nation that hosted Lewis and Clark, there were less than fifty left from over two thousand.
Traders returning to the fort refused to believe in the problem. They encountered the infected from the steamboat, and left, spreading the disease further, until like a prairie fire, it consumed the Great Plains – the Blackfeet, Assinboines, Arikara, the Crow – tribe after tribe succumbed and became greatly reduced. A witness at the time wrote of the situation at Fort Union:
“I sent our interpreter to meet them on every occasion, who represented our situation to them and requested them to return immediately from whence they came however all our endeavors proved fruitless, I could not prevent them from camping round the Fort-they have caught the disease, notwithstanding I have never allowed an Indian to enter the Fort, or any communication between them & the Sick; but I presume the air was infected with it for a half mile…”Abel, Annie Heloise (1932). Chardon’s Journal at Fort Clark, 1834-1839. Books for Libraries Press. pp. 319, 394.
Bodies were buried in large pits or tossed into the river, which would have likely contributed to continued infection as the body remained infectious after death. People came to forts to be vaccinated, but brought the disease with them, which kept the rate of infection high.
The death rate among the unvaccinated altered the balance of power among the Plains tribes. The Assiniboine and Niitsitapi never recovered. The Cree and Sioux became ascendant.
Sadly, whites used the disease as a weapon, threatening the Native Americans to gain concessions. The U. S. Army sent contaminated blankets to Native Americans, especially Plains groups, to control the Indian problem, according to Ward Churchill, but some scholars dispute this.
Fur trader James McDougall is quoted as saying to a gathering of local chiefs, “You know the smallpox. Listen: I am the smallpox chief. In this bottle I have it confined. All I have to do is to pull the cork, send it forth among you, and you are dead men. But this is for my enemies and not my friends.”The Effect of Smallpox on the Destiny of the Amerindian; Esther Wagner Stearn, Allen Edwin Stearn; University of Minnesota; 1945; Pgs. 13-20, 73-94, 97
Scholars have come to different conclusions on whether the spread of smallpox in the spring of 1837 was intentional or not. More recent scholarship from Dashuk, whose work on Indigenous relations in western Canada is not afraid to criticize settler people and corporations, does not argue that the spread of smallpox between 1836 and 1840 was intentional.
Mandan chief Four Bears denounced the white man, whom he had previously treated as brothers, for deliberately bringing the disease to his people. After losing his wife and children to smallpox, and acquiring the affliction himself, he gave his final speech to the Arikara and Mandan tribes imploring them to “rise all together and not leave one of them [the whites] alive”, before dying on July 30, 1837. Eventually, through vaccine and quarantine, the disease was brought under control in the area.
Smallpox is two viruses, one very fatal, the other milder. Most people with smallpox recover, but about 3 out of every 10 people with the disease died. Many smallpox survivors have permanent scars over large areas of their bodies, especially their faces. Some are left blind. Unlike bacteria, even today there are no magic pills to take to stop a virus. Once infected, there are basic medical measures that can aid recovery, but there is no cure. Those who survive build antibodies to make infection less likely. The CDC pronounced smallpox eradicated in 1977. The last natural outbreak of smallpox in the United States occurred in 1949. People are no longer required to be vaccinated for it – but if it ever escaped again in the wild, that would only increase the danger.