1837 Smallpox Epidemic

No disease which has been introduced among the tribes, has exercised so fatal an influence upon them as the smallpox. Their physicians have no remedy for it. Old and young regard it as if it were the plague, and, on its appearance among them, blindly submit to its ravages.

This disease has appeared among them periodically, at irregular intervals of time. It has been one of the prominent causes of their depopulation. Ardent spirits, it is true, in its various forms, has, in the long run, carried a greater number of the tribes to their graves; but its effects have been comparatively slow, and its victims, though many, have fallen in the ordinary manner, and generally presented scenes less revolting and striking to the eye.

This malady swept through the Missouri Valley in 1837. It first appeared on a steamboat, (the St. Peters) in the case of a mulatto man, a hand on board, at the Black-Snake Hills, a trading post, 60 miles above Fort Leavenworth, and about 500 miles above St. Louis. It was then supposed to be measles, but, by the time the boat reached the Council Bluffs, it was ascertained to be small-pox, and had of course been communicated to many in whom the disease was still latent. Every precaution appears to have been taken, by sending runners to the Indians, two days ahead of the boat; but, in spite of these efforts, the disease spread. It broke out among the Mandans about the 15th of July. This tribe, which consisted of 1600 persons, living in two villages, was reduced to 31 souls. It next attacked the Minnetarees, who were living in that vicinity, and reduced that tribe from 1000 to about 500. The Arickarees, numbering 3000 souls, were diminished to some 1500.

The disease passed from these to the Assiniboins, a powerful tribe of 9000, living north of the Missouri, and ranging in the plains below the Rocky Mountains, towards Red River of Hudson Bay, whole villages of whom it nearly annihilated. This tribe had their principal trade with Fort Union, at the mouth of the Yellow-Stone.

The Crows, or Upsarokas, extending west from this point across the plains to the Rocky Mountains, who were estimated at 3000 strong, shared nearly the same fate, and lost one-third of their numbers.

It then entered and spent its virulence upon the great nation of the Blackfeet, who are known under the various names of Blood Indians, Piëgans, and Atsinas. They have been estimated at 30,000 to 50,000. The inmates of 1000 lodges were destroyed. The average number in a lodge is from six to eight persons.

Granting everything that can be asked on the score of excitement and exaggeration, not less than 10,000 persons fell before this destroying disease, in a few weeks. An eyewitness of this scene, writing from Fort Union on the 27th of November, 1837, says:

” Language, however forcible, can convey but a faint idea of the scene of desolation which the country now presents. In whatever direction you turn, nothing but sad wrecks of mortality meet the eye; lodges standing on every hill, but not a streak of smoke rising from them. Not a sound can be heard to break the awful stillness, save the ominous croak of ravens, and the mournful howl of wolves, fattening on the human carcasses that lie strewed around. It seems as if the very genius of desolation had stalked through the prairies, and wreaked his vengeance on everything bearing the shape of humanity.”

Another writer says:

“Many of the handsome Arickarees, who had recovered, seeing the disfiguration of their features, committed suicide; some by throwing themselves from rocks, others by stabbing and shooting. The prairie has become a graveyard; its wild flowers, bloom over the sepulchres of Indians. The atmosphere, for miles, is poisoned by the stench of the hundreds of carcasses unburied. The women and children are wandering in groups, without food, or howling over the dead. The men are flying in every direction. The proud, warlike, and noble-looking Blackfeet are no more. Their deserted lodges are seen on every hill. No sound but the raven’s croak, or the wolf’s howl, breaks the solemn stillness. The scene of desolation is appalling, beyond the power of the imagination to conceive.”

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Archives of aboriginal knowledge. Containing all the original paper laid before Congress respecting the history, antiquities, language, ethnology, pictography, rites, superstitions, and mythology, of the Indian tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1860.

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