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It was one of the most infectious and feared diseases in human history. The disease dates back thousands of years with evidence of it showing in Egyptian mummies. Hundreds of millions of people died from the disease, including an estimated 500 million from 1880 to 1980. As late as 1967, 15 million cases a year were still being recorded. No one was safe from the disease, it killed poor and rich alike. At least six monarchs including Queen Mary II of England, Emperor Joseph I of Austria and King Louis XV of France died from the disease.
The disease begins with flu symptoms, fever, cough and aching joints. It then proceeds to rashes and blisters that appear in the mouth and on the skin. Those blisters rupture, spew pus and crust over, creating permanent scars. In severe cases, the virus attacks the vital systems of the body including the eyes, and will lead to blindness and death. Typically, among populations that have been exposed to the virus, the death rate is 30 to 35 percent. Anyone who survives receives immunity for life.
It was also the first infectious disease to be eradicated on the planet. Thanks to the efforts of the World Health Organization, the last case of smallpox to occur in the world occurred during an outbreak in the United Kingdom in 1978. Janet Parker would contract the disease at medical school and died on Sept. 11, 1978.
This isn’t about the eradication of the disease though, or even how it impacted world history through its spread in Europe. This is about how smallpox decimated the Indigenous populations of Canada.
Almost as soon as Europeans began to arrive in what would one day be Canada, they brought with them smallpox. The first reported case of it was in New France at the first fur trading post in the colony. The traffic of the fur trade through that post would then spread the disease to the Innu and the Algonquin and without immunity, those Indigenous groups quickly fell ill.
Jesuit priests would bring the disease farther west from 1634 to 1640, introducing it into the Georgian Bay area. The priests, albeit with what they felt were good intentions, wanted to baptize the dying Huron people but their very presence was what contributed to the disease outbreak in the first place. Due to smallpox, and other diseases brought by the priests, it is estimated that by 1640, the Huron population had declined by 60 per cent, forever changing the Indigenous balance of power in the region.
An entry by a Jesuit priest states, quote:
By the 1630s, every Indigenous nation around the Great Lakes were impacted by smallpox.
From 1663 to 1665, the Iroquois were hit hard by the disease, losing 1,300 people, including 300 children, and many villages were left abandoned.
While the English and Dutch settlers and traders did little to care for the Indigenous stricken with smallpox, it should be noted that the Jesuits did what they could to care for the Hurons who had the disease but there was little they could do to help.
Throughout the rest of the 1700s, the Indigenous would spread the disease as they traded and moved through areas, along with fur traders who were working for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The Canadian west had been spared smallpox until the 18th century. According to explorer David Thompson, the first to hear about the disease impacting the Indigenous in western Canada were traders from Hudson’s House on Oct. 15, 1781.
Within months, the disease was moving through the Indigenous populations of the west, with some Indigenous populations losing as many as 75 per cent of their people. Along the Saskatchewan River alone, it is estimated that 50 per cent of the population was killed by smallpox or the starvation brought on by the disease.
In the journal of a Hudson’s Bay Company trader in Cumberland House, it states, quote:
“Boy and girl arrived from Swampy River, having left one man behind, there is all that is alive out of 10 tents.”
Mitchell Oman, an HBC fur trader, met a group of Indigenous near present-day Eagle Hills, Saskatchewan. The group had been hit hard by the virus, only barely surviving. As he continued on his way to present-day Elk Point in Alberta, he said, quote:
“All was solitary silence. There was no Indian to hunt for us, three-fifths had died.”
E.E. Rich would write, quote:
“Families lay unburied in their tents while the few survivors fled to spread the disease.”
William Tomison, another HBC trader, came to York Factory in July 1782 and said that the smallpox virus was in the interior of the continent. With him were six canoes of Indigenous people, with three of the Indigenous ill with smallpox. All three would die.
In the diary of York Factory upon the arrival of Tomison, it is stated quote:
“The whole tribe of U’Basquia Indians are deceased except one young child, the many different tribes of the Southern Assiniboine are almost wholly extinct as I am assured by Mrs. Tomison and Longmoor for they say that they really believe of young and old, not one in 50 of those tribes are now living.”
In an effort to prevent the spread, the Hudson’s Bay Company told all Indigenous near the fort not to visit. Three Indigenous arrived shortly after this declaration but they were stopped before reaching the fort. Traders gave them food and medicine and told to set up camp nearby. All three died but as a result of this effort to quarantine, they were the last three Indigenous deaths recorded in the York Factory journals, all the way up to the 20th century.
It is estimated that of the Indigenous who traded at Cumberland House and Hudson House, 95 per cent died of smallpox.
In Cumberland House, several reports from 1781 and 1782 outline the devasting impact of smallpox, some of them read, quote:
“Dec. 4, 1781, the smallpox is raging all around us with great violence, sparing very few that take it. We received the news of above nine tents of Indians within here, all dead, the tents left standing and their bodies left inside unburied. The Indians lying dead about the barren ground like rotten sheep, their tents left standing and the wild beast devouring them.
Tuesday 18th, those that arrived last night smoking everything belong to them with flour of sulfur to prevent any effect from them to the Natives.
Tuesday 25th, late at night two Indian boys, brought the low country lad on a sledge. He was taken bad last night with violent pain in his breast and belly.
Thursday 27th, this morning we could observe the smallpox coming out very thick upon the sick lad’s heads and thigh.”
That Indigenous man would eventually die after going blind and becoming delirious on Jan. 5, 1782.
The Cumberland diary entries continue, quote:
“Friday 25th, two men digging a grave and burying a woman that died last night. There is still nine more ailing, four of which I have in the house and they have due attendance night and day and yet there is but little hopes for their recovery.
Thursday 31st, sent four men to bury four of the Indians, late in the evening three young Indians arrived from the U’Basquiau Leader, one of which was taken bad last night. Out of a number that has died, there is only one woman that has recovered.”
The disease would reach what would be British Columbia around the same time. In May of 1792, George Vancouver was exploring the coast and often only found empty villages. He wrote in his diary, quote:
“The skull, limbs, ribs and backbones or some other vestiges of the human body were found in many places, promiscuously scattered about the beach in great numbers.”
As the Vancouver Expedition continued to explore, they found rotting houses and the only locals they were able to find were horribly scarred from smallpox and often missing an eye.
Vancouver would write:
“There are reasons to believe that this land has been infinitely more populous.”
He would continue to write, upon seeing the empty land that had once been home to tens of thousands of people.
“The innumerable pleasing landscapes, require only to be enriched by the industry of man with villages, mansions, cottages and other buildings, to render it the most lovely country that can be imagined.”
According to the Indigenous stories passed down through the generation, the Indigenous of the coast learned of a great sickness moving over the land that no person could escape and no medicine could cure. A meeting was held among the Indigenous and they chose to face the coming disease with every adult returning to the home of their parents to wait for the end.
The smallpox vaccine would be developed in 1796 by Edward Jenner after he observed how milkmaids who contracted the mild cowpox did not catch smallpox. The vaccine was soon being used in British North America and the first Indigenous person would be vaccinated in 1803. That individual travelled hundreds of kilometres on foot to get the vaccine. Jenner would also contribute by sending a supply of smallpox vaccine to the Indigenous at Fort George in 1807 along with the gift of his book about how the vaccination worked. The chief of the Indigenous there would write back to Jenner stated, quote:
While smallpox vaccines would be given to the Indigenous, it was a slow process and focused on eastern Canada. Meanwhile, in western Canada, the United States was still importing smallpox into the region through traders, settlers and gold seekers.
In 1832, one man recorded the following, quote:
“Prairie one vast field of death, covered with unburied corpses, Assiniboine, 9,000 in number, nearly exterminated.”
It is estimated that between 1835 and 1858, the Cree in southern Saskatchewan were reduced from 4,000 to 1,000 people. The Blackfoot would be hit hard by smallpox as well, allowing the Crees and the Crows to begin moving into their traditional territory by the 1840s.
In 1837, reports of a bad disease coming up into the west from traders with the American Fur Company began to reach the notice of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Suspected to be smallpox by Dr. William Todd, the chief factor in the Swan River District of the Hudson’s Bay Company, he took quick action by using a fresh supply of the vaccine that had just arrived and vaccinated 60 Indigenous leaving near Fort Pelly, and then taught them how to do the vaccination so they could vaccinate others.
The Hudson’s Bay Company would continue over the next two years in a huge vaccination program to inoculate anyone living within Rupert’s Land. As a result of this, along with being the local government, the Hudson’s Bay Company became the health authority as well. Through the vaccination programs of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the west, outbreaks were kept to a minimum during the early 1800s, compared to the much larger outbreaks among the Indigenous seen in the American West.
Unfortunately, as the Canadian government began to take over and purchased Rupert’s Land in 1870, the vaccination efforts of Indigenous in the west began to slack heavily. In 1876, a smallpox outbreak would be recorded in Gimli among the Indigenous and local settlers. With smallpox appearing again in the prairies, the Canadian government appointed Dr. D.W.J. Hagarty to vaccinate the entire Indigenous population. One Indigenous man in The Pas, upon hearing that his entire tribe would be vaccinated, stated, quote:
“Now I know that our Great Mother, the Queen, regards us, and that her chief councillor in Canada, wishes us to live. The Great Spirit has heard the cries of our afflicted people and has given them good medicine.”
While Sir John A. Macdonald did push Indigenous off their land, and many starved under his policies, his government did implement a rigorous program to vaccinate Indigenous. The effects of this were seen in 1885 when Montreal suffered a smallpox outbreak. A total of 3,000 Montrealers died but on the Kahnawake reserve across the river, there were few cases of smallpox because of vaccinations.
In British Columbia, on Vancouver Island in 1862, smallpox hit the Indigenous there as more settlers began to move in. At the time, 1,600 Indigenous lived near Victoria, plus another 2,000 who lived on the outskirts of the community. The Brother Jonathan had arrived in Victoria Harbour from San Francisco to spend one night at the community on March 12. The ship was one of the first to leave San Francisco carrying hundreds of gold-seekers ready to go to the interior of British Columbia to pan for gold. At least one of those men was infected with smallpox. Over the course of the next day, the men went into Victoria and several went into Indigenous encampments during that time.
On March 24, another steamer arrived from San Francisco, the Oregon, carrying at least one more passenger with smallpox.
Within a month, the encampments were overwhelmed with the disease. Within a week of the first confirmed smallpox case within the Indigenous population, the Daily British Colonist wrote an editorial called quarantine, stating quote:
“The most stringent regulations ought to be enforced and enforced without a moment’s delay. If a case occurs the parties ought to be placed beyond the reach of communicating the infection to others. Imagine for a moment what a fearful calamity it would be, were the horde of Indians on the outskirts of the town to take the disease. Their filthy habits would perpetuate the evil, keep it alive in the community, sacrificing the lives of all classes. We believe there is great danger if the smallpox be allowed to spread through the neglect of the authorities.”
No quarantine was created and a smallpox hospital was approved but only for those who voluntarily wished to make use of it.
In the stories of that time, passed down through the generations, it is said quote:
“The people would go to the ocean to soak in the water. It was all they could do to relieve the pain of the pox on their skin. Many of them do not live to get out of the water. They died and just floated away and were never seen again.”
In that 1862 epidemic, it is believed half the population of the Indigenous on the island were killed. In the stories of that time, it is said that the Indigenous died so fast it was impossible to bury them all. The virus had come up from San Francisco, and the white inhabitants on the island were vaccinated against it but many of the Indigenous were not. When the Indigenous came to Victoria to seek help for their sickness, they were often forced back to their land where the disease continued to spread.
The only group of Indigenous to survive the epidemic with few deaths were the Songhees, who were vaccinated by a Dr. John Helmcken and then moved to a self-imposed quarantine.
The loss of such a huge portion of the Indigenous on the island would be seen as an opportunity by the colonial government. The government had been asking the Indigenous to sign a treaty to give up their lands so that the settlers could live there, but the Indigenous had refused for years. There was never a plan to say yes. That all changed when the smallpox epidemic hit. From May to June of 1862, the government forced the Indigenous to leave the Victoria area. On June 11, the police commissioner and several policemen went to the Indigenous encampments and forced 300 men, women and children to move to northern Vancouver Island. In the process of forcing them to move, the Indigenous spread the smallpox disease all the way to Nanaimo. One month after the disease killed half the Indigenous, a British ship, the HMS Hecate, showed up with the first shipload of settlers to settle on the land previously lived on by the Indigenous. A naval gunboat named The Forward, would tow 26 canoes full of Indigenous up the coast to northern British Columbia. It was said this was being done to protect the white people from the smallpox epidemic but even the local newspaper warned that moving the Indigenous would spread the disease up north, which is exactly what it did.
Spencer Palmer wrote about how the disease travelled up to the Bella Coola villages in the summer of 1862, writing quote:
“Numbers were dying each day. Sick men and women were taken out into the woods and left with a blanket and two or three salmon to die by themselves and rot unburied.”
Captain Shaff, who operated a trading schooner, wrote that the Indigenous who had been sent away from Victoria were rapidly perishing. He would write, quote:
At the start of that epidemic, it is estimated 30,000 Indigenous lived on the coastline of British Columbia. After the epidemic, 15,000 remained.
In the late-1870s, N.M. Mckenzie was working for the Hudson’s Bay Company and would write a book about his experiences in the 1920s. In it, he describes coming across Indigenous bands hit hard by the smallpox epidemic, saying quote:
We each had a train of dogs going from Qu’Appelle to Wood Mountain and were caught in a blizzard at the Pile o’ Bones near where Regina now stands. A great many Indians died from smallpox that year and after struggling through the blinding snow we came finally to a place where several had been deserted and had died after they contracted the disease.”
In that 1870 outbreak in the prairies, it is estimated that 33 per cent of the Indigenous were killed. In central Alberta alone, it is estimated 3,500 Indigenous and Metis died.
Chief Factor Charles W.J. Christie of Carlton House, near Saskatoon, would write, quote:
“At Fort Pitt, 200 Indians died…In the plains, the air for miles from a dead camp is infected from the dead lying unburied. From the Rocky Mountains to this place it rages and by report it is in Peace River but this is not confirmed by any letters I have received from Slave Lake. We trade nothing with the Indians, we do all we can to save them.”
Smallpox vaccine production would begin in 1916 and the disease would last in Canada until 1946 when vaccination campaigns successfully eliminated it.
Information from Capital Daily, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, National Post, Canada’s History, The Canadian Journal Of Infectious Diseases, The French Canadian Genealogists, Museum Of Health Care, Averting Disaster: The Hudsons Bay Company and Smallpox in Western Canada, The Heart Of The Continent, Banff Canada’s First National Park, the Men of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Alberta Past and Present, Siding 16, History of Saskatchewan and the Old North West,