• Notes From The Frontier

Smallpox, The Deadliest Killer of Native Americans

Archeologists believe that the Native American population before whites arrived on the North American continent was well over 20 million and perhaps as many 100 million. Nearly as soon as Europeans arrived, disease began to ravage Native tribes. Indigenous people had never been exposed to such diseases and had no immunity.

Historians believe that smallpox was probably introduced to the continent in 1519 by the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés who landed on the shores of what is now Mexico and what was then the Aztec Empire. The deadly virus ravaged the Aztec Empire and spread north. Up to that time, Europe and Asia had experienced mortality rates of about 30%. But among indigenous people in North America, the death rate was much higher—about 40% for the Aztecs, 50% for the Piegan, Huron, Catawba, Cherokee, and Iroquois, 66% for the Omaha and Blackfeet, 90% for the Mandan, and 100% for the Taino.

In an odd twist, European conquerors believed that the mass deaths of indigenous people was part of God’s plan to make the New World inhabitable and hospitable for European settlement. Two priests, writing to the King of Spain, Charles I, in early 1519, reported that a third of the natives had been stricken: “It has pleased Our Lord to bestow a pestilence of smallpox among the said Indians, and it does not cease.”

Between 1500 and 1600, Indian tribes tried to fight the disease with traditional medical treatments and religious rituals. when the first smallpox epidemics coursed through North America, Northern Plains tribes used "drum and rattle" incantations to ease the spread of the disease and to strengthen the will to survive.

During the early contact period, some Native tribes held superstitious beliefs about the disease, as European did. In the early 1700s, Northern Plains groups considered smallpox to be a Bad Spirit. Disease was often thought of as punishment for misdeeds to other people or mistreatment of animals. During the 1730s, the Creeks and Cherokees considered the spread of smallpox to be punishment for violations of tribal laws. By 1784, some Cree attributed the epidemics to anger from God. Animal spirits were also blamed. Traditional Cherokee knowledge held that animals created diseases to protect themselves against humans. The Kwanthum of Vancouver believed a dragon that lived in a swamp and breathed upon children. Its breath caused sores to break out "…and they burned with the heat, and they died to feed this monster. And so the village was deserted, and never again would the Indians live on that spot.”

But more and more Native Americans began to associate the disease with European whites. Many groups, like the Hurons, thought that the Jesuits were witches because they possessed charms and religious paintings, and described communion bread as human flesh. The Jesuits were often blamed when an infected person died after having Holy water sprinkled on them. The Hurons were terrified of the Jesuits and prohibited them from entering their villages. Substantial social interactions with the Jesuits and French traders often helped to spread the infection further. Native participation in the Canadian Fur Trade and Hudson Bay Company of the Upper Missouri River, also spread the disease to tribes and other tradition posts.

By the late 1700s, Indian tribes understood that Europeans carried the disease

In 1764 British military leaders Colonel Henry Bouquet and General Jeffrey Amherst devised a plan to destroy Native tribes in the area of Fort Pitt (present-day Pittsburgh) after peace talks by distributing blankets infected with smallpox. Their plan was stunningly successful. It resulted in a genocide that killed about 500,000 Native Americans.

Written documents from the 1700s and 1800s indicate that Europeans and then American military would use this technique to diminish Native numbers and power and remove them from land desired by settlers. Many whites felt that it was Manifest Destiny at work and part of the divine plan to enable whites to settle the continent.

By the early 1700s, Native Americans had begun developing additional methods to prevent infection. The most common medical treatment was the sweat lodge. In the Northern Plains groups, willow bark was steamed in the lodge, acting as an analgesic, with conifer oils acting as decongestants. The Cherokees used a similar approach, believing that plants decided to cure humans after they heard of animal spirits' evil plans to spread disease. However, many of the herbs were cathartics and emetics, and the profuse sweating often caused dehydration and weakened those stricken with smallpox even further.

Some epidemiologists today also believe that the sweat lodge and heat made the horrific sores even worse. The sweat lodge was usually followed by a plunge into cold water, which sometimes caused shock or cardiac arrest to already very ill sufferers.

But other techniques were also used. Bear oil was used as a natural emetic to stop the disease's spread by the Hudson Bay area Cree during the 1782-1783 epidemic. Southeastern Native Americans avoided diseased villages and educated others about traveling into infected areas. The Cherokees performed a Smallpox Dance (the Ahtawhhungnah) in the 1830s to avoid disease. The Gros Ventre performed the Squaw Dance to drive away dangerous forces and disease threatening the tribe. By 1782, Cree used both indigenous and European medicinal techniques in their smallpox treatments. By the late 1700s, there was also a major and effective change towards quarantining infected individuals.  Infected individuals were quarantined and homes were either burned or cleaned. 

Quarantining seemed to be the most effective treatment until vaccinations were developed and became more available in the 1800s. President Thomas Jefferson started an additional vaccination program during the 1798-1799 epidemic. Some North American populations such as the Sioux embraced vaccination programs, although many were uncomfortable with the idea of abandoning their indigenous medicinal methods. Often, the efforts of traders in vaccinating Native Americans were much more intense than the Bureau of Indian Affairs' attempts, which often stalled for economic gain or pushed to protect the neighboring white settlers first. European vaccination programs in North and South America began to help Native American population recovery.

But smallpox continued to spread across the continent as far west as the upper Missouri in the 1700s before the Lewis and Clark Expedition. An outbreak in 1837 was so devastating that it nearly wiped out Mandan and Hidasta tribes. As a result, the Mandan and Hidasta would no longer be the powerful tribes they once were among the northern plains tribes and they combined forces with the Arikara to survive. In fact small pox had caused the decimation or near decimation of many tribes across the continent.

From the initial introduction of smallpox to North America in 1519 to the 1800s, the Native American population had suffered tremendous losses from a continent-wide Native population of far more than 20 million down to a half million by 1800, and 250,000 by 1900.

There would never be a cure for smallpox but through an aggressive world-wide and continent-wide vaccination program, the horrific disease was finally completely eradicated from the globe in 1949.

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  • Notes From the Frontier