Smallpox epidemics in North America
It wasn’t just the indigenous folk of Central and South America who were devastated by the running face sickness aka smallpox. The Native Americans in the northern continent were cut down in swathes too.
Smallpox probably broke out in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1633, reaching the Mohawks a year later, the Lake Ontario area in 1636 and the space occupied by the Iroquois by 1639. As the tribes’ people lived in crowded dwellings and had no concept of quarantine and by custom visited the sick, the disease spread like wildfire. Victims would complain of a high fever, aching limbs and a burning rash of pustules covering the majority of their bodies. The elderly and the young were particularly vulnerable, many dying from dehydration. Those who survived were often blinded or disfigured and, of course, the death toll meant that the tribes were depleted in terms of fighting men and had lost most of their experienced leaders.
Move on a century and conservative estimates put the number killed by smallpox during and after the Pontiac’s War (1763-1766) at between 400 and 500,000 and, possibly, as many as 1.5 million. The British played a dastardly trick by distributing blankets which had been exposed to the virus – surely a war crime up with the worst.
During the 1770s around 30% of the West Coast Native Americans succumbed to smallpox. The epidemic of 1780-82 amongst the Plains Indians is a classic case study. The disease probably spread from the Snake Indians on the Mississippi , spreading northwards as a result of contact through trading. Contemporary estimates put the death toll amongst Indians who traded at 95%. Whole tribes were attacked and the dead lay unburied in their tents whilst the few survivors fled carrying and spreading the virus with them. 75% of the Cree fell victim to the disease.
By 1785 smallpox had reached the Sioux and the result was devastating. A contemporary reported that “the Indians are all dying by this distemper…lying dead about the barren ground like a rotten sheep, their tents left standing and the wild beast devouring them”. These tragic images were reconfirmed by Peter Kalm who reported in his Travels in North America how Indian villages were being overrun by wolves who feasted on the corpses and those weakened by the virus.
Boston seems to have been an epicentre of smallpox outbreaks, suffering six epidemics between 1636 and 1698. In 1721 the most severe epidemic of all broke out and the population, or at least those who were still standing, fled their benighted town. All this did, of course, was hasten the spread of the virus across the other colonies.
It was not until 1832 that the Federal Government of the United States introduced a programme of vaccination against smallpox aimed at the Native Americans. Of course, it was too little too late because by that time the tribes had been so weakened as to be able to provide little effective resistance to the onward march of the immigrants and their descendants across the continent.