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Smallpox Epidemic on the Northern Plains

As frightening as the West Nile virus may be, it is a minor irritation compared with the scourge of smallpox. Not even AIDS can match the devastation inflicted on human populations across the world for more than 3,500 years. 

In North America, smallpox contributed to the demise of Native American tribes more certainly than any wars or famines or cavalry charges. Although various methods of innoculation against the disease were used in Europe since 1700, and many white settlers to the Americas had developed an immunity to the disease, it was a new and powerful contagion in the New World and its effects were catastrophic. 

"Much of popular history credits European arms for subduing the Indians," notes author R.G. Robertson in his new book on the smallpox epidemic of 1837 on the Northern Plains. "But in truth, they were conquered by a far more efficient killer than the white man's guns. The Indians of the western hemisphere were vanquished by smallpox -- a disease many of them called rotting face." 

Robertson's book, "Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian," traces the origins of the 1837-38 epidemic that all but exterminated the powerful Mandan tribe and decimated its neighbors, the Hidatsa and Arikara. The scourge arrived aboard a steamboat, St. Peter's, loaded down with supplies for fur trading outposts along the Upper Missouri River. A crewman aboard the ship was burning with fever as it left Fort Leavenworth and steamed upstream. 

The captain of the St. Peter's probably wasn't initially aware of the crewman's smallpox, according to Robertson, but by the time the ship reached Council Bluffs it was clearly a case of smallpox and others on board were certainly infected. The supplies the St. Peter's was carrying were badly needed at the trading posts, including annual annuities for Omahas, Lakotas, Poncas and other tribes that lived along the Missouri River. 

In hindsight, the capitain of the ship -- Bernard Pratte Jr. -- probably should have turned his vessel around and steamed back downstream to Fort Leavenworth and an Army-enforced quarantine until the virus exhausted itself in a month or so. 

"Captain Pratte knew his riverboat carried smallpox, and it must be assumed that he realized what the contagion could do if set loose on the plains," Robertson points out. "Pratte faced two choises -- to continue the voyage or not to continue -- both potentially detrimental to his fur company." 

Pratte, Chouteau & Company, owner of the steamboat, was a fur-trading partnership based in St. Louis dependent on its trade with the tribes along the Missouri. The Indians were producers of the firm's primary commodity, buffalo robes, and the consumers of its trade goods. Their demise would seriously cripple the company. 

"Unfortunately for the Indians of the upper Missouri, Pratte made the worst decision amid two bad choices," according to Robertson. "Captain Pratte was not guilty of premeditated genocide, but he was guilty of contributing to the deaths of thousands of innocent people. The law calls his offense criminal negligence." 

"Rotting Face" details the consequences of Captain's Pratt's decision, particularly during 1837-38 when the smallpox epidemic virtually destroyed the once powerful and influential Mandan, Hidatsa and Arickara cultures and wiped out entire villages of Blackfeet. Some 20,000 or more Indians perished from the epidemic along the upper Missouri. Their absence made a big difference in the patterns of white settlement and the development of the Oregon Trail. 

Smallpox epidemics savaged other cultures too, both in Europe and the Americas, and its eradication was one of mankind's great accomplishments of the 20th century. What made the 1837 epidemic on the upper Missouri distinctively tragic was how decisively it conquered proud peoples and changed the course of their history. 

Along with missiles and bombs and poisonous gases, simple submicroscopic infectious agents have been weapons of mass destruction. Whether they were spread deliberately or by accident, as was probably the case with the smallpox on the St. Peter's, the effects of Old World viruses on unprotected New World populations was more terrible than any war. The legacy of these diseases continues to haunt us, the descendants of the survivors, out of the past

Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian by R.G. Robertson

"The incubation period from the time a person becomes infected until the first symoms appear varies from eight to fourteen days, with twelve being the most common.Once the virus completes it incubation, the onset of the disease is sudden, and its effects are cataclysmic. After the virus attains a critical mass within a new carrier, the patient experiences extreme fatigue and a temperature that often syrockets to 106 degrees. A debilitating backache, pounding headache, chills, nausea, and convulsions compound the misery. Many victims are delirious, and a few become comatose.

"On the fourth day of the illness, the fever normally subsides, and the victim feels as if the worst has passed. This short-lived respite is merely the eye of the hurricane... Soon the fever returns, and the backache -- both with vengeance. Moaning in agony as his head pounds with the tempo of his pulse, the patient thrashes amid his bedclothes as his mind slips in and out of delirium. Every heartbeat begets an explosion of pain.

"After a few days, the flat red lesions elevate, then ripen into clear blisters that slowly fill with pus. The face swells into a hideous mass of pimply flesh, barely recognizable as human. For many victims, the pustules become so thick they appear to run together like a giant, oozing sore, a condition that is termed confluent smallpox."

The Greatest Killer
Smallpox in History

Pox Americana
A horrifying epidemic of smallpox was sweeping across North America when the War of Independence began, and until now we have known almost nothing about it. Elizabeth A. Fenn is the first historian to reveal how deeply Variola affected the outcome of the war in every colony and the lives of everyone on the continent.
The Piikani Blackfeet
The Piikani Blackfeet

A Culture Under Siege


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