Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email: Scribbles@cogeco.ca

Smallpox Devastated Canadian First Nations 1780 – 1782

The numbers killed were unclear, but the consequences of smallpox were heart-breaking for the natives in the Hudson’s Bay region of Canada.

“Small pox is rageing [sic] all round us with great violence, sparing very few that take it,” wrote Hudson House Clerk William Walker on December 4, 1780. “We have received the News of above 9 tents of Indians within here all dead, … as for the Stone Indians there are very few if any left alive…,” Walker was quoted by Ann M. Carlos and Frank D. Lewis in the May 2012 report, “Chains of Evidence: the 1780s Smallpox Epidemic in the Hudson Bay Region.” The dread disease devastated the First Nations people of the area.

Mi’kmaw Encampment, created by Hibbert Binnie c. 1791, Nova Scotia Museum

Smallpox Symptoms

Extremely contagious, the smallpox virus causes a high fever, rash and pustules, extreme general malaise and body aches, and possibly delirium and abdominal pain. “Smallpox virus infects through the respiratory tract or skin,” stated Public Health Agency Canada in “Emergency Preparedness: Smallpox.” It spreads by close, person-to-person contact, within 2 metres. The incubation period is 7 to 14 days. With a mortality rate of 30%, said PHAC, “experts have publicly stated that smallpox is the most dangerous infectious disease ever.”

Spaniards were Smallpox Carriers

Brought to North America by Spanish explorers in the early 1500s, smallpox gradually spread north and westward, leaving a trail of misery and death. Unfamiliar with such viral maladies and with little to no immunity, the natives were easily infected. With the longer incubation period, the virus was carried to others, especially in warmer months. Reports suggest the Indians contracted the common strain of virus, variola major, the rash appearing in the head and thigh areas first.

The culture of First Nations included large gatherings in which close contact was made. Smallpox ran rampant at

Disease devastated the First Nations populations in the 1790s.

those times. During colder months, when fewer gathered and there was little travel for hunting, the disease was held somewhat at bay. The European fur traders and Hudson’s Bay Company workers were rarely affected by the disease, having built immunity from childhood exposure.

HBC Members Provided Aid

Hudson’s Bay Company’s employees Matthew Cocking and William Tomison kept records on the illness in their regions. The inland masters at York Factory and Cumberland House understood the symptoms of smallpox and took measures to help. “Tomison put his knowledge to good use. He practised isolation, and used a disinfectant (sulfur),” said C. Stuart Houston and Stan Houston in “The first smallpox epidemic on the Canadian Plains: in the fur-traders’ words” (Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases, 2000 Mar-Apr.) Compassionate and genuinely caring, “Tomison’s Caucasian HBC servants, under his direction, took in the dying Indians, provided them with food, shelter and 24 h care… then, in most instances, dug their graves in deeply frozen ground in midwinter.”

Death Count Uncertain

The death count was high in the region, but no defined number of those killed by the smallpox outbreak is known. (The native population itself was also not clear.) Whole families, clans and villages were decimated by the horrifying disease. “Whatever the initial native population,” said Carlos and Lewis, “it seems clear that nearly all the declines were due to disease rather than war.” Estimates calculated by traders and officials reached as high as 95% of the First Nation population, but more recent investigations suggest the numbers were smaller. “Our finding is that the smallpox epidemic of 1780-82 in the subarctic and far-north plains had a modest impact on native populations,” noted Carlos and Lewis.

No matter the count, the smallpox outbreak was a heartwrenching and overwhelming disaster for the First Nations inhabitants in Canada.

Sources:

  • Carlos, Ann M. and Lewis, Frank D. Report: “Chains of Evidence: the 1780s Smallpox Epidemic in the Hudson Bay Region,” May 2010
  • “Emergency Preparedness: Smallpox,” Public Health Agency Canada Accessed May 19, 2012
  • Houston, S. Stuart and Houston, Stan, “The first smallpox epidemic on the Canadian Plains: in the fur-traders’ words,” Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases, 2000 Mar-Apr Issue Accessed May 19, 2012

This article first appeared on Suite101.com in May 2012. Copyright Susanna McLeod

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