Native Americans survived the dangers of life except smallpox

Indians named the disease ‘Running Face Sickness’

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Indigenous people around the world had no natural immunity against smallpox.

Native Americans for thousands of years survived the dangers of life in the wilderness — inter-tribal warfare, wild animals, extreme weather, starvation, and the white man.

But just as deadly were white man diseases — especially smallpox, against which they had no natural immunity.

In the West, from 1780 through 1782, smallpox (Variola Major) took the lives of up to half the Shoshones, also decimating the Blackfeet, Sioux, Cheyenne, Mandan, Assiniboine and others. Tribes along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to California were also hard hit. So many tribes were reduced in size because of the disease, they were unable to effectively stop the invasion of whites into their ancestral lands.

In 1862, smallpox disaster struck again along the Pacific Coast affecting both Indians and whites. The dreaded smallpox was carried by an infected passenger aboard the steamer “Brother Jonathan” sailing between San Francisco and Victoria, B.C.

As early as 1000 A.D., the Chinese are known to have inoculated against the disease by scratching the skin and applying powder made from smallpox contamination.

The first great American smallpox epidemic appeared in 1519 in Hispaniola, when up to 80 percent of the slaves brought from Africa were wiped out. Then Cortez arrived in Mexico with his men bringing more European diseases — smallpox being the deadliest. Soon, the Aztecs lost 75 percent of their 25 million population.

When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620, there were already white man diseases, with only 300 Indians left in Massachusetts out of 30,000. It is believed that smallpox was the culprit — having arrived from Canada or the Caribbean.

More than 175 years later, British physician and scientist Edward Jenner (1749-1832) from Gloucestershire, England, is said to have developed the first smallpox vaccine in the Western world and is sometimes called the “Father of Immunology,” though not everyone agrees he deserves that accolade.

In 1796, he successfully inoculated 8-year-old James Phipps, whom he re-vaccinated 20 times, but the boy died at age 20. The same fate befell Jenner's own son, who died at 21.

Jenner’s smallpox “vaccine” was brought to North America in 1798 by his boyhood friend Dr. John Clinch. It seemed to work and in 1832 by the U.S. Congress budgeted $1,200 to help the Indians battle smallpox. However, a year later they had spent only $721. Was the U.S. government deliberately committing genocide against the Indians?

President Jefferson wrote: “The Indian of North America was as ardent as the white man, free, brave, preferring death to surrender, moral and responsible without compulsion of government, loving to his children, caring and loyal to family and friends, and equal to whites in vivacity and activity of mind.”

Historians are still debating the genocide question however. Though it’s unlikely that it was an instrument of U.S. policy, there is an argument to be made about the authority for the U.S. Army frequently killing Native American non-combatants.

Also, was it genocide when the Army caused suffering and death, forcibly moving Indians from their ancestral lands to distant reservations? A prime example was the “Trail of Tears,” when between 1830 and 1850, the Army forced Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, Creek, Seminole and Cherokee from their homelands in the Southeastern United States to the Oklahoma area — with from 2,000 to 8,000 dying along the way from starvation, freezing weather and disease — especially cholera.

In the Pacific Northwest, the first contact between Europeans and the Indians is recorded as 1774, but some 30 years later, Lewis and Clark reported smallpox among both the Upper Chinookans and Chinook proper tribes in today’s state of Washington.

On March 4, 1806, William Clark wrote in his journal: “Near the Sandy River an old man who appeared of Some note among them and father to my guide brought forward a woman who was badly marked with the Small Pox and made Signs that they all died with the disorder which marked her face, and which She was verry near dieing with when a Girl, from the age of this woman this Distructive disorder I judge must have been about 28 or 30 years past [1776-78], and about the time the Clatsops inform us that this disorder raged in their towns and distroyed their nation.”

By the time John Jacob Astor had set up his fur trading post in 1811 at Astoria on the Oregon coast, local Indians were already deathly afraid of smallpox. That knowledge would save the lives of Astor’s men after Indians attacked his ship Tonquin and butchered its crew. One survivor named Lewis hid in the magazine room and waited for the ship to load up with Indians. Then he blew everything and everyone up — including himself.

The Indians plotted revenge. Learning of this, Duncan McDougall, who was in charge of Fort Astoria called the local Indian chiefs together for a conference. In his book Astoria, author Washington Irving tells the story:

“The white men among you,” said (McDougall), “are few in number, it is true, but they are mighty in medicine. See here, continued he, drawing forth a small bottle, safely corked up; I have but to draw the cork, and let loose the pestilence, to sweep man, woman, and child from the face of the earth. The chiefs were struck with horror and alarm.”

The threat was over and the Indians thereafter called McDougall “the Great Smallpox Chief.”

Early missionaries and other Euro-Americans reported oral traditions heard from Indians as far north as Sitka, Alaska that many died due to a major outbreak of smallpox believed to have occurred in the mid-1770s. Elderly Indians telling the stories had tell-tale pockmarks.

Supporting this story was a letter dated Feb. 6, 1840 by Asa Smith, a Congregational missionary among the Nez Perce at Kamiah Mission who wrote:

“Some very old people, I should think 70 or 80 years old and perhaps more, relate that when they were children a large number of people both of the Nez Perce and Flatheads wintered in the buffalo country. In the spring as usual the people from this region went to buffalo. Instead of finding their people as they expected, they found their lodges standing in order, and the people almost to an individual dead. Only here and there one survived the disease. It seems to have been the most virulent form of the small pox.”

A similar story was told by Jesuit missionary Gregory Mengarini in 1847 about the Flathead and Kootenai Indians in northern Idaho and surrounding area. Trappers and traders of North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company in the early 1800s also believed that smallpox spread to the Plateau region and the West Coast from the Great Plains—agreeing with oral traditions handed down from Nez Perce, Flathead and Kootenai.

North West employee Ross Cox gives a chilling report:

“About thirty years before this period (1811) the small-pox had committed dreadful ravages among these Indians, the vestiges of which were still visible on the countenances of the elderly men and women.

“It is believed in the north-west that this disease was willfully introduced by the American traders among the Indians of the Missouri, as a short and easy method of reducing their numbers, and thereby destroying in a great measure their hostility to the whites.

“The Americans throw the blame on the French; while they in turn deny the foul imputation, and broadly charge the Spaniards as the original delinquents.”

“Be this as it may, the disease first proceeded from the banks of the Missouri . . . traveled with destructive rapidity as far north as Athabasca ... and having fastened its deadly venom on the Snake Indians, spread its devastating course to the northward and westward ... The unfortunate Indians, when in the height of the fever, would plunge into a river, which generally caused instant death; and thousands of the miserable wretches by suicide anticipated its fatal termination.”

Since ancient times, smallpox has taken its toll — but not anymore.

The disfiguring and deadly disease was eradicated following a hugely successful worldwide inoculation program implemented in the 1970s. The last smallpox case in history was in Somalia in 1977, and today only a few laboratory specimens remain in existence in Russia and the United States.

Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at

What is smallpox?

“Smallpox is an acute infectious disease, spread by contact with infected individuals. The usual mode of transmission is by “droplet infection” (that is, through sneezing), though touching an infected individual or fresh corpse is also effective.

“There is a remote possibility of acquiring the disease through contact with virus-laden items of clothing, personal possessions, etc. The duration of smallpox in an individual is short, lasting only a month from infection to death or recovery.

“The first two weeks constitute an asymptomatic incubation period, followed by a second two weeks when lesions are present and the carrier is infectious. Individuals who survive an attack of smallpox are usually left with visible scars (pockmarks), and acquire a life-long immunity to later attacks of the disease.”

---Robert Boyd, "Smallpox in the Pacific Northwest"

Early smallpox treatment…

Inoculation against this dreaded disease was practiced in China, India and the Middle East long before in Europe. Britain and America followed in the 1700s. Treatment was to infect patients with a milder related type of disease—such as cowpox—by inserting some of the contaminants into the skin.

Famous smallpox survivors…

Three American presidents contracted smallpox but survived: George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Among other famous survivors: Queen Elizabeth I, Stalin and Chief Sitting Bull. 

What smallpox ISN’T…

According to Ingri Cassel, director of Vaccination Liberation in Spirit Lake, ID, the following claims about smallpox are NOT true:

- Smallpox is highly contagious and could spread rapidly, killing millions

- Smallpox can be spread by casual contact with an infected person

- The death rate from smallpox is thought to be 30 percent.

- There is no treatment for smallpox

- The smallpox vaccine will protect a person from getting the disease

Q and A on Smallpox…

Army Private regrets Trail of Tears…

“Future generations will read and condemn the act and I do hope posterity will remember that private soldiers like myself, and like the four Cherokees who were forced by General Scott to shoot an Indian Chief and his children, had to execute the orders of our superiors. We had no choice in the matter.”

---Private John G. Burnett, U.S. Army

The Long Walk of the Navajo…

Similar to the Trail of Tears, the Long Walk was another Indian relocation enforced at bayonet point by the U.S. Army. The Navajos were moved from their homelands in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico to Bosque Redondo (round wood) 400 miles east. Even famed explorer Kit Carson was called in by the Army to help. He was told to order the Indians to “surrender or die.”

Following a scorched earth policy, he ordered his soldiers to destroy the Indian wheat and corn as well as cut down up to 1,200 peach trees. With the Navajos starved into submission, they were then forced into the long walk. More than 300 died on the journey. At Bosque Redondo, the Navajos were herded onto a 40-square mile reservation along with their traditional enemy, the Mescalero Apaches.

British biological warfare…

During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), two British commanders—General Jeffery Amherst and Colonel Henry Bouquet conspired to use biological warfare against the Indians after smallpox had broken out at Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania.

“Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians?” Amherst wrote in a letter to Bouquet. “We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.”

Bouquet wrote back: “I will try to inoculate the Indians by means of Blankets that may fall in their hands, taking care however not to get the disease myself. As it is pity to oppose good men against them, I wish we could make use of the Spaniard’s Method, and hunt them with English Dogs.”

Shortly after presenting Indian chiefs with contaminated blankets and handkerchiefs, a smallpox epidemic erupted among Delaware and Shawnee.

Even some Egyptian mummies showed evidence of smallpox 


Edward Jenner (1749-1823), “Father of Immunology”


Great mortality among the Wampanoags due to smallpox, colonial Massachusetts, 1600s. Hand-colored woodcut. (North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)


Painting of Kit Carson and Navajo Indians on the Navajo Long Walk


Edward Jenner giving first vaccination to 8-year old James Phipps in 1796


Trail of Tears, forcible removal of Indians from southeastern U.S. to Oklahoma area


British Army General Jeffrey Amherst, who authorized using smallpox-contaminated blankets to infect the Indians

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