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Smallpox Epidemic of 1862 among Northwest Coast and Puget Sound Indians

HistoryLink.org Essay 5171 : Printer-Friendly Format

This file describes the 1862 smallpox epidemic among Northwest Coast tribes. It was carried from San Francisco on the steamship Brother Jonathan and arrived at Victoria, British Columbia, on March 12, 1862. White officials vaccinated as many whites as possible and very few Indians. When Indians camped near Victoria began dying of smallpox, Vancouver Island authorities forced them to leave. The Indians returned to their homelands, causing the disease to spread north from Vancouver Island to southern Alaska, and south into the Puget Sound region. As Robert Boyd writes in his seminal work, The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence, "this [Indian] epidemic might have been avoided, and the Whites knew it.” Boyd estimates that from April to December 1862, 14,000 Native Americans perished, about half the Indians living along the coast from Victoria to Alaska.

The Epidemic Ship Arrives

In the late afternoon of March 12, 1862, the Brother Jonathan steamed into Victoria, at the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island. She had traveled from San Francisco carrying about 350 passengers, mostly gold seekers. In the late fall or early winter of 1861-1862, news of a large gold strike along the Salmon River (in eastern Washington Territory, later Idaho) had reached the nation, but an extremely cold and snowy winter had delayed the rush until spring. The Brother Jonathan, commanded by Captain Samuel DeWolf, was one of the first ships to leave San Francisco carrying gold seekers for the Salmon River mines.

The Brother Jonathan brought mail and the latest news published in the San Francisco papers. Included were February 25th to March 3rd 1862 dispatches from the East, dominated by news of the Civil War (The Daily British Colonist, March 13, 1862).

In addition to 100 to 125 passengers bound for Victoria, the Brother Jonathan carried 60 tons of freight for the town, including hats, cigars, butter, saws, books, glassware, furniture, "oil suits," fry pans, vegetables, hops, boots and shoes, plus 75 sheep and 21 mules (The Daily British Colonist, March 13, 1862).

During the one night layover, prospectors filled every lodging house and hotel in town. It was reported that they saw the sights, which likely included the insides of grog houses and brothels with their Native American prostitutes.

The steamship stayed at Victoria for 24 hours. On March 13, at 4 p.m., Captain DeWolf blew the whistle and the Brother Jonathan, “[h]er decks alive” with now 400 passengers, made a boisterous departure for the Columbia River. For three more years the steamer would ply the coast, carrying freight and passengers. During an 1865 mid-summer storm, the Brother Jonathan, still commanded by Captain DeWolf, foundered while seeking refuge near Crescent City. All but 19 of the 200 passengers and crew perished. This is considered one of the Pacific Coast’s greatest ship disasters, but it pales in comparison to the death that the Brother Jonathan carried to the Northwest Coast during the last days of winter in the year 1862.

The Outbreak

A day or two following the steamship’s departure, rumors swept across Victoria of another "cargo" the Brother Jonathan had left behind -- smallpox (Variola Major). On March 18, 1862, The Daily British Colonist confirmed that one of the passengers from the steamer had “varioloid” (smallpox). Two days later the paper reported on another passenger with the disease. On March 24, another steamer from San Francisco, the Oregon, arrived at Victoria carrying at least one passenger infected with smallpox. Thus began the catastrophic 1862 epidemic (The Daily British Colonist, March 18, 20, 22, 25, 26, 1862).

Smallpox in California

Apparently California had had smallpox infections for some time. On March 18, 1862, The Daily British Colonist reported that “small pox is very prevalent at San Francisco.” Further reports stated that 150 people had died from smallpox in San Luis Obispo (The Daily British Colonist, March 25, 26, 1862, April 2, 1862). In Olympia, the Washington Standard reprinted a portion of a letter received from California that stated: “The small-pox is raging throughout the city and county [of San Francisco], and indeed I might say in all the principal towns of the State [of California]. ... It is reported that over two thousand cases have occurred within the last week, though proportionately but few have ... proved fatal” (Washington Standard, April 5, 1862, p. 2).

The Smallpox Virus

Smallpox can be transmitted through the air by coughing and the virus can live on clothes, blankets, or other objects for some time. Once a person is infected there is an incubation period that lasts about 12 days with no symptoms and minimal chance of transmitting the disease.

The first symptoms appear suddenly and include a high fever, headache, body pains, and perhaps nausea and vomiting. This continues for the duration of the illness. Two or three days later, two weeks after first exposure to the virus, a rash begins on face, hands, and feet. (With the rash comes the most contagious period.) The rash spreads over the whole body. In about three days, the rash turns into red spots or bumps, and then into raised pus-filled lesions. The lesions look like blisters and are about the size of a dime. (In the worst cases, called confluent, there are so many lesions that they merge into one another covering whole parts of the body.) It takes about a month for the disease to run its course. The lesions on victims still alive become scabs and then slowly fall off. About six weeks after the initial infection most of the scabs are gone, leaving permanent scars or pockmarks on the body and for some, blindness in one or both eyes (Boyd, p. 174-175).

Smallpox Prevention Well Known

Once infected, except for bed rest, nothing could be done medically to stop the smallpox infection from running its course. But in 1862 there was awareness in Victoria and along the Pacific Coast of two measures that could be taken to prevent or minimize the spread of the disease. One was to quarantine those with smallpox and anyone who came into contact with infected people. The other was to vaccinate anyone who might become exposed. Neither of these was done for the northern tribes camped near Victoria.

A week after The Daily British Colonist confirmed the first smallpox case, the newspaper published an editorial titled “Quarantine.” Noting the danger of smallpox, the paper implored the authorities to take prompt action. The editorial stated:

“The most stringent regulations ought to be enforced, and enforced without a moment’s delay. If a case occurs the parties ouaht [ought] to be placed beyond the reach of communicating the infection to others. Imagine for a moment what a fearful calamity it would be, were the horde of Indians on the outskirts of the town to take the disease. Their filthy habits would perpetuate the evil; keep it alive in the community, sacrificing the lives of all classes. We … believe there is … great danger if the small-pox be allowed to spread through the neglect of the authorities” (The Daily British Colonist, March 26, 1862, p. 2).

The following day the paper stated: “The disease, we fear, will make sad havoc among the Indians unless stringent sanitary measures are adopted” (The Daily British Colonist, March 27, 1862, p. 3). But the “authorities” did not approve the quarantine and approved a smallpox hospital only for those who voluntarily wished to make use of it.

The Smallpox Vaccine

The other preventive was a smallpox vaccine. It was discovered in England in 1798 and first used in the Puget Sound area in 1837. On March 18, 1862, when The Daily British Colonist published confirmation of smallpox in Victoria, the paper made the following statement:

“[W]e advise our citizens ... to proceed at once to a physician and undergo vaccination ... from the loathsome disease ...” (The Daily British Colonist, March 18, 1862, p. 3).

Between March 18 and April 1, 1862, The Daily British Colonist reiterated to the citizens of Victoria at least five times the importance of getting vaccinated. The paper estimated that by April 1, one-half of the “resident Victorians” were vaccinated. In 1862, Victoria, the largest town north of the Columbia River, had a white population of from 2,500 to 5,000. The nearby Indian population was about the same size. There were probably at least 2,000 Northern Indians (who lived along the coast from northern Vancouver Island to Alaska) camping on the outskirts of Victoria, plus at least 1,600 local Indians who lived nearby.

Initially no demands were made to vaccinate these local groups. By March 27, 1862, Dr. John Helmcken (1824-1920), Hudson's Bay Company physician, had vaccinated about 30 local resident Songhees Indians, who constituted less than 1 percent of the nearby natives.

The Songhees Were Saved

On April 1, 1862, 18 days after the Brother Jonathan departed, the first reports were published of an Indian, who lived in town, with smallpox. The Victoria authorities and residents did not react. As the virus spread it would be more than two weeks before the local newspapers reported local Indians receiving additional vaccines. On April 16, Dr. Helmcken vaccinated another 30 Indians. By April 25, The Daily British Colonist reported that since the outbreak Dr. Helmcken had vaccinated “over 500 natives” (April 26, 1862, p. 3).

Apparently, the doctor distributed most of his vaccine to the Songhees, a local tribe that resided near Victoria. Soon after smallpox symptoms emerged at the Northern Indian encampment, the Songhees departed their Vancouver Island village(s) en masse to a nearby island in Haro Strait. Because of the vaccinations and the tribe’s self-imposed quarantine, the Songhees survived the epidemic with few deaths (Boyd, 176, 177, 183).

Was There a Shortage of Vaccine?

It is unknown how large a supply of the smallpox vaccine was kept at Victoria. Boyd states that the vaccine was “available, though in short supply” (Boyd, p. 172). Possibly there was a shortage of vaccine when the smallpox epidemic started. According to Boyd, Anglican missionary Alexander Garrett stated in his Reminiscences that there was not enough vaccine “within seven hundred miles to go around” (Boyd p 178-9).

Still, during the entire run of the epidemic The Daily British Colonist did not mention a vaccine shortage at any time. On the contrary, during the last half of March, after the first smallpox case was discovered, the paper mentioned numerous times the availability of the vaccine. In mid-June, about when the Indian epidemic along the coast reached its height, The Daily British Colonist (June 14, 1862) asked why “our philanthropists” and “missionaries” had not started “vaccinating the poor wretches” in mid-April?

If there was a vaccine shortage, it was just temporary. Apparently, by May 1, 1862, at the latest, there was plenty of vaccine to go around. During the first half of May 1862, Father Leon Fouquet, a Catholic Missionary, reportedly vaccinated 3,400 Indians along the lower Fraser River. At the same time, other missions along both sides of the Strait of Georgia and in Puget Sound received supplies to vaccinate nearby tribes people. The ravages of the epidemic bypassed these vaccinated groups (The Daily British Colonist, March 18, 26, 27, 28, 1862, April 1, 1862, June 14, 1862; Boyd, p. 183-184).

The Epidemic Could Have Been Stopped

In the spring of 1862, the government body that administered authority over Victoria was the House of Assembly of the Colony of Vancouver Island (in 1866 Vancouver Island merged with the mainland colony of British Columbia). The town of Victoria had not incorporated, so had no town council and no mayor. At least two members of the House of Assembly, along with the Governor of the Colony, undoubtedly were aware of the obvious consequences of not immunizing the Indians, and not placing them under quarantine.

In 1862, Dr. William Tolmie (1812-1886) and Dr. John Helmcken were both legislators in the Vancouver Island Assembly, Helmcken serving as Speaker, one of the highest elected positions in the Colony. The Hudson's Bay Co. hired William Tolmie in 1833 and John Helmcken in 1850 as physicians.

In 1837, reports reached Fort Vancouver of smallpox in northern British Columbia. Before the disease reached Puget Sound, Hudson's Bay Co. dispatched Tolmie to vaccinate the Indians near Fort Nisqually. By mid-July 1837, he had inoculated all the women and children and probably most of the men. In 1853 Tolmie again helped vaccinate "large numbers" of Indians near Fort Nisqually during a smallpox epidemic centered along Washington Territory's Pacific coast (Boyd, 170). John Helmcken also served as HBC physician for a number of years, and then continued in private practice until he retired in 1910. They were both well aware of the issues surrounding smallpox.

Governor James Douglas Proposes Action

Shortly after the smallpox outbreak, James Douglas, the Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, submitted a proposal to the House of Assembly regarding smallpox. James Douglas had arrived on the coast in 1826 and was familiar with two previous Indian epidemics on the coast (1836-37 smallpox and 1847-48 measles). In his March 27, 1862 proposal to the Assembly he noted that because “several cases” of smallpox had occurred it “is desirable that instant measures should be adopted to prevent the spread of the infection ...” and “strongly recommended” that the House immediately appropriate funds to build a hospital in a isolated location for all cases of smallpox (Journal of the Colonial Legislatures ... vol. 2, p. 350).

Dr. Helmcken and Others Oppose Action

Four days later, the nine-member House of Assembly, including Speaker Helmcken and Tolmie, met and considered the Governor’s proposal recommending a smallpox hospital and “compelling” all patients to be sent there. According to a newspaper account, Speaker Dr. Helmcken stated he was against a fully staffed hospital and against forcing all cases of smallpox to go there. The doctor expressed concern about the cost of establishing and operating the hospital and that it would interfere with the liberty of the patients. Helmcken went even further and chastised the Governor for being an alarmist about the disease.

The majority of the other members agreed with Mr. Helmcken. The members did vote to construct a “suitable building” near the present hospital for white smallpox patients, but did not require them to go. The Assembly also rejected the establishment of a quarantine for the same reasons -- cost and restricting liberty. Apparently only one member, Mr. Burnaby, spoke out in favor of a fully staffed Smallpox Hospital and the quarantine. The newspaper account did not mention any discussion about what to do to prevent smallpox from infecting the Indians (The Daily British Colonist, March 28, 1862, April 1, 1862).

This inaction of the Assembly and other government officials sealed the fate of nearly every group of Northwest Coast Indians from Sitka to northern Vancouver Island and south into the Puget Sound area. Robert Boyd estimates that from April 1862 to about the end of year, more than 14,000 Indians died of smallpox and untold hundreds of survivors were disfigured for life. Boyd states unequivocally: "This [Indian] epidemic might have been avoided, and the Whites knew it” (Boyd p 172).

The Epidemic

Victoria was a rendezvous for most Northern Indian groups located along the coast from northern Vancouver Island to the Queen Charlotte Islands to Sitka, Alaska. Indians camped near Victoria seeking employment and to trade, socialize, and gamble. In mid-April 1859, a census of these Northern Indian encampments counted 2,235 Indians. The census takers determined the tribal affiliation of about two-thirds of those counted. The Indians included Tsimshian (44 percent), Haida (26 percent), Tlingit (15 percent), Bella Bella (renamed Heiltsuk) (8 percent), and Indians near Fort Rupert (Southern Kwakiutl renamed Kwakwaka’wakw) (7 percent).

Depending on the season and comings and goings to and from Victoria, the total number and the percentage from any one tribe varied. In 1862, no estimate was made of the number of Northern Indians camped near Victoria, but it is likely that there were more than 2,000 (Boyd p. 176-177).

During most of April 1862, few newspapers reported on the disease. During this month, smallpox was spreading amongst the Northern Indian encampments, unseen because of the two-week incubation period before the rash made its appearance. In his Reminiscences, Anglican missionary Reverend Alexander Garrett stated that he first saw smallpox at the Northern Indian Tsimshian encampment or village on a Sunday. He does not provide a date, but it is likely April 20, 1862, or perhaps the previous week (Boyd p 177).

On April 26, 1862, The Daily British Colonist, after interviewing Reverend Garrett, reported:

“... small-pox is creating fearful ravages at the Chimsean [Tsimshian] village [encampment]. Twenty have died within the past few days; four died yesterday. ... Great alarm exists at the village, and it is thought that nearly the whole tribe will be swept away” (The Daily British Colonist, April 26, 1862, 3).

On April 28, 1862, The Daily British Colonist estimated that 10 percent of the 300 members of the Chimsean [Tsimshian] tribe had already perished or were “hopelessly ill.” The paper stated, “As the cases at the Chimsean [Tsimshian] village are of the most virulent type, the danger of a spread of the disease are very great, and every precaution must be taken by citizens to guard against contagion” (The Daily British Colonist, April 28, 1862, p. 3).

For the next 10 weeks, smallpox dominated the news of the town and words such as "ravages," "scourge," and "alarm" appeared frequently in the newspapers.

Whites Concerned About Whites

On April 28, 1862, The Daily British Colonist published an editorial titled “The Small-Pox Among the Indians.” The newspaper reminded readers of a previous warning (likely the March 26 article) “that if proper precautions were not take[n] at once to prevent that loathsome disease from spreading, the Indians ... would become infected and through them spread itself throughout the colony.” The editorial continued, “We regret to say, that so far as the Indians are concerned our prediction has been verified.”

The paper remarked on the consequences of the authorities' intentional refusal to act to vaccinate and quarantine the Indians:

“Were it likely that the disease would only spread among the Indians, there might be those among us like our authorities who would rest undisturbed, content that the small-pox is a fit successor to the moral ulcer that has festered at our doors. ... [But] chances are that the pestilence will spread among our white population [because] ... [t]he Indians have free access to the town day and night. They line our streets, fill the pit in our theatre, are found at nearly every open door ... in the town; and are even employed as servants in our dwellings, and in the culinary departments of our restaurants and hotels” (The Daily British Colonist, April 28, 1862, p. 2).

The editorial’s solution was to move all of the Indians “to a place remote from communication with the whites, whilst the infected [Indian] houses with all their trumpery should be burned to ashes ...” Frustrated in attempts to get the authorities to act, it implored “our citizens improvise a Board of Health. Let them meet today. ... Let them take any means, no matter what, to protect their families from the pestilential scourge that is hovering among the savages on the out skirts of the town” (The Daily British Colonist, April 28, 1862, p. 2).

May 1862: Catastrophe

By the end of the first week of May 1862, smallpox was “making frightful inroads” in most if not all of the Northern Indian camps near Victoria. On May 9, 1862, Reverend George Hills recorded in his journal, “I went through the Hydah [Haida] and Bella Bella [Heiltsuk] camps, and found thirteen cases and one dead body. I have never witnessed such horrible scenes of death, misery, filth, and suffering before” (Boyd, p. 179).

On May 13, 1862, referring to the Northern Indians, The Daily British Colonist estimated the “loathsome disease ... is now destroying the poor wretches at the rate of six each day” (May 13, 1862, p. 6). The next day the paper estimated that a total of 100 or more nearby Northern Indians had died since the disease first broke out. And the Colonist predicted “We should not be in the least surprised if the disease were to visit and nearly destroy every tribe of Indians between here and Sitka” (May 14, 1862, p. 5). Two weeks later the paper estimated that at least one-third of the nearby Northern Indians had died and that “At the present rate of mortality, a Northern Indian will be an object of curiosity in two years from now” (May 27, 1862, p. 3).

Forced Evacuation

Commissioner of Police Joseph Pemberton, probably the object of the above (April 28) editorial, was spurred into action by the concern and apparent near panic of some Victoria residents. The same evening as the editorial, Pemberton, focusing on the Indian camp with smallpox symptoms, issued orders that the Chimseans [Tsimshians] had one day to leave and further ordered that the gunboat Grappler “assist” in their departure to make sure they left. Action was also taken to remove Indians from the town proper. By April 30, 1862, nearly all of the Tsimshians had left, torching their dwellings as they departed. Numbers of Stickeen [Tlingit] and Hydah [Haida] Indians also left. From then on the local authorities forced numerous groups of infected natives to leave the southeastern end of Vancouver Island (The Daily British Colonist, April 29, 30, 1862, May 1, 1862).

Pemberton went further than just demanding that the Indians leave. On June 11, 1862, the Police Commissioner and a group of policemen forced about 300 men, women, and children camped near Victoria to return to their northern homeland. The gunboat Forward (Captain Lascelles), took a 15-day trip to Fort Rupert towing 26 canoes full of natives. Included were 20 canoes of Hydahs [Haida], five canoes of other Indians from the Queen Charlotte Islands, and one canoe of Stickeen [Tlingit] Indians.

Full Knowledge of the Consequences

In June 1862, The Daily British Colonist, noting the devastation of the Indians up to that time, stated the obvious inevitable consequences of these escorted canoes. Referring to a group of Haida who recently departed Victoria, the newspaper wrote:

“How have the mighty fallen! Four short years ago, numbering their braves by thousands, they were the scourge and terror of the coast; today, broken-spirited and effeminate, with scarce a corporal’s guard of warriors remaining alive, they are proceeding northward, bearing with them the seeds of a loathsome disease that will take root and bring both a plentiful crop of ruin and destruction to the friends who have remained at home. At the present rate of mortality, not many months can elapse ‘ere the Northern Indians of this coast will exist only in story” (The Daily British Colonist, June 21, 1862, p. 3; Boyd, p. 173, 229).

As the Forward conveyed the 26 canoes of Indians north, the disease was spreading. After the gunboats returned from Fort Rupert, a crewmember remarked that he saw a "few cases" of smallpox break out amongst the Indians under tow (The Daily British Colonist, June 30, 1862, July 2, 1862).

Although most Indians had left the outskirts of Victoria by mid-June, Pemberton continued to force them away. At the end of June 1862, The Daily British Colonist headlined a story about 30 Indians camped near Victoria: “Can’t Get Rid of Them.” The article went on to say “The police authorities are put to their wits’ ends to know what to do with the natives. Living or dead they cause a world of trouble” (The Daily British Colonist, June 30, 1862, p. 3).

By early July there were few Indian survivors near Victoria. On July 7, 1862, The Daily British Colonist stated:

“The small pox seems to have exhausted itself, for want of material to work upon; and we have heard of no new cases [of smallpox infecting Victoria’s residents] within the last few days. One or two Indians die nearly every day; but what is an Indian’s life worth? Not so much as a pet dog’s, to judge from the cruel apathy and stolid indifference with which they were allowed to rot under the very eyes ... of those whose sacred duty it was to have comforted them in their hour of misery and wretchedness” (July 7, 1862, p. 3).

Death Travels the Inside Passage

On May 17, 1862, after a two-and-a-half week trip from Victoria, canoes full of Tsimshians arrived in the vicinity of Fort Simpson. This was the first group of Indians forced from Victoria to arrive at their homeland. They carried with them their personal effects, other goods, and smallpox. The Tsimshians were soon followed by others returning to their homes along the northern British Columbia and southern Alaska coast (Boyd, p. 186).

For two weeks, smallpox would appear only amongst the recent arrivals from the south. Then, symptoms began appearing in relatives and neighbors. Throughout the village men, women, and children came down with fevers, followed by rashes and lesions. Following is a summer 1862 eyewitness account by H. Spencer Palmer of how the disease ravaged one of the Bella Coola [Nuxalk] villages.

“Numbers were dying each day; sick men and women were taken out into the woods and left with a blanket and two or three salmon to die by themselves and rot unburied; sick children were tied to trees, and naked, grey-haired medicine men, hideously painted, howled and gesticulated night and day in front of the lodges in mad efforts to stay the progress of the disease” (H. Spencer Palmer account published in 1863 and transcribed by Boyd, p. 192).

An account of the 1862 epidemic was passed down to a member of the Bella Bella tribe who in the late 1980s related the following: “I heard about this -- what happened ... before my time -- what they called smallpox ... They couldn’t tell how many people had died. Some women lay down dead, and the little baby was still sucking their tits, and she’d be dead” (Boyd, p. 191).

On the evening of June 12, 1862, the first word from the north reached Victoria of the devastation caused by the smallpox epidemic. Captain Shaff of the trading schooner Nonpareil, just returned, reported that Indians at Fort Simpson and Fort Rupert were “dying from the small pox like rotten sheep. Hundreds were swept away within a few days, and many bodies remain unburied” (The Daily British Colonist, June 13, 1862, p. 3).

A week later Captain Osgood of the sloop Northern Light, who spent the first half of June in northern waters, returned to Victoria and confirmed Captain Shaff’s reports. Captain Osgood stated that another northern tribe, the Bella-Bellas [Heiltsuk], were “dying off very fast” and that the “ravages of small pox at [Fort] Rupert had been frightful. The tribe native to that section was nearly exterminated” (The Daily British Colonist, June 21, 1862, p. 3).

Captain Shaff also stated that the Indians sent away from Victoria were rapidly perishing. He observed how the Indians reacted to the eruption of the disease as they paddled their canoes north:

“So soon as [smallpox] pustules appear upon an occupant of one of the canoes, he is put ashore; a small piece of muslin, to serve as a tent, is raised over him, a small allowance of bread, fish and water doled out and he is left alone to die” (The Daily British Colonist, June 14, 1862, p. 3).

Captain Osgood verified these reports and stated:

“The sick and dead with their canoes, blankets, guns, &c, were left along the coast. In one encampment, about twelve miles above Nanaimo, Capt. Osgood counted twelve dead Indians -- the bodies festering in the noonday sun” (The Daily British Colonist, June 21, 1862, p. 3).

He went on to say that of a group of 60 Hydahs [Haidas] sent from Victoria in mid-May, 40 had died. On July 11, 1862, the paper reported that Captain Whitford, who just returned from a voyage north, counted 100 bodies of Indians dispersed along the shores north of Nanaimo (The Daily British Colonist, June 21, 1862, July 11, 1862).

Smallpox in the Puget Sound Region 

Victoria was the largest town in the vicinity of Puget Sound and Vancouver Island, with a population of between 2,500 and 5,000. There was regular steamer service and canoes and sailboats plied between the United States and Canada. It is unknown whether news of the smallpox outbreak affected travel between Vancouver Island and Puget Sound or to what extent these boats carried smallpox across the United States border.

There is evidence that the smallpox epidemic reached the Puget Sound region. On April 19, 1862, The Daily British Colonist reported that a Port Townsend resident perished from the disease. In early May, one group of Tsimshians who left their encampment at Victoria headed south, crossed the straits, passed Port Townsend, and camped at Port Ludlow. On May 19, 1862, news reached Victoria that many of these Tsimshians “have died and nearly all are down with the disease” (The British Colonist, May 19, 1862, p. 3). These two reports were not published in any Puget Sound papers that have survived.

From mid-March till the end of October 1862, the four weekly Puget Sound newspapers (Olympia (2), Port Townsend, and Steilacoom) wrote a total of 16 articles that mention smallpox. Nearly all summarize articles that appeared in the Victoria newspapers. Only one article alluded to smallpox in Western Washington. On April 10, 1862, Steilacoom’s Puget Sound Herald published an article titled “Whisky’s Doings” about a fight between drunken Indians. In it appear the words, “Between ‘fire water’ and the small-pox, (which we learn has already got among the Indians of the Sound) the red men of this region, promise soon to disappear entirely” (April 10, 1862, p. 2).

Eugene Casimir Chirouse (1821-1892) was the Catholic missionary at the Indian Reservation at Tulalip (near the future site of Everett, Washington). In four letters written between early May and late September 1862, Father Chirouse reported on the epidemic. He stated that about 400 Indians (1862 p. 405-406)] were vaccinated and that by early August only three Indians at Tulalip perished from the disease. He also stated that Indians were ravaged by the epidemic a few miles away from the Tulalip Reservation. It is unknown whether the "few miles" referred to Indians at Victoria located more than 65 miles from the Tulalip Reservation, the Tsimshians at Port Ludlow 25 miles away, or some other Puget Sound tribe or tribes (Boyd, p. 184).

Further evidence that the epidemic prevailed in Puget Sound is provided in correspondence from the Indian Agent in charge of the Makah Reservation, located near Cape Flattery, the northwest point of Washington. Apparently writing in August 1863, Agent Henry Webster in his yearly report stated, "I was apprehensive that the small-pox, which was prevailing among the Indians at Victoria and other places on the Straits of Fuca and Puget’s sound, would make its appearance here [at the Makah Reservation] ..." The Makahs were spared because of their isolated location and, according to the reservation physician Joseph Davies, because "the greater number of them" were vaccinated" (Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Year 1863).

According to Indian Agent S. D. Howe, there were a few fatal cases of smallpox among the Noot Sacks (Nooksacks), located just south of the U.S. boundary. He stated that Indians from the Noot Sacks to the Tulalip Reservation were "fast being depleted in numbers by sickness of various kinds." A later report by F. C. Purdy noted that the Skallam (S'Klallam), located along the north shore of the Olympia Peninsula, were "fast diminishing." He did not give the causes (Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Year 1863).

Joseph Crow's Account

Father Chirouse at the Tulalip Reservation possibly was referring to the infected Indians living 30 miles away near Seattle. More than 60 years after the 1862 smallpox epidemic, Joseph Crow gave an eyewitness account of a smallpox outbreak amongst Elliott Bay Indians. In 1860, when Joseph Crow was a boy, he moved with his family to Seattle. He stated that close to Seattle the local Indians had a “Tomanus House” that measured 60 feet long and 30 to 40 feet wide. It was located on a point at 1st Avenue S and S King Street, later part of Pioneer Square. According to his recollection, the epidemic occurred in 1864. It is likely that Joseph Crow is recalling the 1862 epidemic. Following is a transcription of his account given to Hilman Jones:

“At the time of the small pox epidemic among the Indians in 1864 they used the Tomanus House as a hospital and built little houses along the bay, in which they dug a hole in the ground fille[d] it with rocks and built a fire on them.

When they were red hot they would throw water, put the paitent [patient] in the room and get him to sweating hard and then cause him to jump into the bay, which would always cause death.

"The[y] would then lay the patient out on the ground of the Tomanus House and get two boards laid with blocks at each end and pound the boards with clubs and yell at the top of their voices, keeping this up all day and night making hideous noises.

"The doctor would be working on the patient all the time, biting him on the head and neck to blede [bleed] him, in fact biting al over his body, and would be continually mumbling and would shake his head and spit the blood from his mouth.

"The Doctor was only allowed to have three patients in succession and if the three died the doctor was killed.

"After the epidemic I never saw any more Indian Doctors in Seattle so you can conclude what became of them” (Hilman F. Jones Papers).

In a June 30, 1863 annual report, C. H. Spinning, physician at the Puyallup Reservation, wrote that during the year he had 254 Indian patients. Their aliments included scrofula, syphilis, "gonorrhoea," rheumatism, colds, and consumption that resulted in seven deaths. Smallpox was not mentioned. In September 1863, it was reported that during the year there were 12 deaths at the Nisqually Reservation (1863, p. 471-472). It is unknown whether or not smallpox vaccines were administered at either reservation.

It is unknown how far south the smallpox virus traveled, but it apparently did not travel beyond Puget Sound. At the Chehalis Reservation, located between Olympia and the Columbia River, Indian Agent A. R. Elder reported that the Indians health was "much better than that of those tribes who live adjacent to Puget’s sound, from the fact of their being further removed from the vices of whites ..." (1863, p. 469).

Ignoring the Truth?

Smallpox was more widespread in Puget Sound than newspaper reports indicate. Perhaps one reason the papers did not report it was fear that news of smallpox would create alarm and keep people away. San Francisco, the point of origin of the Victoria epidemic, delayed reporting on it. A Port Townsend paper stated, “The San Francisco papers avoid any reference to the existence of the small pox in that city ...” (North-West, March 29, 1862, p. 2). An Olympia paper received word of the California epidemic by letter. The paper speculated that the reason for the lack of reports was because the California papers were “fearful of creating undue excitement and alarm” and until recently “have almost entirely ignored the truth” (Washington Standard April 5, 1862, p. 2).

Two Puget Sound newspapers reported authoritatively that “it has been demonstrated that fear superinduces disease, especially epidemic, in otherwise healthy persons” (North-West [Port Townsend], March 29, 1862, p. 2; Overland Press [Olympia], April 7, 1862, p. 2).

When news reached Puget Sound of the first smallpox cases in Victoria, Western Washington residents were warned to take preventive measures in case the epidemic reached the sound. It was recommended that they get vaccinated “as expeditiously as possible” (Puget Sound Herald April 3, 1862, p. 2) and that “cleanliness” was “preessential to health in such a time” (North-West, March 29, 1862, p. 2; The Overland Press April 7, 1862, p. 2). Residents were also warned to exercise due caution when traveling to “afflicted localities” (Washington Standard [Olympia], March 29, 1862, April 5, 1862).

Local papers stated that smallpox was “far more terrible” among Indians than among whites and inferred that many Indian deaths would result. Instead of recommending preventive measures for Indians, the Puget Sound weeklies recommended preventive measures from the Indians. From the beginning, there was general agreement in the press that removing the Indians away from white man’s towns was the best policy. Their removal would protect (white) town residents from getting infected. Getting rid of the Indians would also improve Puget Sound towns both “morally and socially” and be a boost to their “growth and prosperity” (North-West [Port Townsend], March 29, 1862; Ibid., May 24, 1862, p. 2; Overland Press, April 7, 1862; Puget Sound Herald, April 10, 1862).

One paper stated that "an added benefit" would be reducing the number of “licentious whites” from towns. The North-West (Port Townsend) made the following statement:

“The Indians are a loathesome and indolent race, of no earthly use to themselves or anybody else in the community -- save the doctors -- and their presence gathers and retains a set of graceless white vagabonds, who ... get a precarious living by peddling villainous whisky among them. ... These social lepers are far worse than the small pox. In ridding ourselves of one, we no longer encourage the other. Let the Indians be sent to the Reservations where they belong ... [and then] our natural resources would rapidly develop, society would improve and strengthen, and free-love and atheism find fewer endorsers on the shores of Puget Sound” (May 24, 1862, p. 2).

When word was received that Indians in the British colonies to the north were “dying like rotten sheep” even though “many hundred” were vaccinated, the Steilacoom paper stated: “We think the whites, guided by their superior intelligence, have little to apprehend from this dread disease” (Puget Sound Herald, May 8, 1862, p. 2). Two weeks later, hearing that the smallpox epidemic would “nearly exterminate all the tribes on the coast,” the Port Townsend paper concluded that it was better for the Indians “to die by small pox than whisky and civilised lust” (North-West, May 24, 1862, p. 3).

Death of Many Nations

Long after the epidemic played itself out, death pervaded the outskirts of Victoria. Shallow graves covered the ground, and a putrid smell hovered over them. In late June 1862, because there were too many bodies to bury, heavy rocks had been tied to corpses and thrown into two nearby bays. But it wasn’t until the following year that a sense of the enormity of the destruction at Victoria was reported on. In June 1863, a local paper estimated that near the town, "the bodies of from 1000 to 1200 Northern Indians, who have fallen victims to the small-pox, lie unburied in the space of about an acre of ground ...”(Boyd, p. 182; The Daily British Colonist, June 28, 1862, p. 3).

For months or years human bones likely littered the northwest coast shoreline from above Victoria to southern Alaska. Robert Boyd estimates that before the 1862 smallpox epidemic, nearly 30,000 aboriginal people resided along this coastline, living their lives, raising families, telling tribal stories, gathering food, attending ceremonies, and so on. About a year later, after smallpox had invaded nearly every bay along the coast, just 15,000 natives remained.

Each tribe perished at a different rate. The worst devastation occurred in the southern Alaska panhandle. The mainland Tlingit, including tribal members along the Stikine and Tongass rivers, suffered about 1,450 deaths, about 60 percent of their population. The Heiltsuk (formerly called the Bella Bella) went from 1,650 to about 500. On the Queen Charlotte Islands and Prince of Whales Island, the Haida tribe was decimated, losing about 70 percent of their people (5,700 to 1,600). Almost every Haida family lost someone, entire families were eradicated, and social structures devastated. Villages were abandoned all along the Northwest Coast, especially in the Queen Charlotte Islands. The number of Haida villages went from 13 on the eve of the epidemic to seven 20 years later. By the turn of the twentieth century, only two villages remained.

During the 1850s the Northern Indians were greatly feared by Puget Sound Indians and whites alike. In large canoes they would come south from their homeland seeking employment and to trade. Before returning home, some groups of Northern Indians would raid settlers' homes and Indian villages along the sound to steal and sometimes capture natives for slaves. After the 1862 epidemic there were few if any reports of northern incursions into Puget Sound.

The "Work of Extermination"

After most of the northern tribes were forced from Victoria, the (Victoria) Daily Press published an editorial titled “The Indian Mortality.” It said in part:

“... ‘What will they say in England?’ when it is known that an Indian population was fostered and encouraged round Victoria, until the small-pox was imported from San Francisco. They, when the disease raged amongst them, when the unfortunate wretches were dying by scores, deserted by their own people, and left to perish in the midst of a Christian community that had fattened off them for four years -- then the humanizing influence of our civilized Government comes in -- not to remedy the evil that it had brought about -- not to become the Good Samaritan, and endeavor to ameliorate the effects of the disease by medical exertion, but to drive these people away to death, and to disseminate the fell disease along the coast. To send with them the destruction perhaps of the whole Indian race in the British Possessions on the Pacific ... . There is a dehumanizing fatuity about this treatment of the natives that is truly horrible ... How easy it would have been to have sent away the tribes when the disease was first noticed in the town, and if any of the Indians had taken the infection, to have had a place where they could have been attended to, some little distance from Victoria, until they recovered as they in all probability would have done with medical aid. By this means the progress of the disease would at once been arrested, and the population saved from the horrible sights, and perhaps dangerous effects, of heaps of dead bodies putrifying [sic] in the summer’s sun, in the vicinity of town ... The authorities have commenced the work of extermination -- let them keep it up ... . Never was there a more execrable Indian policy than ours” (Daily Press, June 17, 1862 in Boyd, p. 182-183, endnote 7).

Whites Congratulate Themselves

But, in the British settlements of British Columbia and Vancouver Island, the epidemic was quickly forgotten. On January 1, 1863, as the virus continued to infect tribes in the interior of British Columbia, The Daily British Colonist published a New Year’s editorial stating in part, “Another year has passed over our heads. ... We hope we may have to chronicle at [the beginning of 1864] ... the continuation of the progress that has characterised the past twelve months. ... No matter from what point we view our developement [sic] there is every ground for congratulation. Everything shows a rapid and healthy growth.”

Sources:
The Daily British Colonist (Victoria) March 13-14, 18-22, 25-28, 1862; April 1-2, 26-30, 1862; May 1, 8, 13-14, 19, 27, 1862; June 13-14, 21, 28-30, 1862; July 2, 7, 11, 1862; January 1, 1863; Puget Sound Herald (Steilacoom) February 6, 1862; April 3, 10, 1862; May 8, 1862; Washington Standard (Olympia) March 29, 1862, April 5, 1862; The North-West (Port Townsend) March 29, 1862; May 24, 1862; The Overland Press April 7, 1862; Robert Boyd, The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectious Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774-1874 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 172-177, 179, 182-184, 186, 191, 192, 229; Lewis & Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific North West ed. by E. W. Wright (Portland, OR: Lewis & Dryden Printing Company, 1895), 131-134; Nicolau Barquet and Pere Domingo, Annuals of Internal Medicine, October 15, 1997, Vol. 127, p. 635-642; Board on Global Health, Assessment of Future Scientific Needs for Live Variola Virus (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999), 25-26; Harry Greyson, A History of Victoria 1842-1970 (Victoria, BC: The Victoria Observer Publishing Co. Ltd., 1970), 16; John Sebastian Helmcken, The Reminiscences of Doctor John Sebastian Helmcken ed. by Dorothy Blakey Smith (Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 1975), xxxix, 187; Dictionary of Canadian Biography, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), vol. 11 p. 885-888; vol. 14 p. 472-474; Cecelia Svinth Carpenter, Fort Nisqually: A Documented History of Indian and British Interaction (Tacoma: A Tahoma Research Publication, 1986), 86; Robert T. Boyd, George M. Guilmet, David L. Whited, Nile Thompson, “The Legacy of Introduced Disease: The Southern Coast Salish,” American Indian and Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 15, No. 4 (1991), 1-32; Journals of the Colonial Legislatures of the Colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia 1851-1871, Vol. 2, Journal of the House of Assembly, Vancouver Island, 1856-1863, ed. by James E. Hendrickson (Victoria, Provincial Archives of British Columbia, 1980), 350; Wilson Duff, The Indian History of British Columbia Vol. 1: The Impact of the White Man (Victoria, BC: Provincial Museum of Natural History and Anthropology, 1964), 38-46; Wilson Duff, The Indian History of British Columbia, Vol. 1: The Impact of the White Man (Victoria, BC: Royal British Columbia Museum, 1997), 9-10, 164-165; Derek Pethick, British Columbia Disasters (Langley, BC: Stagecoach Publishing Co. Ltd., 1978), 11-23; Hilman F. Jones Papers (TS-26) Box 1, File 28, Special Collections, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma; Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Year 1862 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1863), 403, 405-406; Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Year 1863 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1864), 446-449, 469, 471-472.


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