Smallpox kills 14,000 Northwest Coast Indians from April to December 1862.

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 12/08/2000
  • Essay 3176
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On March 12, 1862, smallpox (variola major) arrives at Victoria, British Columbia, carried from San Francisco on the steamship Brother Jonathan. The catastrophic 1862 smallpox epidemic among Northwest Coast tribes is allowed to spread through the policy of white officials who 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, returning by compulsory pilgrimage to their homelands, caused 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 Pestilance, "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.

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Smallpox Epidemic of 1862 among Northwest Coast and Puget Sound Indians" (by Greg Lange), (accessed December 8, 2000).

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