of the earliest documented disease pandemics in the history of the
American West took place when
Anglo-European settlers moving westward during the 1830's and 1840's
brought diseases to the
tribes of the Great Plains.
From earliest contacts, cultural differences and battles over land use and
ownership took place between European settlers and Native Americans as
and settlers expanded westward across the continent. But, the first
documented evidence of the devastation smallpox would have on tribal
groups in this region dates back to the 1830's and '40s.
Historian Paul H. Carlson in his excellent textbook, The Plains Indians,
said this smallpox outbreak was traced to contact between deckhands in an
American Fur Company steamboat moving up the
Missouri River and members of
several tribal groups living along that river, a major early trade and
emigration route into the Plains and Upper Midwest.
1837, Carlson said, thousands of
had died. He suggested that as many as half of the Arikara and Hidatsa
population of 4,500 died in this 1837 outbreak. In addition, he estimated
this smallpox outbreak killed "virtually all" of the 1,600
in the Upper Missouri River region.
Diseases that came from Europeans and wiped out villages and large numbers
of Native Americans were nothing new elsewhere in
America, even as early as the 1830's. Some historians suspect, in fact,
that some of the early Puritans' stories of mysterious, empty villages
with full food stores which they encountered upon landing in New England
were signs of smallpox and other disease epidemics that preceded the
Puritans. These historians theorize that the villages were probably empty
because the native people had been exposed to various European diseases by
fishermen and others who had come before the recorded visits of English
settlers. The villages may have been empty because the Native American villagers saw the
Europeans coming and were fleeing the risk of diseases. (Historians know
from fragmentary accounts and sketchy maps that Portuguese explorers and
fishermen were in North American waters decades before Plymouth Colony.)
Perhaps the credit more pious Puritan writers gave to God for miraculously
providing them with food and shelter was due to far grimmer circumstances,
i.e., sickness and disease that killed or drove away the
of New England.
Later on in the history of the settlement of the Old West, during the
years known to many historians as "the Indian Wars," accounts reveal some
of the more horrible, dark side of European contact with Native Americans -- cases when white people
intentionally infected Indian villages with smallpox and other diseases by
means of abandoned blankets and clothing. Those were dark times filled
with dark deeds by Europeans and Native Americans alike.
But one of the earliest traceable outbreaks of smallpox among the Plains
tribal groups came from the American Fur Company boat venturing up the
Missouri River in the mid-1830's.
© Gary Speer, 2010
About the Author:
Gary Speer is a longtime writer and former
newspaper copy editor who focuses on writing tips, Internet marketing,
blogging, and a variety of topics related to outdoor living, collecting,
and lots of fun things! Gary offers writing tips at his blog and runs a
number of affiliate marketing websites.
You can find out more about disease of the
Great Plains Indian groups' battles with deadly diseases at Gary's
in the Old West.