Smallpox on the Upper Missouri in 1837

Smallpox was a European disease which devastated many American Indian tribes. Many European Christians viewed the smallpox epidemics as evidence of their god’s grace for them and felt that god was clearing the way for their settlement of the continent by destroying Indians societies. The European invaders sometimes helped god’s destruction of the Indians by deliberately providing Indians with smallpox-infected goods under the guise of “helping” the Indians. The Indians, whose opinions about their history are seldom consulted, often feel that the many smallpox epidemics are evidence of biological warfare. One example of this can be seen in the great smallpox epidemic which swept across the Northern Plains (Montana and North Dakota) in 1837.

In 1832, Congress appropriated $12,000 to vaccinate Indians against smallpox. The Secretary of War was to be in charge of the vaccinations. It was estimated that the appropriated funds would be sufficient to vaccinate two-thirds of the country’s Indians.

The Secretary of War notified the Indian agent for the upper Missouri that no tribes upstream from the Arikara were to be vaccinated. There were some who feel that the Secretary of War’s prohibition on vaccinating tribes upstream from the Arikara was intended to annihilate the Blackfoot who were harassing American fur-trapping brigades.

Steamboat traffic to the fur and hide trading posts on the Upper Missouri began in 1832 with the American Fur Company’s Yellow Stone. In 1837, the American Fur Company steamboat St. Peters spread smallpox among the tribes of the Upper Missouri.

Many of the people on the St. Peters, both crew and passengers, were infected with smallpox. The captain, however, refused to quarantine those infected. Guided by what seems to have been greed rather than good judgment, the captain was more concerned about avoiding any delays in his schedule. Following his schedule, the captain continued steaming up the Missouri with no concern for potential consequences. Each time the river boat stopped at a trading post, the epidemic spread into the tribes who had come in to trade.

In North Dakota, one of the traders at Fort Union came down with smallpox after the St. Peters had stopped at the trading post. The clerk, Charles Larpenteur, understood that the disease would pose a great peril to the Assiniboine when they returned to trade in the fall. Therefore, all of the personnel at the post who had not had smallpox were inoculated. Using a medical book as a guide, they scraped pus from a ripened smallpox blister. They then made tiny cuts on the inoculees’ arms, dipped the tip of the lancet in the vial of pus, and rubbed a small amount of pus on the wound. Smallpox, however, still struck the Assiniboine and two-thirds died. Of the 250 lodges at Fort Union, only 30 survived.

In Montana, the trader from Fort McKenzie wondered why no Blackfoot had come to the post to trade. He set out to find his customers and encountered many buffalo, but no buffalo hunters. At Three Forks he found a Blackfoot camp of 60 lodges: there were only two old women alive. The rest had died from smallpox or from suicide to avoid smallpox. The old women had been infected by smallpox when they were younger and so they were immune to the disease.

The epidemic spread by the riverboat killed at least 17,000 Indian people. In North Dakota, 90 percent of the Mandan and 50 percent of the Hidatsa died. The epidemic spread west to the Blackfoot where it killed 50 percent of the southern portion of the tribe.

While traditional histories generally report that the spread of smallpox by the riverboat was unintentional, there are still many Indian people on the Northern Plains who feel that the epidemic was intentional. There are some who feel that this was another example of biological warfare against the Indians.