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No. 376: Smallpox Epidemics: Part Five

By the middle of the 19th century, the native population had dwindled to a mere tenth, if not less, of what it had been just three centuries before.

And as historian Michael Payne points out, even then, smallpox continued to threaten those few who survived.

There was a pretty significant outbreak in 1837-38, when smallpox was transmitted along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers into the West, and groups of Plains Indians who, of course, crossed the border to trade with American traders, as well, came into contact with smallpox at posts on the Missouri River. And then when they became ill, many of them fled north, hoping to escape the disease, but of course, only spreading it further.

By this time, scientific research had broadened people's understanding of disease, with medical advances for treating smallpox.

Fortunately at that time, the Hudson's Bay Company had shipped-out some vaccine to western Canada. There were a number of Hudson's Bay Company officers, including William Todd, for example, who was the officer in charge at Fort Pelly on the upper Assiniboine River, who was in fact a doctor who began campaigns of trying to vaccinate people against smallpox. And there is some speculation that in fact this campaign of vaccination undertaken by the Hudson's Bay Company through its posts may in fact helped to have limited the spread of the disease at that time.

With so many people dying over the centuries, smallpox changed the territories where different native groups hunted and lived.

For example, the Assiniboine Indians, of the southern plains, who often traded with the Americans across the border on the Missouri River, seemed to have been more affected than, say, the plains Cree were. We know, for example, from fur trade records from1781-82, that the band at the Pas essentially disappeared. But other people moved into that area, which was a rich trapping area and so on, and eventually took up trapping and trading at the post there.

It was not until the 20th century that smallpox vanished as a significant problem for natives of the West. But by then, their lives had changed forever.

On the Heritage Trail,

I'm Cheryl Croucher.

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