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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

No. 373: Épidémie de variole, deuxième partie

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Smallpox is an Old World disease that sometimes wiped out entire native villages in the early days of contact between Aboriginals and Europeans.

According to historian Michael Payne, the first known epidemic in the west dates back to 1736.

The first accounts that we have of smallpox reaching the west actually come from the Canadian fur traders, the La Verendryes, who had established posts in southern Manitoba in the early 18th century. And they report a significant outbreak of smallpox in 1736-1737, in the Lake of the Woods–Winnipeg River area.

Now they didn't have posts further west, in what we now know as Alberta, so we have no idea whether or not this epidemic spread as far as Alberta.

The La Verendryes speculated the outbreak of smallpox came from people who were trading at the Hudson's Bay Company posts on Hudson Bay. But that may not have been so.

Hudson's Bay records don't actually say that there was any particular disease or epidemic among the people trading at the posts in that year, so we have to speculate I guess, a little bit, or we're not entirely sure where the disease came from at that time, and how it actually spread amongst the Aboriginal people of western Canada.

The next really big smallpox epidemic, which is in fact well documented, occurred in 1781-1782, and it was a major pandemic. It spread throughout western Canada, it actually also spread throughout the United States, as well. But we know that it affected people across western Canada, from Hudson Bay to the 49th parallel, across the plains, and even up into what we now think of as northern Alberta, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. It was a massive outbreak of smallpox.

According to one observer, this outbreak killed nine out of every ten people among the native population of the West.

On the Heritage Trail,

I'm Cheryl Croucher

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