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Smallpox Epidemics, Part Three:
Epidemic of 1781 - 82 wipes out Native villages across the West

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The winter of 1781-82 proved horribly devastating to the Aboriginal people of western Canada. According to historian Michael Payne, thousands died from a smallpox epidemic that quickly spread through the fur trade posts and native encampments.

So you had people, for example, like Samuel Hearn, who, in his journals, talks about the impact of this disease on the Chipewyan who traded at the Hudson’s Bay Company posts. And he speculates that perhaps as many as 9 out of every 10 people died over that year, amongst these people who were trading at the Hudson’s Bay Company post.

Other fur traders who were operating on the North Saskatchewan River, for example, talk about going into Indian encampments, and the entire encampment would be deserted, and there would just be bodies in tents all over the place, as a result of the devastating impact of this disease on people.

By this time, there were fur trade posts all through the interior of North America, as well as along the Hudson Bay. No one was left untouched.

Fur traders were very concerned about this outbreak of the disease, for a number of reasons. It was pretty terrifying to see people dying all around you, but also it needs to be remembered that these were the customers and the clients of the fur trade companies themselves. The people who were dying were the people who produced the furs that the Hudson’s Bay Company, for example, needed to trade for in order to have a business. So the people in charge of posts commented extensively on this extraordinary and devastating mortality that was taking place amongst the people with whom they had regular contact, and whom for many of them were friends, and in some cases actually relatives as well, for people who had married into Aboriginal families.

Orphaned and widowed, those few who survived grieved over their loss, and it was years before the fur trade recovered.

On the Heritage Trail,

I’m Cheryl Croucher.

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