Smallpox Kills Most Mandan People

Four Bears Says Whites are “Black-Hearted Dogs”
Fort Clark, Summer 1837

Smallpox raged through the population of the Mandan village in the last two weeks, leaving only one-tenth of the people alive. Sources close to the village believe that only 250 of the 2,500 men, women and children have survived the epidemic.

The Mandan are a peaceful people, well-remembered for the help they gave Lewis and Clark in 1804–05 and their trading skills long before the coming of Euro-Americans. Farmers as well as hunters, the Mandan grew corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and tobacco. They also collect juneberries, cherries, and plums. Buffalo gave them fresh and dried meat. The hunters would leave in large numbers for a lengthy fall hunt. In the summer they would get meat from any passing herd.

Mato-Tope, Mandan Chief (plate 317) by Karl Bodmer.  Courtesy of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.

The Mandan moved to the present location from the old At-A-Slant Village along the Missouri River after a smallpox epidemic in 1781. The only way to avoid the disease was to flee the village.

Smallpox is a disease that is spread from animals to humans and passed along to other humans. Cows suffer from cowpox and can transmit the disease to humans as smallpox. Europeans had built up immunities to the disease, but it continued to be deadly. Among the white people, smallpox will kill one-tenth of those who contract it. One-fifth of those infected will be scarred, especially on the face, for life.

All native people were free from infectious diseases like smallpox for the simple reason that they had few domesticated animals. When fur traders met with the Mandan, they brought the smallpox with them. Because they had no natural immunity built up over many years, the Mandan died quickly and in great distress.

Mandan Shrine by Karl Bodmer.  Courtesy of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.

The leader of the Mandan, Mah-to-to-pe (Four Bears), has responded to the devastation with a dying speech:

My friends one and all, listen to what I have to say. Ever since I can remember, I have loved the whites. I have lived with them since I was a boy, and to the best of my knowledge I have never wronged a white man. On the contrary, I have always protected them from the insults of others. This they cannot deny. The Four Bears never saw a white man hungry, but what he gave him to eat, gave him drink and a buffalo skin to sleep on, in time of need. I was always ready to die for them, which they cannot deny. I have done everything a red skin could do for them, and how have they repaid it!  With ingratitude. I have never called a white man a dog, but today I do pronounce them to be a set of black-hearted dogs. They have deceived me, they that I have always considered as brothers, have turned out to be my worst enemies. I have been in many battles, and often wounded, but the wounds of my enemies I exalt in. But today I am wounded, and by whom?  By those same white dogs that I have always considered and treated as brothers. I do not fear death, my friends. You know it. But to die with my face rotten, that even the wolves will shrink with horror at seeing me, and say to themselves, “That Four Bears the friend of the whites”—

Listen well to what I have to say; as it will be the last time you will hear me. Think of your wives, children, brothers, sisters, friends—and in fact all that you hold dear—are all dead, or dying, with their faces all rotten, caused by those dogs the whites? Think of all that my friends, and rise all together and not leave one of them alive. The Four Bears will do his part.

Note:  Edward Jenner of England developed a vaccination against smallpox in 1796 by inoculating a young boy with cowpox pus from a milkmaid’s hand sores. Thus far, it is chiefly the white upper classes who are protected in this manner.



By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

Related Media

  1. Lewis and Clark Pathways: Smallpox
    Video: Smallpox was particularly devastating to the Mandan people.