The smallpox scourge of 1837, which was variously estimated by the writers of that period to have destroyed from 60,000 to 150,000 Indians—the true figures from later information being about 17,000—originated from a case on the steamer St. Peter, the annual boat of the American Fur Company, on its way up the Missouri to Fort Union in June of that year. Every possible means was adopted to keep the Indians away from the boat, but knowing that it was loaded with supplies for them, they were certain that these efforts were part of a plan to defraud. At Fort Clark, then in charge of Francois A. Chardon, a Mandan chief stole a blanket from a watchman on the boat who was dying with the disease, and though offered a new blanket and pardon for his offense, the infected blanket could not be recovered and the contagion was spread by this means.
Jacob Halsey, an extremely dissipated man, who was in charge of Fort Union, and was returning from a temporary absence, was a passenger on the boat, and although he had been vaccinated, was sick with the disease on his arrival at Fort Union. One of his clerks, Edwin T. Denig, and an Indian also had the disease, whereupon it was determined to adopt heroic measures for defense, “and have it all over with in time for the fall trade.” Accordingly, 30 squaws stopping at Fort Union were vaccinated with the real smallpox virus from the person of Halsey, and a few days later 27 of them were stricken with smallpox.
Entire Indian villages had been exposed while crowding around the boat, and Indians from the boat, or who had visited it, went to the Blackfeet, Assiniboine, and other tribes, and when the epidemic was at its height, the Indians came in from the chase for the fall trade, crowding about the fort in spite of every effort to keep them away.
The contagion began to spread about the middle of June, and raged as long as there were Indians who were not immune to attack. The victims were seized with severe pains in the head and back, and death resulted generally in a few hours, the disease taking its most malignant form. In the words of an eye-witness of the scenes: “In whatever direction we go, we see nothing but melancholy wrecks of human life. The tents are still standing on every hill, but no rising smoke announces the presence of human beings, and no sounds but the croaking of the raven, and the howling of the wolf, interrupt the fearful silence.”
Henry Boller, who was eight years engaged in trade on the Missouri River, in his book entitled “Among the Indians,” states that in one family all had died save one babe, and as there was no one to care for that it was placed alive in the arms of its dead mother, and wrapped with her in her burial robes, laid on the scaffold, the Indian method of burying the dead.
Prince Maximilian is quoted as writing at the time of the scourge: “The destroying angel has visited the unfortunate sons of the wilderness with terrors never before known, and has converted the extensive hunting-grounds, as well as the peaceful settlements of these tribes, into desolate and boundless cemeteries… The warlike spirit which but lately animated the several tribes, and but a few months ago gave reason to apprehend the breaking out of a raging war, is broken. The mighty warriors are now the prey of the greedy wolves, and the few survivors, in utter dispair, throw themselves upon the whites, who, however, can do little for them. The vast preparations for the protection of the frontier are superfluous; another hand has undertaken the defense of the white inhabitants of the frontier, and the funeral torch that lights the red man to his dreary grave, has become the auspicious star of the advancing settler and the roving trader of the white race.”
In the translator’s preface to Maximilian’s “Travels in the Interior of North America,” may be found a letter from the prince, dated New Orleans, June 6, 1838, in which he bears corroborative testimony to the efforts of the company’s officers to retard the progress of the plague. He says that the smallpox was communicated to the Indians by a person who was on board the steamboat which ran up the previous summer to the mouth of the Yellowstone River, to carry both the Government presents and the goods for the barter trade of the fur dealers: and the translator, Hannibal E. Lloyd, adds that it was the American Fur Company’s steamboat St. Peter which carried the annual outfit and supplied the Missouri River forts, and that Larpenteur, in charge of Fort Union, says the vessel arrived June 24, 1837: that the officers could not prevent intercourse between the Indians and the vessel, although they exerted themselves to the utmost.
The smallpox epidemic was the direct result of the demoralizing influence of the use of intoxicating liquors. There was neglect on the boat which was making its way into the heart of the Indian country, and criminal disregard of danger, and neglect on the part of the authorities at Fort Union. There was not a deliberate purpose to murder the Indian families vaccinated with the smallpox virus, and “have it over,” but the result would have been the same had that been the case. Alfred Cummings, United States superintendent of Indian affairs, in reporting the result of investigations on his trip to the Upper Missouri tribes in 1855, said of the smallpox scourge of 1837: “Every Indian camp from the Big Bend of the Missouri to the headwaters of the Columbia and Puget Sound was the scene of utter despair. To save families from the torture of the loathsome disease, fathers slew their children, and in many instances inflicted death upon themselves with the same bloody knife. Maddened by their fears, they rushed into the waters for relief, and many perished by their own hands, gibbeted on the trees which surrounded their lodges.” (Lounsberry, History of North Dakota, 1917, Volume 1, pp. 179–180)