Commentary on Early Contact-Era Smallpox in the Pacific Northwest

by Robert Boyd
Commentary on Early Contact-Era Smallpox in the Pacific Northwest
Robert Boyd
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Robert Boyd, Portland, Oregon

Abstract. Data on the earliest smallpox epidemics of the contact era (from 1774 on) among Pacific Northwest Native Americans are scattered and difficult to interpret. There are no eyewitness accounts. Two recent articles, published in Ethnohistory and BC Studies in 1994,interpret the data on early Northwest smallpox differently. This commentary reviews the available evidence for the varying interpretations and makes a request for further research.

I have read with interest Cole Harris's "Voices of Disaster: Smallpox around the Strait of Georgia in 1782" (1994). Since the essay concerns a topic that I have been researching for over fifteen years and on which I have recently published ("Smallpox in the Pacific Northwest: The First Epidemics" [Boyd 1994a]),' I would like to add some comments of my own. "Voices of Dis- aster" concentrates on the Strait of Georgia area of southwestern British Columbia; "Smallpox in the Pacific Northwest" covers the entire North- west Coast and Plateau culture areas. Otherwise, the two essays focus on the same topic: the first smallpox epidemic(s) of the initial contact period (from 1774 on) in the Northwest. For the wider region, the data base Harris works from is virtually the same as my own.

Both essays agree that smallpox was present in epidemic form in the Pacific Northwest during the late 1700s and that it had devastating demo- graphic effects. Beyond this, however, we interpret the data differently in a few significant ways. Harris maintains that (I)Northwest smallpox origi- nated with the Plains epidemic of 1780-81, spread to the Columbia River drainage, down the river to its mouth, and from there up the coast to the Strait of Georgia, by 1782 (1994: 605, 615); (2) "there is no evidence that there was a coastwide epidemic in 1775" (ibid.:606) and the Tlingit (Alaska

Ethnohistory 43:~(spring 1996).Copyright 0by the American Society for Ethno- history.

panhandle) suffered a separate outbreak "in the 1770s"; and (3) "there was not a second smallpox epidemic in Puget Sound and around the Strait of Georgia in 1801" (ibid.). My views on each of these propositions are somewhat different.

The data base on early Northwest smallpox consists of three cate- gories of evidence, and each must be evaluated in a different way. None is easy to interpret. The first category is historical: the journals of early explorers, fur traders, missionaries, and others. The Northwest Coast his- torical data on early smallpox are not based directly on eyewitness obser- vation. Epidemic(s) occurred before or between early Euroamerican visits to the region. The historical accounts rely therefore on informant testi- mony, observations of pockmarked individuals, or other post hoc evidence of an epidemic experience. There is also a body of evidence embedded in oral traditions and myth texts collected by local ethnographers in the late 1800s and early 19oos, several generations after the actual epidemic ex- perience(~).Some oral traditions of early smallpox have been dated, usually genealogically, by the collecting ethnographer; others are undatable. Myths may incorporate fairly explicit descriptions or be vague and couched in symbolism; few contain datable elements. There is also suggestive evidence for village abandonment, perhaps because of epidemic disease, both in the historical record and from archaeology. The nature of the data base lends itself to different interpretations, particularly in regard to dating and geo- graphical origins and extent of outbreaks. And it is in these three ways that I interpret the data differently than Harris. Among the several accounts of early Northwest smallpox I have collected, those that come with dates estimated by the collectors fall into two time frames: (I)the late 1700s (1769-go), and (2) the early 1800s (1800-8). There is a third temporal cluster in the early 18zos.Z Under each heading, I discuss the evidence on dating and geographical originslextent.

Smallpox in the Late 1700s

There are three questions under this heading: (I)where did Northwest smallpox come from, (2)when did it appear in the Northwest, and (3)how far did it spread?


The Plains theory is not the only one to address the origins of Northwest smallpox; two others are extant. I discuss each in detail in "Smallpox in the Pacific Northwest." The first theory has smallpox originating in the Kam- chatka Peninsula, where a severe epidemic occurred in 1769, spreading via Russian explorers to the Aleutians and south Alaska, and from there to the Alaska panhandle and down the coast. This theory was first presented in my 1985 dissertation. Although there was a Russian expedition from Kam- chatka to south Alaska at this time, its records are not available. OneTlingit account (Khlebnikov 1976: 29; repeated in later publications) estimates a date of 1770 for initial smallpox; others from the Tlingit area (e.g., Port- lock 1789: 271-72), however, are later. The second origin theory attributes smallpox to Spanish ships from Mexico, which visited the Northwest Coast in 1774, 1775, and 1779. Smallpox was later documented in most loca- tions where the Spanish made landfalls (Nootka excepted); some coastal explorers said that the Spanish brought the disease (ibid.), and a cluster of North Coast myths, which attribute epidemics to the "spirit of pestilence" that came in "disease boats" certainly inspired by Euroamerican vessels, has been grounded to the late 1700s (Gunther 1972: 121). Recent scholarly works, including historian Warren Cook's Flood Tide of Empire: Spain and the Pacific Northwest, 1543-1819, and medical historian Robert Fortuine's

Chills and Fever: Health and Disease in the Early History of Alaska, have assumed Spanish origins. The range of estimated historical dates for early Northwest smallpox (below) supports the Spanish origins theory. But none of the available Spanish ship journals explicitly mention smallpox; the dis- ease was not recorded in central Mexico at the time of any of the three expeditions (though it was rife in other years: see Donald Cooper's Epidemic Disease in Mexico City, 1761-1813), and the long voyage from Mexico argues against ship-borne transmission.

For the Plains origin theory, there are two missionary accounts, col- lected from informants among the Nez Perce and Flathead in 1840 and 1847 respectively, which recall the initial smallpox epidemic and attribute it specifically to hunting groups who picked it up in the Plains (Drury 1958: 136-37; Mengarini1977: 193-94). Both trans-Rocky bison hunts by Plateau peoples and the 1780-81 Plains smallpox epidemic are well documented. Problems with this theory are the possibility of conflation in the minds of the informants (1801-2 Plateau smallpox, which most certainly came from the Plains, intervened in this sixty-plus-year period), and the three Plateau accounts with estimated dates are too early (see be lo^).^ Two non-Indian sources that postulate a 1780-81 Plains-Plateau smallpox connection must be approached with caution. In 1831 Ross Cox (cited by both Harris and myself) stated that the 1780-81 Plains epidemic "spread" to "the Pacific Ocean" (Cox 1957 [1831]). But Cox's connection of Plains and North- west smallpox appears to be speculative; he witnessed neither outbreak and offers no evidence to back his claim. Cox was anthropologist James Mooney's source for connecting Plains and Northwest smallpox; Mooney in turn has been quoted by several othem4

Dating Northwest Smallpox These are the extant origin theories. On dating, six examples in Northwest historical accounts estimate the year of initial smallpox: Tlingit, 1775 (Port- lock 1789), 1770 (Khlebnikov 1976); Upper Chinookan, 1776-78 (Lewis and Clark 1991: 65); Colvile, 1769-79 (Work, in Chance 1973: 120); Nez Perce, 1770-80 (Drury 1958); and Flathead, 1777 (Mengarini 1977). The range is 1769-80; the mean is 1775. The latter, of course, is the date of the second Spanish coastal expedition. Note that 1781-82 is outside the range of historically attested dates from the Pacific Northwest. Even if only the Plateau dates (Colvile, Nez Perce, and Flathead) are considered, the range is the same, and the average remains 1775. Most of these estimates were based on the chronicler's estimated age of pockmarked Indians; it could be that they consistently overestimated age. Another possibility is that 1775 was indeed the date for initial Coastal and Plateau smallpox and that the dis- ease was re-introduced from the Plains to the bison-hunting eastern Plateau peoples six years later. Given acquired immunity and depleted populations, it would not have spread farther west. This would reconcile the superficial inconsistency in the historical accounts between dating and origins. Such conflations of similar, closely dated events are common in oral traditions (Vansina 1985: 175).

Extent of Northwest Smallpox This is the evidence for area and date of origin, as it exists in the known data base. As far as the geographical extent of smallpox in the late 17oos, I summarized what was known from the historical data base in Boyd 1990; there have been a few changes since then. Smallpox was recorded historically among Tlingit, Haida, Ditidaht, Northern, Central and Southern Coast Salish, Upper Chinookans, and Tillamook (for sources see Boyd 1990: 137- 38); Plateau sources (noted above) add Colvile, Nez Perce, and Flathead. Mapping just those peoples that I listed in 1990 produces an interesting distribution: clusters on the North Coast, Central Coast, and Plateau, with blank spaces in between. The Plateau and Central Coast clusters are (geo- graphically) quite close; there is a notable geographic gap, however, be- tween them and the North Coast cluster. Taking the known geographic distribution literally might suggest, as Harris proposes, discrete epidemics in the south and the north. This is possible. The blank spots in my 1990 coverage of 1770s smallpox cannot pres- ently be filled by any definitive documentary source. A lack of histori-

cal documentation from many of these peoples may simply be an artifact of the historical record: most were not contacted early enough by Euro- americans who might notice pockmarks in elderly people or record their historical memories until several generations after the fact. There is sug- gestive coordinate evidence from some of the "in-between" peoples. Myth texts incorporating mentions of epidemic depopulation are known from several peoples not historically documented as having experienced late- 1700s smallpox. They include Tsimshian, Heiltsuk, and various Olympic Peninsula and Oregon coast peoples. On the British Columbia Plateau two related Nlhakapmx and Stl'atl'imx (Thompson and Lillooet) myths attribute tribal decimation to the introduction of a copper tool from the coast (Teit 1912a: 275-76; 1912b: 343-44). In addition, George Dawson approximated the abandonment of several Secwepemc (Shuswap) villages (by tree-ring dating) to the late 1700s (1892: 9); from southwestern Ore- gon, John Draper's 1989 dissertation on settlement pattern changes in the late 1700s hypothesizes epidemic depopulation. None of these sources, of course, constitute definitive proof of late 1700s smallpox.

The Kwakwgka'wakw Problem

Most prominent of the "in-between" peoples are the Kwakwaka'wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth (former Kwakiutl and Nootka). Harris's discussion prompts the question: Is there any evidence for early smallpox among these peoples? As far as the Kwakwaka'wakw are concerned, Harris states that "the Quakeolths [the historical source name] had never been affected by smallpox" (1994: n. 75), an assertion repeated in the text on page 615. The source is a passage in Sir George Simpson's 1841 narrative, made during a visit to Port McNeill.

Curiously enough, they [Quakeolths] have been exempted from the smallpox, though their brethren, both to the south of the Colum- bia and in Russian America, have suffered severely from that terrible scourge. To secure them a continuance of that happy immunity we begged permission from the chiefs of the Quakeolths, to vaccinate the children of the tribe. (Simpson 1847: 114)

Harris's reading-"never beenn-is not the same as Simpson's "exempted." Some historical perspective is necessary here. In 1836-37 there was yet another major smallpox epidemic in the Northwest Coast culture area, and its distribution corresponded exactly to what Simpson describes: "Russian America" and "south of the Columbia," but not in between. Simpson, gov- ernor of the Hudson's Bay Company and one of the most astute chroniclers of the early contact period, was certainly referring to this later epidemic alone, not any that may have occurred sixty-plus years earlier. My map in "Demographic History" (Boyd 1990: 140) shows the known extent of the 1836-37 epidemic. James Gibson (1982-83) has given a thorough account of this epidemic in the Alaskan Panhandle; I extended the coverage into the Forts Simpson/McLoughlin areas of northern British Columbia, and northern California/southwestern Oregon in chapter 4 of my 1985 disser- tation. Simpson's commentary certainly refers to this epidemic alone; it is not proof that the Kwakwakg'wakw of 1841 "had never been affected by smallpox." The passage has been misread.

A Kwakwaka'wakw oral tradition collected by Edward Curtis in 1915 may provide evidence of smallpox in the late 1700s. This citation attributes the disappearance of the Hoyalas people of Quatsino Sound in northern Vancouver Island to an "epidemic" that "almost exterminated" them. The tradition was collected from an informant born in 1844, who said it hap- pened at the time his great-great-grandfather was coming of age (Curtis 1915: 306 n. I).Helen Codere has (independently) dated the disappearance of the Hoyalas to before the establishment of white contact (1990: 361). Al- though this account is suggestive, it does not offer adequate documentary proof of smallpox in the area in the late 1700s. Robert Galois has pointed out that other accounts ascribe the dissolution of the Hoyalas to warfare, not disease (1994: 17).

Despite these emendations, Harris's emphasis on the lack of clear ref- erences to smallpox or epidemics among the Kwakwakg'wakw is notable. The absence of historical documentation by Euroamericans is not surpris- ing, as the Kwakwaka'wakw were off the main trade lines and were rarely visited in the early contact period. My survey of Boas's "ten foot shelf" of Kwakwaka'wakw texts, however, has uncovered only a few possible references; Galois notes this lacuna also (1994: 39). Wayne Suttles (1994) suggests that silence on this topic in the oral literature may be due to the fact that virtually all Boas's Kwakwakg'wakw texts came from a single informant, George Hunt (Curtis used a different informant). Among the neighboring Nuu-chah-nulth, interestingly, there is only one clear reference to early smallpox in either the historical or oral literature, from the south- ernmost Ditidaht. The relative lack of documentation for early smallpox among the Wakashan peoples is a problem that merits further investigation.

Auxiliary Evidence on Virgin-Soil Smallpox

Other evidence relative to the spread of smallpox that must be considered in any discussion of the disease among early contact-period Northwest Coast peoples concerns patterns of mobility and settlement, social contacts, and the epidemiology of smallpox. After a brief discussion of the importance of the horse in disease transmission among Plains Indians, Harris refers to the first problem: "On the coast, people lived geographically circumscribed lives" (1994: 615). It is true that the Northwest has a broken, varied topog- raphy, that horses were used in only a few areas, and even that the degree of linguistic differentiation implies lengthy in situ development of several local groups. But this does not mean that Northwest Coast Indians were not mobile. Far from it. They were-and in ways eminently suited to the rapid spread of contagious diseases. Dugout canoes of several types ranging up to fifty feet long were used in all the ubiquitous waterways as well as (in the north) on the open sea. Subsistence-related population movements might be short in some areas, but in others they were not: Halkomelem speakers, as noted in the Fort Langley journals (MacMillan and MacDonald 1827-30), crossed annually via boat from the Lower Fraser River to Vancouver Island to fish and trade. Chehalis speakers camped seasonally to fish at the mouth of the Columbia, and Chinookan canoes ranged all up and down the lower Columbia to The Cascades rapids (Hajda 1984). Eulachon fishing and trade brought Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit peoples annually to the mouth of the Nass; "grease trails" connected the villages of the Gitksan, Nisga'a, and Tsimshian in a net of contacts (Garfield 1966; MacDonald 1989). Slave raid- ing was best accomplished among geographically non-contiguous peoples among whom one did not have relatives. The list goes on.

Socially, several Northwest Coast peoples broke into family groups and scattered to various resource areas during the summer and congregated in villages during the winter. Particularly in the south, people had wide nets of relatives, established by preferential village exogamy. Relatives visited frequently, and they and others from different villages and language groups might congregate for life-cycle rituals, winter ceremonials, and potlatches, as well as fishing and trading (Elmendorf 1971). These social contacts, taken together, formed a mesh that unified disparate peoples into larger regional networks.

There was also a marked trend to continuity of settlement along (in particular) the lower Columbia, lower Fraser, and Stikine Rivers, as well as along many shorelines. Harris's maps clearly show this pattern for the Fraser; Kroeber noted it almost a half century ago for large sections of the Northwest (1939: 168,170), and (considering the Wakashan area alone) continuity of coastal settlement is readily apparent in the maps reproduced in the Handbook of American Indians (e.g., Codere1990: 360, Arima and De- whirst 1990: 392), and in Arima et al. 1991, and Galois199~. The settlement patterns depicted in these maps, moreover, date from postcontact times.

In the precontact era, when populations were higher, settlement patterns were certainly denser and hence more amenable to the spread of contagious diseases than they were in later years.

A brief discussion of the epidemiology of smallpox is also relevant here. A highly contagious disease, smallpox traveled through close contact, by touching, or through the air, by "droplet infection." The disease runs its course in about a month; two weeks of asymptomatic incubation are followed by two weeks of active infection. Once symptoms do appear, they are so gruesome and death is so excruciating that those who show no signs of the disease flee to other areas. In a virgin-soil situation, without acquired immunity or vaccination, smallpox tends to spread as far as the chains of contact allow it (Dixon 1962; Fenner et al. 1988). As Alfred Crosby has suc- cinctly put it, "Smallpox is a disease with seven league boots" (1986: 201).

My impression from this accumulated evidence on mobility, settle- ment, social contacts, and epidemiology is that, if virgin-soil smallpox were present at or just before contact in those places indicated in Boyd 1990, it would be virtually impossible for it to bypass the areas in-between. This would be especially true in the densely populated regions occupied by the Wakashan peoples. Granted, in 1836-37 smallpox most certainly did skip the Wakashan area, but by that time population distributions were differ- ent and numbers smaller, and there were new intervening variables such as acquired immunity and vaccine that could and did halt the disease's spread.

The above is a summary of the evidence known to me on the initial appearance of smallpox among the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Details are spelled out in Boyd 1985 and 199qa. The cumulated evidence lends itself to several interpretations. I think it is possible to select a best case as far as place of origin, date of occurrence, and geographic extent are concerned. But it is premature to make categorical statements on any of these points: the data base is still too small, and we should not yet nar- row our focus. Future research could favor any of several hypotheses. All evidence must be considered.

My position on origins and dating is as follows: "Numerous lines of evidence suggest that smallpox was introduced to the Northwest Coast with the 1775 Bruno de Hezeta-Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra Ex- pedition, though alternative or multiple sources-from the Northern Plains or Kamchatka-cannot be ruled out" (Boyd 1990: 138). Although I con- tinue to favor the coastal hypothesis, I recognize that a strong case can be made for Plains origins and am intrigued by the Russian possibility. I would like to see new evidence on all three theories.

On the geographical extent of late 1700s smallpox in the Northwest, I continue to favor the unitary hypothesis. My original statement on this matter, however, allows for regional outbreaks:

A "pandemic" over the entire Northwest is possible, but there are more conservative interpretations that may be made from the evidence. . .. It is possible that we are dealing with two or more regional outbreaks, each with its own history. The North Coast and Plateau clusters [of accounts] for instance, do not seem to share more than rough con- temporaneity. And the western Oregon-Washington ["Central Coast"] cluster may also have a disease history of its own. (Boyd 1985: 85;

Smallpox in the First Decade of the 1800s

Harris states "there was not a second smallpox epidemic in Puget Sound and around the Strait of Georgia in 1801" (1994: 606). As stated above, I have several accounts of smallpox dated between 1800 and 1808 from the central part of the Northwest Coast and Plateau culture areas. The exact year may not be "1801," but something was definitely going on around that time. Until recently, none of this information had seen print.j I would like to present that basic information here. Again, readers should bear in mind that there were (apparently) no eyewitness Euroamerican chroniclers of small- pox in this time period, and we must rely on after-the-fact observations of pockmarked individuals and abandoned villages, and the recollected tes- timony of Indian informants. Second, I take a broader regional approach than does Harris, so I will be citing accounts from outside the Strait of Georgia-Puget Sound area.

Among the several references to a second smallpox epidemic, the strongest come from the Columbia River drainage. Three independent his- torical sources from the area refer to two early visitations of smallpox, roughly a generation apart. The first relevant passage is from Hudson's Bay Company trader John Work, speaking of the Fort Colvile District (upper Columbia Salishan speakers) in 1829:

Immense numbers of them were swept off by a dreadful visitation of the smallpox that from the appearance of some individuals that bear marks of the disease, may have happened fifty or sixty years ago [1769-

791. The same disease committed a second ravage, but less destruction than the first about ten years afterwards. (HBC Archives MS. B. 45/e/2; cited in Chance 1973: 120)

The second is from Congregational missionary Asa Smith, at Kamiah Mis- sion among the Nez Perce, in 1840:

It appears from the accounts of the people that epidemics have for- merly prevailed among them, carrying off many people in a short time.

No epidemic has however prevailed among them very recently. Twice during the remembrance of the most aged among this people has the smallpox been among them. The first time it visited them must have been 60 or perhaps 70 years ago [1770-801. . . . It seems to have been the most virulent form of the smallpox. . ..The smallpox again visited this country soon after Lewis & Clarke were here, perhaps two years after [1807-8, but could this be two years before? That would make it 1803-4, much closer to Meriwether Lewis's own 1801-2, below], but it was a milder form, perhaps the varioloid & did not prove so fatal. Many however died. The marks of this disease are now to be seen on the faces of many of the old people. (Drury 1958: 136-37)

Smith's reference to "the varioloid" is apparently Variola minor, a less viru- lent strain of smallpox than Variola malor, with a case fatality of around I percent (Benenson 1990: 395). Although this is a plausible hypothesis to ex- plain the lesser mortality of the second outbreak, I believe it is more likely, given the acquired immunity of those who recovered from the initial out- break of smallpox, that mortality in the second outbreak was less because it was limited mostly to those nonimmune individuals born since the first epidemic.

Moving down the Columbia, Lewis and Clark's journals mention smallpox twice, both times among Chinookan peoples of the lower river. The following account, from March 1806 near the Sandy River (upstream from present Portland), refers to the first epidemic.

An old man who appeared of Some note among them. . . brought for- ward a woman who was badly marked with the Small Pox and made Signs that they all died with the disorder which marked her face, and which She was verry near dieing with when a Girl, from the age of this woman this Districtive disorder I judge must have been about 28 or 30 years past [1776-781. (Lewis and Clark 1991: 65)

The second account dates from February 1806, among the river-mouth Clatsops, and refers to a second epidemic, circa 1801-2.

The smallpox has distroyed a great number of the natives in this quar- ter. It prevailed about 4 years since among the Clatsops and distroy several hundred of them, four of their chief fell victyms to it's ravages. those Clatsops are deposited in their canoes on the bay a few miles below us. I think the later ravages of the small pox may well account for the number of remains of vilages which we find deserted on the river and Sea coast in this quarter. (Lewis and Clark 1990: 285)

These four accounts, by three independent observers, provide good evidence, I think, for two successive epidemics in the Columbia River drain- age, the first dating to between 1769 and 1780, the second (according to Meriwether Lewis, four years removed in time from the event), probably from the winter of 1801-2. I take Lewis as a "grounded" account, by which others should be measured.

Other accounts from north of the Columbia-approaching the Strait of Georgia-also appear to fit in this time frame. Harris quotes the per- tinent passage from Elmendorf's Structure of Twana Culture: "Disastrous epidemics, apparently of smallpox, struck the Twana in the time of infor- mants' parents and grandparents (1800-1840). The most severe of these was early, perhaps about 1800, and came from the Lower Chehalis on Gray's Harbor via the Satsop; from the Twana it passed north to the Klal- lam and peoples on southern Vancouver Island" (1960: 272). Gray's Harbor is just north of the mouth of the Columbia; Satsop territory is on the lower Chehalis River; Twana territory at the head of Hood Canal; and Clallam territory along the northeast shore of the Olympic Peninsula. Harris's map faithfully shows this route (though it is dated "1782") (1994: 606).

Elmendorf's is one of the more prominent of a series of accounts of smallpox from the Salishan peoples collected by informant interview in this century, and (sometimes) dated by the collecting ethnographer. Nowhere in Elmendorf's published papers (the pertinent ones are 1960, 1961, and 1993) does he give the data that led him to date this outbreak at "about 1800," and his field notes are not available for research. So it could be a miscalculation, and his "most severe" epidemic might refer to an epidemic eighteen years earlier. But, on present evidence, it seems to me more likely to match up with the chronologically nearly identical, historically grounded date due south at the mouth of the Columbia. (I should note in passing that a few oral traditions from Elmendorf's area cite early epidemic mortality and village depopulation, but none can be confidently dated to either the 1770s or the early 1800s.)

The Elmendorf citation takes us as far as the Salishan peoples of south- ern Vancouver Island. In the early historic period (as amply documented in the Fort Langley journal) there was regular, seasonal movement by canoe between this area and the lower Fraser, so that disease transmission (as between the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island) could easily have occurred. And accounts from the lower Fraser of smallpox have also been dated to this time. None, by itself, is convincing, but taken together they constitute a small body of evidence that must be dealt with and that has not yet been explained away. They include the following three pieces of evidence.

I. Old Pierre's account. Harris quotes this lengthy exposition (1994: 596- 97), a combination of myth and history, and assigns it to 1782. I cited it (and Charles Hill-Tout's similar but undated Squamish account) as well in my dissertation (Boyd 1985: IO~),but, following Wilson Duff, ethnographer of the Sto:lo ~eo~les,

assigned it to 1801-2. The pertinent passage from Duff's 1952 "The Upper Stalo Indians of the Fraser Valley" is as follows: "A native account obtained at Katzie by Jenness tells of a terrible epidemic of smallpox which swept through the region about 1800 and killed about three-quarters of the Indians" (28). In my dissertation I stated: "I follow Wilson Duff in attributing this account to the 1800-01 [sic] epidemic, though internal evidence leads me to believe that it might refer instead to the initial epidemic of the 1770s'' (1985: 111).

This is an aggravating account. Unlike the Elmendorf case, however, Duff's papers are available, in the Museum of Anthropology at the Univer- sity of British Columbia. I have not searched through them to see if there is any information on how he arrived at a date of 1800 for Old Pierre's account. Given present evidence, my current evaluation of this passage has changed, and I now think that Harris's assignation of this account to the initial epidemic is (for the most part) correct.

Further (though tentative) evaluation of the account has led me in two directions. First (looking at paragraph I alone), Old Pierre relates a myth that has the world moving through several disasters, ending with a small- pox epidemic that preceded the coming of the whites. There are obvious Christian influences in this myth. In differing versions, it has been recorded several times from the lower Fraser. Hill-Tout's Squamish version is quoted by Harris; Boas has a second Squamish variant in Indianische Sagen (un- published manuscript); and Oliver Wells recorded a second Sto:lo version at Chilliwack, in 1965 (Maud, in Hill-Tout 1978: 22-23 n. 3). All these variants seem to describe a virgin-soil experience.

Duff's 1800 date, however, was probably based on information given in paragraph 2, on the Pitt Lake survivor, a baby boy. Wayne Suttles col- lected a second version of this episode from Old Pierre's son, Simon, in 1952. Simon added a detail that his father left out: he named the baby. According to Simon, he was Slemexw. Suttles (1994) informs me that Sle- mexw was a historical figure, who apparently lived until the 1880s. So he likely was born around the turn of the century (unless he lived to be a very old man!).

My current evaluation (still tentative) is that paragraph I refers to a myth time event (as does Hill-Tout's Squamish account); paragraph 2, to a historical memory. Harris's assignation of paragraph I to a virgin-soil ex- perience is likely correct, and so is Duff's (probable) dating of paragraph 2


to 1800. Old Pierre appears to have combined two separate experiences, and probably two separate epidemics, into one. As Jan Vansina has pointed out, conflation of this sort is a common phenomenon in remembered oral traditions, when the events are similar and closely spaced in time (1985: 175). By itself, this may not seem like a very convincing case for early 1800s smallpox on the lower Fraser. But there are other accounts from the area that lend the interpretation weight.

2. On 24 June 1808, at a Nlhakapmx encampment between Lytton and Spuzzum, Simon Fraser entered in his journal, "The Indians of this en- campment were upwards [ofl five hundred souls. . . . The small pox was in the camp, and several of the natives were marked with it" (Lamb 1960: 94). Another perplexing account. It could refer either to smallpox presently circulating in the camp, or (more likely) to the presence of pockmarked individuals. Again, by itself, not very convincing. But Fraser's voyage was remembered by Fraser Valley peoples, and in at least two recorded oral versions they associated Fraser with sickness and death. The most explicit account came from a Stl'atl'imx (Lillooet) informant (Elliott1931: 176-77); a Tsawwassen story is less clearly related to Fraser (Appleby 1961: 45-47).

Throughout the lower Fraser and south as far as Swinomish in Wash- ington state, there are several oral traditions of village abandonment, usually attributed to smallpox, variously dated to different time frames within the first fifty years of contact. Accounts from the San Juan Islands date village abandonment to the late 17oos, or "some very remote time" (Ruth Shelton, in Suttles 1947-48; Stern 1934: 107). Skagit historian Martin Sampson dated the abandonment of the Swinomish village at the Anacortes naval base to the "first" smallpox epidemic "in the 1700s" (1972: 25, ~7).~ Charles Hill-Tout ascribed the major depopulation of the Stanley Park (Van- couver) Indian village to the "first" smallpox epidemic; the village was not entirely abandoned until the late 1800s (1978: 53-54). The "Snokomish" people of Boundary Bay were wiped out by disease and eventually replaced by the Semiahmoo (Julius Charles, in Suttles 1947-48); if my identification and dating of the Tsawwassen myth is correct, the crucial "depopulation" may have occurred in the first decade of the 1800s. Both Old Pierre and his son Simon apparently dated the depopulation of the Pitt Lake village at around 1800 (above). And Simon Pierre named five villages on the lower Fraser that were abandoned "before Fort Langley was founded" (in 1827), and reoccupied (by the Kwantlen) only after that date (cited in Suttles 1955: 12). This evidence suggests that, in the vicinity of the lower Fraser, village abandonment was more gradual than it was in other better-documented areas such as the Queen Charlottes and lower Columbia (Boyd 1992). My hypothesis is that depopulation in this area was a cumulative result of not one but two or more epidemics in the first fifty years of contact. The Squam- ish informant August Jack Khahtsahlano said it best: "They had a little smallpox before the white man came. There's been two or three smallpox come to the Squamish peoples. When? couldn't say; that's a long time" (Matthews 1955: 25).'

3. The final body of documentation for an early 1800s epidemic comes from east of the Strait of Georgia area. Again, it is ethnographic, collected by James Teit, mostly from his mixed-blood Salish informant Michel Revais on different occasions in the first decade of the 1900s. Revais said smallpox "came from the Crow. .. about 1800" (Teit 1930: 315). (An 1800-1 small- pox epidemic is recorded from all of the peoples of the upper Missouri except the three village tribes [See Taylor 1977: 78-79; Trimble 1988: 8, 13-14].) From the Crow the epidemic spread to the Flathead, Pend Oreille, Kalispel, Spokan, Colvile, Lakes Sanpoil, Wenatchee, and Columbia Salish peoples (Teit 1930: 212, 315). Teit's Lower Thompson (Nlhakapmx) told him that smallpox occurred among them "near the beginning of the cen- tury" (1900: 176). The Nlhakapmx are next upstream from the Sto:lo (see Harris 1994: map 2). They are also the people among whom Simon Fraser, in 1808, observed "natives. . .marked with . . . small pox." If the epidemic did indeed exist among them around 1800, and in southern Vancouver Island at the same time (following Elmendorf), it seems logical to conclude that it was in the intervening area as well.

This is the evidence for the existence of a smallpox epidemic between 1800 and 1808, in what corresponds to present-day Washington state, plus adjoining border areas of Oregon and British Columbia. There are other bits and pieces that I have not presented here. The historical accounts from the Columbia Basin, it seems to me, provide fairly solid documentation. The ethnographically collected accounts from the north (including the Strait of Georgia) are, taken individually, not very solid. But in the aggregate, the number of accounts that independently date smallpox to circa 1800-8 in this area constitute a body of data that must be reckoned with. It is too easy to push them all back twenty years, to lump them with a better documented epidemic, and to ignore the apparent inconsistencies they introduce. Unless some more solid evidence is presented to explain them away (and I have yet to see that evidence), I say accept them at face value.

Harris says: "Boyd's evidence for a second epidemic-Elmendorf's informants, Old Pierre, and Fraser's report-is consistent with a single epi- demic in 1782" (1994: 6061. It seems to me that there are two issues here: the ethnographer's dating of oral traditions and the possibility of conflation in informant's accounts. It is possible that Elmendorf, Duff, and Teit all misdated their accounts. But if it was an error, it was made independently and consistently, and it led each to date an event twenty to twenty-five (not five to ten or ten to twenty) years later (not earlier) than it really was. Sec- ond, informants may well have conflated or collapsed chronologically close similar events into a single account. In Oral Tradition as History, Jan Vansina notes that "when [extraordinary events] were not named and calamities were recurrent, such as droughts or epidemics, they would be fused, and in later times remembrance would be of one eclipse or one drought instead of many" (1985: 175; my emphasis). Westerners are obsessed with linear time; Northwest Coast Indians were not (Hymes 1990: 593). Old Pierre and Simon Pierre's accounts suggest that collapsing may have occurred in reference to smallpox. Perhaps Elmendorf's and Teit's informants also con- flated events. If they did so, it might explain why an epidemic, which by genealogical accounting should have occurred in 1800, was called "most severe" or "the earliest." The outstanding characteristics of an initial epi- demic were combined with the date of a similar event that was closest to the informants' experience. This explanation, of course, allows for both epidemics (late 1700s and 1800-8). But it is at this time only a hypothesis, which remains unproved. The next logical step is to consult the relevant ethnographers' field notes to see if they contain any additional information that might help solve this problem.

"Epidemic Areas"

There is one more point on which I would like to comment: Harris's "epi- demiological regions." This concept was originally put forward in Boyd 1990 (143-47) and had not (to my knowledge) been used before. Oper- atively, it arose from an attempt to summarize the early demographic his- tory of the various Northwest Coast peoples by grouping them into geo- graphic units that shared a common disease history. The idea itself came up during a conversation between Wayne Suttles and myself in the mid- 1980s. Suttles, as I recall, hypothesized that there should be a fit between regional social networks and local disease historie~.~

As it turned out, there was indeed some correspondence when contagious diseases such as small- pox and measles were considered, but when the vector-carried, ecologically limited "fever and ague" (malaria) epidemics were included, one "epidemic area" ("Interior Valleys") turned out to be based more on environmental factors than on social networks. Harris's "three broad epidemiological re- gions" and my 1990 "epidemiological areas" correspond as follows: "Alas- kan panhandle and north coastal British Columbia" to my "North Coast epidemic area"; "the west coast of Vancouver Island and around Queen Charlotte Sound and Johnstone Strait" to my "Wakashan epidemic area"; and "the Strait of Georgia to the Columbia" to my "Georgia-Puget epi- demic area" (although I did not extend the latter to the Columbia) (Harris 1994: 615). My feeling is that defining "epidemic areas" is useful both in summarizing epidemiologicaVdemographic histories of Native Americans during the period of introduction of Old World infectious diseases and in helping to isolate underlying social and environmental factors that influ- ence the spread of disease. It certainly did apply in the nineteenth-century Northwest Coast following the initial virgin-soil experience; I suspect the concept would in other culture areas as well.

Summary and Future Directions

In summary, there is a bottom line between Harris and myself in our dif- ferent interpretations of the evidence for smallpox in the Pacific Northwest during the first decades of contact. Geographically, I am a lumper; he is a splitter. My bias comes from my understanding of the epidemiology of smallpox and the assumed social and demographic nature of the early con- tact Pacific Northwest; his (I assume) comes from a geographer's apprecia- tion of the broken and highly variable topography of the Pacific Northwest. Temporally, I prefer to treat accounts dated at circa twenty years apart separately; he appears more inclined to combine them. These different ap- proaches have led to two fundamental differences in interpretation of the same body of evidence. When and from where did smallpox initially enter the Pacific Northwest? Was there one regionwide or several subregional virgin-soil smallpox epidemics? Was there a second epidemic in the first decade of the 18oos, and if so, what territories did it occur in? These ques- tions, I submit, have not yet been finally answered, and there is room for additional research, input from other scholars who specialize in Northwest Native American ethnohistory, cooperation, and debate.

One final word. I am gratified (and somewhat surprised, frankly) to see that the idea of early contact-period disease and depopulation in the Pacific Northwest has now been accepted by researchers outside the limited net- work of Northwest Coast anthropology (in geography and, I trust, in his- tory also). Early, dramatic population decline because of smallpox, after all, is the fundamental point of both our essays, and as Harris notes, there has been a considerable local barrier to the acceptance of this idea. The barrier was definitely there when I began my dissertation research, and be- cause of its persistence, I have deliberately directed my more recent papers ("Smallpox in the Pacific Northwest" and "The 1847-1848 Pacific North- west Measles Epidemic") to regional journals, to get the word It is an important word, to scholars, to the general public, and most particularly, to the Indian communities who were most severely affected by the devas- tating series of epidemic onslaughts during the first century of contact. But this message certainly does not need to be emphasized to the readers of Ethnohistory. As far as Northwest epidemics are concerned, we have now (I hope) moved beyond the stage of arguing over their existence and whether they indeed had severe and lasting effects on local Native American popu- lations. Hopefully, we are now at the stage of debating the whens, hows, and therefores of the process. And this debate should continue.


I Accepted for publication in 1991, "Smallpox in the Pacific Northwest: The First Epidemics" is a slightly revised and updated version of most of chap. 3 and parts of chap. 6 of my 1985 Ph.D. dissertation in anthropology, "The Introduction of Infectious Diseases among the Indians of the Pacific Northwest, 1774-1874." The BC Studies article presents nearly all the original historical data on early smallpox I collected during my dissertation research. The basic arguments and many of my sources were summarized in "Demographic History, 1774-1874" (Boyd 1990); related data will appear in "Demographic History until 1990" (Boyd forthcoming).

As a regional publication BC Studies may not be available in most libraries. Copies of issue IOI may be obtained by contacting BC Studies, 218-2029 West Mall, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.c., Canada V6T 1Z2. Tel (604)822-3727; Fax (604) 822-9452.

2 There are also three isolates dating from the 1789-99 time frame. Two from the North Coast (Green 1915: 39; Bishop 1967: 83, 91-92) may refer to a localized outbreak; the third (Work 1829) may be a miscalculation.

3 Another eastern Plateau account, from the Kutenai, collected by Edward Curtis and dated to "before the close of the eighteenth century" has a Kutenai band, the Tunaha, being wiped out by smallpox east of the Rockies, but does not state that they carried it to their relatives west of the mountains (1911: 118-19).

4 Cox's account (1957 [1831]: 84-85) was secondhand: it was probably obtained from fur company employees after his arrival in the Pacific Northwest in 1812. Most Northwest Company employees had undoubtedly heard of the Plains epi- demic thirty years earlier, but (as noted before), no Euroamerican was present in the Northwest in 1780-82 to document such a connection. Mooney was a meticulous scholar, and his posthumous Aboriginal Population of America North of Mexico (1928) was the standard for over fifty years; but the work was only partially completed and not meant to be definitive; many sections have since been revised (Ubelaker 1976).

5 It originally appeared in Boyd 1985: 99-109, with summaries in Boyd 1990 and forthcoming. Elizabeth Vibert has recently summarized most of the Plateau data in her discussion of early-nineteenth-century Plateau prophetic movements (1995: 206-10).

6 For an earlier discussion of the historical data on pre-1792 village abandonment in the Coast Salish and north coastal British Columbia regions, as recorded in the ~rinted and manuscript journals of the Vancouver Expedition, see Boyd 1985: 81-82,95-99, and 219-21; and 19gqa: 15-16, 29-34.

7 Incidentally, I would like to comment on Harris's use of Hudson's Bay Com- pany Indian censuses for this area. Harris uses the 1830 Archibald MacDonald Fort Langley "census" (actually a count of men) for his map of Georgia-Puget Indian populations (1994: 607, map 3). But he expresses some doubts about it, as indeed he should. More complete, true censuses taken in the same area by the Hudson's Bay Company some nine to twelve years later (Douglas 1878) show for Lushootseed (Puget Salish) speakers an aggregate 5,479 people (Boyd 1985: chart 25), much higher than the 2,500 that Harris (in a perfectly acceptable extrapola- tion) derives from McDonald's incomplete tally. Contemporary HBC censuses for the Strait of Georgia Salish peoples give an aggregate population of 6,350 (Boyd 1985: chart 24).

8 Regional social networks in at least three (and probably more) regions of the Northwest Coast culture area tied together ethnically distinct peoples occupying fairly broad geographic areas in chains of interconnecting social contacts (mar- riage, gifting, ceremonial, potlatching, etc.) during the early eighteenth century. The best defined example is Hajda's (1984) "Greater Lower Columbia" region, centered on Chinookan speakers; Suttles posits a similar network among most Coast Salish speakers (1987); and there was probably yet a third example in the "northern matrilineal" (Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Haisla) zone (for a discussion of all three see Suttles 1990: 12-14). 9 In BC Studies (Boyd 19qqa) and the Oregon Historical Quarterly (Boyd ~qqqb), respectively.


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