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Smallpox pulsed through generations of North West Coast Indigenous populations

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Stephen Hume

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GEORGE VANCOUVER’S LOGS from his 1792 circumnavigation of Vancouver Island note that any one of the large deserted villages around the Gulf of Georgia appeared big enough for the entire indigenous population he had encountered.

He rightly guessed this was the scattered remnant of a much larger population.

How large? As many as 200,000 people likely lived on the Northwest Coast when the first Europeans visited.

Warriors and traders, they travelled in swift sea-going canoes whose hull design inspired the clipper ship. The biggest were capable of crossing the Pacific Ocean, which one of them did in 1901.

Great houses were adorned with the crests of mighty chiefs—the Europeans thought them “kings”—and the heraldic emblems of clans. Warriors dressed in armour that resembled that of Japanese samurai. Trade routes for prized fish oil, obsidian, precious shells and stones reached deep into the continent.

Sophisticated traditions produced oral heroic epics and for any student of classical antiquity the broad similarities between Northwest Coast societies and Mediterranean’s culture of the Homeric age are difficult to ignore.

But the post-apocalyptic scenes witnessed by Vancouver were evidence of the pandemic that laid waste to that rich human pageant. Perhaps 100,000 of these people had perished—at least 400 percent more than died during the 1862 outbreak that later became a horrifying icon in British Columbia’s historic timeline.

Think of this another way. Imagine a BC in which COVID-19 kills 2.5 million people over the next 18 months—about half our present population.

In that first pandemic people died so rapidly that the death rate overwhelmed society’s capacity to respond. Hence an archaeology of normal burials, then hurried mass graves, followed by simply burning houses with the dead and their personal property still in them, concluding with the final indignity, the dead abandoned where they fell.

Smallpox was far from unknown to Captain Vancouver. In the 18th century it killed about 400,000 people a year in Europe. Enlightenment Sweden lost one in every 10 children to the virus.

In the final century between 1870 and its eradication, smallpox still killed 500 million—and that was with an effective vaccine.

First described by Chinese, Indian and Egyptian writers 3,000 years before Vancouver was exploring our coast, the virus came ashore in North America in what is now Mexico with the soldiers of Hernan Cortes in 1521, and then swept through the “virgin soil” of Indigenous populations without immunity.

 

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Graphic illustration of the historical spread of smallpox, leprosy and malaria around the globe

 

Explorer Alexander Mackenzie, travelling overland to the Pacific through northern BC in 1792, witnessed it on the Great Plains.

“The smallpox,” Mackenzie observed, “spread its destructive and desolating power as the fire consumes the dry grass of the field.” It was so terrifying, he said, that when it first made its appearance in camps, the bravest warriors would kill their wives and children and then themselves to escape the malevolent, inescapable “spirit of pestilence.”

What Vancouver’s midshipmen and maritime fur traders found from Port Angeles to southern Alaska were the cultural ruins left by a pandemic that erupted in central Mexico in 1779.

Following ancient trade routes, it raced across the Great Plains, dispersed by a new transportation technology—the jet plane of its day—the horse. Along the Missouri River, it killed 60 percent of the population. American explorers reported abandoned villages of collapsed houses and widely-strewn human and animal bones.

Smallpox, it is now thought, came to the Northwest Coast following the Snake River to the Columbia and then sped north and south with the canoes that sought to flee before it.

In its path, it left famine. Food production and distribution collapsed. Lineages ended. The suffering lingered in collective memory, which itself was rent, so that the early disasters became conflated with the more recent.

Smallpox pulsed through newly vulnerable generations again in 1801. Then 1836. Then 1853. Memories of these merged with those of the fifth great smallpox pandemic in1862. It, too, was followed by outbreaks in 1868 and 1874.

Once, as we stood on the end of a dock while a gale lashed us with sleet and spindrift, a Heiltsuk chief told me about two ancestors.

They’d been recently married and gone into the mountains to hunt for the summer.

The Heiltsuk then occupied 50 villages over 15,000 square kilometres of the mid-coast, centred on what’s now Bella Bella. Their canoes traded from Alaska to Oregon. Their bent boxes, cunningly constructed from single pieces of carved and painted cedar, were in demand everywhere.

The newlyweds came home that fall, travelling back to the outer coast. They found only empty villages. Everyone was dead.

“Every day I think about those people,” he said. “I try to imagine the terror and confusion. They must have believed the end of the world had come and they had been overlooked.”

Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.

 

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