In a previous post I mentioned Omaha chief Blackbird, whose grave Lewis and Clark visited when they traveled through present-day Nebraska in 1804. Blackbird died in a smallpox epidemic that swept along the Missouri several years earlier, decimating the Omaha tribe and claiming two-thirds of its members. Unfortunately, the grim spectre of smallpox haunted Lewis and Clark all along their journey. A week out from their tense encounter with the Teton Sioux, the Corps noted seeing numerous ghost-villages of the Arikara, abandoned since a devastating smallpox epidemic in 1780-81. The same epidemic had struck a terrible blow to the Mandans, which were so reduced in numbers that they were forced to flee north and band together with the Hidatsas. It was the same story on the Pacific coast. In February 1806, Lewis wrote: “The small pox has distroyed a great number of the natives in this quarter…it prevailed about 4 years since among the Clatsops and distroy several hundred of them, four of their chiefs fell victyms to it’s ravages.”
Lewis and Clark were already well aware of the effect of the disease on Native American populations. In fact, they hoped to do something to help. According to Or Perish in the Attempt by David I. Peck, President Jefferson instructed Lewis to take along a supply of the “kinepox,” a fluid obtained from the blisters of victims of the cowpox virus, for use in inoculating the Indians against smallpox. Lewis obtained a supply of the vaccine while preparing for the trip, but he was not pleased with the results as he made his way down the Ohio. Lewis had barely reached Cincinnati in September 1804 when he wrote to Jefferson asking for a new batch. “I have reason to believe from several experiments made with what I have, that it has lost it’s virtue.”
It seems hard to believe that the native tribes would have stepped right up to volunteer for preventive inoculation, but this type of medical diplomacy was not unheard of. The first federally-sponsored inoculation of an American Indian occurred in 1797, when Chief Little Turtle of the Miamis accepted the smallpox vaccine from Lewis’s medical mentor, Dr. Benjamin Rush, at Rush’s home in Philadelphia. Little Turtle endured the treatment well and died of natural causes in 1812, at approximately age 60.
Unfortunately for the Indians and for history, the replacement batch of smallpox vaccine Lewis asked for never arrived. In the years following the expedition, smallpox continued to be a devastating force on the plains. The crowning blow came with the great epidemic of 1837, when a deckhand became ill aboard an American Fur Company steamboat that docked at Fort Clark near several Mandan villages. Attempts to inoculate the Mandans were too little, too late. Over the next year, the disease claimed thousands among the Mandans and other Great Plains tribes.
For further reading on the fascinating, tragic history of smallpox in North America, I refer you to Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn. You may find it ironic that Fenn concludes that intertribal warfare and trade networks, rather than contact with Europeans, were the most decisive factors in spreading the dreaded disease that ravaged the cultural landscape of the American West.