Trade Brings Killer Smallpox Epidemic
Mandan Villages, Missouri River, 1781
Thousands of Mandan people, as many as four in five, have died of smallpox in the first major epidemic caused by a white disease. Only 2,000 to 3,000 Mandan remain alive. The Mandan village was so devastated by the disease that those left had to reduce the size of the town.
In the year that the Continental Army under George Washington has defeated the British in the American Revolution, the people not yet known by white Americans are dying in great numbers throughout the western part of the North American continent.
Reports from elsewhere demonstrate how quickly the disease spreads through contact between traders from the different tribes in the North American West. At the Bow River in Shoshoni territory far to the west of the Mandan villages, Blackfeet scouts found a deserted Shoshoni group of tipis. They saw horses grazing but no people. When they discovered that all the Shoshoni were dead, the Blackfeet took all their horses and goods. Within two weeks, as many as two-thirds of the Blackfeet were dead.
The once dominant people on the Missouri, the Mandan are so reduced that they find it increasingly difficult to defend themselves against the nomadic tribes who come into the area.
The feared smallpox has been killing native peoples on the continent from the first encounter with whites. In 1541, a Spanish friar wrote, “when the smallpox began to infect the Indians, there was so much sickness and pestilence among them in all the land that in most provinces more than half the people died . . . “
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.