Morbidity and mortality were extremely high, but there is no satisfactory numerator and no denominator to calculate the rates of morbidity or mortality. Many or most Indians, whom the authors classed as ‘alive’ when first mentioned, between December 4, 1780 and March 23, 1781 (often because they had not yet been exposed) soon became ill with smallpox. Almost all of those who contracted smallpox, died. One must recognize these somewhat anecdotal entries as ‘soft’ data, yet one can use the daily journal entries, together with Roe’s estimate of an average of seven Indians, including children, per tent to estimate small pox deaths in the area tributary to Cumberland House. Such calculations yield 288 smallpox deaths, 50 sick with smallpox, and 58 alive at first mention. Only 13 Indians in this substantial region are mentioned as having recovered from smallpox, suggesting a mortality rate of up to 95%.
Tomison put his knowledge to good use. He practised isolation, and used a disinfectant (sulphur). According to Professor Morton, “Fumigation with sulphur and the succession of airings in the sunshine and at the several posts and in London would have the effect of disinfecting the furs before they would reach the market. This would also go far to explain how it was that no European servant of the company took the disease”.
Alfred Robinson, the new surgeon at York Factory, practised quarantine of the Indian arrivals with smallpox, combined with isolation, by sending his ‘Home Indians’ away from the fort. Isolation and quarantine were successful. None of the Indians or Whites at York Factory came down with smallpox. While most Whites at York Factory probably were immune, as were the predominantly Orkneymen at Cumberland House, the Indians at York Factory were spared the smallpox epidemic that had ravaged the interior. Ewart’s tabulation of illness at York Factory showed only six cases of smallpox among Aboriginals between 1714 and 1946. All six were in 1782, and each had brought his disease with him from the plains. Measles and influenza epidemics, on the other hand, were brought by ships to York Factory and then taken inland, the opposite direction to that was followed by the smallpox virus.
Perhaps even more commendable is the remarkable compassion shown the Aboriginals by Tomison and his White employees. In their primitive and already crowded quarters at
Cumberland House, Tomison’s Caucasian HBC servants, under his direction, took in the dying Indians, provided them with food, shelter and 24 h care (nearly a century in advance of the arrival of Grey Nuns in the northwest), and then, in most instances, dug their graves in deeply frozen ground in midwinter.
The following are selected excerpts from the Cumberland House journals of 1781 and 1782.
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