The first smallpox epidemic on the Canadian Plains: In the fur-traders’ words
Smallpox was brought to Mexico by the Spaniards in 1520.
On each occasion it occurred in epidemic form, with extremely high mortality among Aboriginal peoples who, in epi- demiological terms, were ‘virgin soil’. Smallpox reached Massachusetts in 1633 and the St Lawrence River in both 1635, and 1669 to 1670. The 1702 epidemic reached as far west as Sault Sainte Marie and the 1736 to 1738 epidemic extended to Lake of the Woods, at the south-east corner of present day Manitoba. In the present article, we share our assessment of the first recorded smallpox epidemic on the western plains in 1780 and 1781, and its chroniclers, William Tomison and Matthew Cocking. Their conduct was exemplary, because in other parts of the Americas the response of white ‘civilization’ to smallpox epidemics in native communities was sometimes less than charitable. Indeed, early examples of the use of smallpox as a biological weapon through the distribution of infected blankets have been reported.
Physicians today know little about the epidemiology and impact of smallpox among the Aboriginal people of western Canada or the response of the Europeans in the country, at that time mainly employees of the two major fur trading companies.
William Tomison became the inland master of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1778, only four years after Samuel Hearne had founded the first far inland trading post of the HBC at Cumberland House (now in Saskatchewan). Tomi- son’s account of the smallpox epidemic of 1781 and 1782, just 20 years before Jenner published his paper on vaccination, “is the most detailed record of the first catastrophic epidemic known to have affected the native populations of the (Canadian) plains”.
In reading these handwritten diaries of daily events, the authors were impressed by the literary skills and perspicacity of William Tomison and Matthew Cocking, Tomison’s predecessor at Cumberland House, Cocking was in charge at York Factory in 1781 and 1782. Both Tomison and Cocking recognized that smallpox was contagious and provided long standing immunity to the victim. Tomison clearly understood that in severe cases, death could occur during the generalized systemic (viremic) stage before the skin eruption.
Tomison saw that isolated Indian groups might escape contact with smallpox, simply by being so widely dispersed, without contact with other Indians. He explained how the very few Indians who survived smallpox might die of starvation. He tells us the probable origin of the epidemic, from Spaniards via the Snake Indians in what is now the western United States. He understood the nearly complete immunity to smallpox among Caucasian employees of the HBC – presumably for most of them representing acquired resistance achieved from almost universal childhood exposure in the Orkney Islands. Charles Price Isham, son of Chief Factor James Isham and an Indian woman, born in the Hudson’s Bay Territory, but educated in England, did come down with smallpox at Lower Hudson’s House but survived. Tomison’s daily journal entries provide a good assessment of the mortality among Aboriginals during the 1781 and 1782 epidemic. Not surprisingly, Indian children at Cumberland House appeared to survive smallpox more frequently than did their parents, though the sample size is not sufficiently large to be conclusive.
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