Academic journal article The Historian

Pestilence and Power: The Smallpox Epidemic of 1780-1782 and Intertribal Relations on the Northern Great Plains

Academic journal article The Historian

Pestilence and Power: The Smallpox Epidemic of 1780-1782 and Intertribal Relations on the Northern Great Plains

Article excerpt

TRAVELING ALONG the Missouri River in 1796, trader James McKay learned of local Indians' problems with infectious diseases and remarked that "of all those Scourges and Plagues, the most Terrible is the Small Pox, truly they are attacked of it but very rarely, but when it does visit them, it Strikes them with a Mortality as frightful as Universal." (1) By the time that McKay made this observation, that "scourge" had reduced the northern Great Plains Native population to a shadow of its former self. The primary catalyst for this decline was the epidemic of 1775-82, which touched most of North America. When that outbreak swept through the northern Plains for eighteen months from 1780 to 1782, approximately forty percent of the region's Native population perished. (2) Such great losses disrupted economic, political, and social activities, thereby causing tremendous upheaval among Native groups. It was therefore little wonder that, when explorer Charles Mackenzie visited a Mandan village in 1804, a chief lamented that "[t]he white people came, they brought with them some goods: but they brought the small pox ... the Indians are diminished, and they are no longer happy." (3)

The 1780-82 smallpox epidemic, the first known outbreak of that deadly European-introduced virus to scour the entirety of the northern Great Plains, was a pivotal event in that region's history. The vast changes resulting from this epidemic are perhaps most visible when one examines how the ravages of smallpox altered balances of power between Native groups. In particular, the smallpox epidemic of 1780-82 marked a turning point in the struggles between westward-expanding Sioux groups and the semisedentary tribes that lived along the upper Missouri in present-day North and South Dakota, the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras. By causing much greater population losses and discord among the semisedentary villagers than the more mobile Sioux peoples, this outbreak enabled western Sioux groups to become the most influential Native power on the northeastern Plains by the time that the United States purchased that region in 1803. The 1780-82 epidemic, therefore, helped to shape the northern Plains into the land that agents of the United States government explored and conquered during the nineteenth century by bringing some Native peoples to the forefront while marginalizing others.

Historians have considered the effects of smallpox and other pathogens on the balance of power between northern Plains Native groups, but they typically place greater emphasis on the influence of two other products of European colonialism, the horse and the gun. Frank Raymond Secoy, for instance, traces how the concurrent spread of horses (from the Southwest) and guns (from the Northeast) across the Plains during the eighteenth century revolutionized Native warfare and empowered some tribes while weakening others. (4) While Secoy's analysis does not consider infectious diseases, Anthony McGinnis provides readers with a look at how smallpox epidemics, including that of 1780-82, complemented the horse and gun as agents of change,s Nevertheless, the effects of pathogens on Native societies and warfare remain at the periphery of McGinnis' narrative. Colin G. Calloway's recent history of the Native American West, as well as Elizabeth A. Fenn's study of the entire 1775-82 smallpox epidemic, highlight the impact of the 1780-82 outbreak on the northern Plains, by discussing Indian population losses, demographic shifts, and changes in regional power dynamics. (5) Although both treatments offer little more than a brief overview of that epidemic within the context of a much larger story, they draw attention to a much overlooked subject and lay a foundation for a future in-depth examination to build upon.

The purpose of this examination, then, is to deepen and enrich the historiography of the northern Great Plains by placing infectious diseases at the center of the narrative. …

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