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Tribal Fever

Twenty-five years ago this month, smallpox was officially eradicated. For the Indians of the high plains, it came a century and a half too late

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On May 4, 1837, Francis A. Chardon, the churlish head trader at FortClark, a fur-company outpost on the Upper Missouri River, reported in his journal, “Last night the Cock crowed five times.” The superstitious Chardon then added: “Bad News from some quarter is expected.”

But with the severe winter over, and the ice-clogged river finally thawed, Chardon’s mood inched toward optimism. The nearby Mandan and Hidatsa tribes had gathered hundreds of packs of bison robes. Traders and Indians alike were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the steamboat St. Peters, churning upriver from St. Louis to pick up the furs and drop off its annual load of supplies from Pratte, Chouteau & Company, the western branch of John Jacob Astor’s former American Fur Company.

The St. Peters, a 119-ton side-wheeler, docked at FortClark on June 19 and unloaded trade goods and Indian provisions. Also aboard was Chardon’s 2-year-old son, Andrew Jackson Chardon, whom he had fathered with a handsome Lakota Sioux woman, Tchon-su-mons-ka. That night the crew members of the St. Petersjoined in a boisterous “frolick,” singing and dancing with the men and women at the Mandan’s bustling village of Mit-tutta-hang-kush.

The next day the St. Petersheaded upstream toward FortUnion, at the mouth of the Yellowstone. But in its wake it left a ticking time bomb. In addition to its cargo of supplies, the steamboat had been carrying several passengers and crewmen infected with variola major, the lethal virus feared for thousands of years by its better-known name: smallpox.

Smallpox had previously swept across the high plains from Mexico in the late 18th century, ravaging the Mandan and other tribes such as the Ojibwa, Pawnee and Arikara, whose population fell by as much as two-thirds. But by the 1830s the Mandan and the other tribes of the Upper Missouri had largely outlived their acquired immunity to the disease, and none had been inoculated or vaccinated. As a result, the voyage of the St. Peterstriggered one of the most catastrophic epidemics recorded on the North American continent. “There is nothing in our experience we can compare it to,” says W. Raymond Wood, an anthropologist who has studied Plains Indian cultures. “It was completely devastating.”

The disease had announced itself when a St. Peterscrew member had showed symptoms on May 2, two weeks after the boat left St. Louis. Ignoring suggestions that the man be put ashore, the 33-year-old captain, Bernard Pratte Jr., said he needed every available hand to bring back to St. Louis the packs of profitable furs his company was expecting.

Chardon reported the first Mandan death from smallpox on July 14, less than a month after the side-wheeler left FortClark. Then Indians began dying at an accelerating rate—at first, two or three a day; later, entire families of eight or ten persons at once. “I Keep no a/c of the dead, as they die so fast that it is impossible,” Chardon wrote. Soon his young son Andrew would join them.

The deaths were as horrifying as they were numerous. Victims experienced high fever, chills and excruciating pain. With blood pouring from their mouths and ears, they often died even before the appearance of smallpox’s characteristic pustules. In a futile effort to find relief, sufferers threw themselves into water and rolled in hot ashes. Husbands and wives committed mutual suicide, stabbing themselves with arrows and knives, or leaping off cliffs. Chardon reported that one Mandan woman, after watching her husband die, killed her two children and “to complete the affair she hung herself.”

In scenes that might have been painted by Goya, bodies piled up in the village too rapidly to be buried and were dumped into the river. “This Morning two dead bodies, wrapped in a White skin, and laid on a raft passed by the Fort, on their way to the regions below,” Chardon reported, adding sardonically, “May success attend them.” After estimating that 800 Mandan had died by mid-September, Chardon—who never concealed his contempt for Indians—commented, “What a bande of RASCALS has been used up.”

The pandemic was no less terrifying elsewhere along the river. At FortUnion, the post at the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, traders bungled an attempt to inoculate Indian women living there with scabs taken from a victim. Dozens of Indians died, as did whites who had not been inoculated, and the stench of decaying bodies inside the post was palpable 300 yards away. When one party of Assiniboine arrived outside the post’s walls, they were persuaded to leave only after the traders lifted an infected boy above the pickets, displaying for the visitors his ghastly face that “was still one solid scab,” as one of the traders later wrote.

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