JULY 14, 1837

BEGINNINGS OF THE 1837 SMALLPOX EPIDEMIC

Smallpox epidemics of 1781 & 1801 forced the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras to the mouth of the Knife River.  Fort Clark, a major fur-trading post, sat nearby.  The Yanktonais, Crows, Assiniboines and other tribes also traded there.  On June 18, the steamboat St. Peters approched the fort.  Ft. Clark’s superintendent, Francis Chardon, meeting his son at the boat, heard that people on board had smallpox.  The St. Peters then headed to Fort Union.  On July 14, Chardon’s journal noted that a Mandan man died of smallpox.  Quickly, he lost count of the number of deaths.  Mandans swore revenge for the deaths of loved ones.  Suicide, heretofore unknown among the tribes, became common.  Chardon’s own son died.  At Fort Union, the disease spread, though many tribes fled the area and saved lives.  The northern Great Plains Indians had been denied the federal vaccinations.  In early 1837, 2,000 Mandans lived in the Knife River villages.  By October, 138 people remained alive.  The Arikaras lost two-thirds of their population.

Source:  “Lesson 4: Alliances and Conflicts; Topic 1: Smallpox epidemics (1781, 1837, 1851); Section 3: Smallpox Epidemic of 1837,” ND.gov.  Retrieved 5/26/2020, https://www.ndstudies.gov/gr8/content/unit-ii-time-transformation-1201-1860/lesson-4-alliances-and-conflicts/topic-1-smallpox-epidemics-1781-1837-1851/section-3-smallpox-epidemic-1837
Drawing:  “Small Pox Winter, 1837-38,” unknown Lakota artist.  Courtesy of National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

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