Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian

Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian
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Indigenous groups, including the New Mexico Pueblo and the Hurons, blamed members of their own communities as well as white missionaries for witchcraft. Many groups, like the Hurons, thought that the Jesuits were witches because they possessed charms and religious paintings, demonstrated much concern with how one died, and described communion bread as containing human flesh.

Why Native Americans Didnt Wipe Out Europeans with Diseases

The Jesuits were often blamed when an infected person died after having Holy water sprinkled on them. The Hurons were terrified of the Jesuits and prohibited them from entering their villages. Substantial social interactions with the Jesuits and French traders often helped to spread the infection further.

Native participation in the Canadian Fur Trade and Hudson Bay Company of the Upper Missouri River, as well as Euroamerican fur brigades, often brought infection to the main centers and carried the disease to all affiliated trading posts. Native American conversions to Christianity gave the indigenous people an acquired desire for European goods and another reason to eagerly participate in the fur trade, which increased exposure to European pathogens.

The Oregon Trail also acted as an avenue for the spread of epidemics. By the late s, Amerindians in New France knew that Europeans often carried smallpox and avoided them to prevent infection. Native soldiers at Fort Presqu'ile would not proceed to Niagara after learning of the disease presence there. Those participating in the war came into contact with infected British soldiers and contracted smallpox.

The Native Americans blamed the French and English and would not ally with them until the disease ran its course. As a result, the French and British blamed each other for the smallpox transmissions to the Native Americans in order to gain indigenous favor and alliances. There are historical references of deliberate transmission of smallpox from Europeans to Native Americans. In , the British general Jeffrey Amherst gave blankets taken from infected corpses to deliberately infect nearby natives. Many legends of similar instances of intentional transmission exist throughout the contact period.

Written documents indicate that many Europeans were using smallpox on their side "It has pleased Our Lord to give the said people a pestilence of smallpox that does not cease…". Consequently, many European explorers and traders received death threats from embittered victims and relatives of the deceased.

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Indigenous Treatments and Responses to Smallpox Between and , Native Americans attempted to treat the disease with traditional medical treatments. For example, when the first smallpox epidemics coursed through North America, Northern Plains individuals attempted to use "drum and rattle" incantations to ease the spread of the disease and to increase the will to survive. The most common medical treatment during this period was the sweat lodge.

In the Northern Plains groups, willow bark was steamed in the lodge, acting as an analgesic, with conifer oils acting as decongestants. The Cherokees adopted a similar approach because they believed that plants decided to cure humans after they heard of animal spirits' evil plans to spread disease. However, many of the herbs were cathartics and emetics, and the profuse sweating often caused dehydration. Thomas Sydenham, suggested that heat therapy in the form of both steam and warmed blankets made sores worse.

Furthermore, a stay in the sweat lodge was usually followed by plunging oneself into cold water, which often caused shock, cardiac arrest, "violent fevers", and generally lowered immune resistance to infection.

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Other early treatment of smallpox involved the formation of curing societies and village rituals, including fasting and dreaming. Bear oil was used as a natural emetic to stop the disease's spread by the Hudson Bay area Cree during the epidemic. Other indigenous treatments were not recorded by Europeans because the knowledge was considered sacred. By the early s, Native Americans had begun developing additional methods to prevent infection. Southeastern Native Americans avoided diseased villages and educated others about traveling into infected areas.

Another indigenous method to avoid further infection was sending the disease to an enemy via the shaman. By , Cree used both indigenous and European medicinal techniques in their smallpox treatments. By the late s, there was also a major and effective change towards quarantining infected individuals. Earlier, natives viewed quarantine as abandoning family and often crowded around the sick to attend to them, spreading the disease further. Some argue, however, that smallpox did not spread so easily and had to be acquired through intimate contact.

Rotting Face : Smallpox and the American Indian

Infected individuals were quarantined and homes were either burned or cleaned. At this time, many were not nursed back to health and inevitably starved to death. Cherokees moved infected individuals to fields on the village's periphery. The switch to quarantine helped slow the spread of the disease, but curious children often contracted the disease after snooping around abandoned houses and burial grounds.

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Although many vaccination attempts were ineffective at preventing smallpox, most vaccinations helped protect Native Americans. An intense debate concerning inoculations against smallpox in the Americas took place in the s.

Exhibit Case 1

Colonists in America quickly learned of inoculation efforts and spent nearly years debating whether people should risk death to avoid the disease. In the early s, the Spanish crown sent vaccinations to the colonial clergymen.

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Disease evolution and host pathogen interactions should be considered in Native American disease history. The Assiniboins at Fort Union, however, carried the disease to their lodges in Canada and out onto the Plains, possibly infecting other tribes. Data collected by means of secondary sources such as the US Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics showed that from to Alaska Natives and Native Americans had high mortality rates to infectious diseases when compared to the mortality rate of white Americans. New York: Caxton. Women are 2. European vaccination programs in North and South America greatly contributed to Native American population recovery. This event is well known for the documented instances of biological warfare.

Francisco Xavier Balmis started the vaccination program. Young children were infected with cowpox, which Edward Jenner had proved effective as a vaccination against smallpox. This program vaccinated more than individuals in Cartagena de Indias, , in Peru, and 20, in the Philippines. President Thomas Jefferson started an additional vaccination program during the epidemic.

Some North American populations such as the Sioux embraced vaccination programs, although many were uncomfortable with the idea of abandoning their indigenous medicinal methods. Often, the efforts of traders in vaccinating Native Americans were much more intense than the Bureau of Indian Affairs' attempts, which often stalled for economic gain or pushed to protect the neighboring white settlers first.

European vaccination programs in North and South America greatly contributed to Native American population recovery. Christianity's missionaries were moderately successful in assisting with disease treatment and may have even gained a few converts along the way, but after the disease abated in their area, many Native American groups returned to their traditional indigenous beliefs, giving their earlier indigenous rituals full credit for their population's survival. However, in some instances, survival convinced individuals to believe in the Christian God.

The loss of cultural knowledge aided Christian missionaries' attempts at conversion, as many rituals and sacred bundles fell into disuse when shaman and other elders died. Everything they had believed in had failed. Their ancient world had collapsed. From their innocence and from their inability to understand and dispel the disease, guilt was born into them. They had witnessed mass death—evil—in unimaginable and unacceptable terms. These were the men and women orphaned by the sudden and traumatic death of the culture that had given them birth.

The survivors taught almost nothing about the old culture to their children. It was as if they were ashamed of it, and this shame they passed on to their children by their silence and by allowing cultural atrocities to be committed against their children. The survivors also gave up all governing power of the villages to the missionaries and school teachers, whoever was most aggressive. There was no one to contest them. In some villages the priest had displaced the angalkuq. In some villages there was theocracy under the benevolent dictatorship of a missionary.

The old guardians of Yuuyaraq on the other hand, the angalkuq, if they were still alive, had fallen into disgrace. They had become a source of shame to the village, not only because their medicine and Yuuyaraq had failed, but also because the missionaries now openly accused them of being agents of the devil himself and of having led their people into disaster. Other writers on Amherst and smallpox A. Elizabeth A. Our preoccupation with Amherst has kept us from recognizing that accusations of what we now call biological warfare—the military use of smallpox in particular—arose frequently in eighteenth-century America.

Native Americans, moreover, were not the only accusers. Many also adhered to a code of ethics that did not constrain them from doing so.

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Seen in this light, the Amherst affair becomes not so much an aberration as part of a larger continuum in which accusations and discussions of biological warfare were common, and actual incidents may have occurred more frequently than scholars have previously acknowledged. Fenn expands on this theme in her book, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of NY: Hill and Wang, , discussing widespread accusations and examples of biological warfare on the American continent during this period. Selected excerpts from the book are presented on a separate page. Ottawa political leader Andrew J.

Blackbird relates a similar story from the same period of the French and Indian War in his History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan William Whipple Warren, a Minnesota Ojibwa historian and legislator, offers two very different accounts of an epidemic that took place in Minnesota in the s in his History of the Ojibway People One name is repeatedly linked to the story of the smallpox blanket: Jeffrey Amherst.

Native American Beliefs and Medical Treatments During the Smallpox Epidemics: an Evolution

The feasibility of the documented plan, whether or not it was successfully carried out, has given credibility and moral impact to the fears expressed in all poison-garment tales. The Amherst incident itself has taken on legendary overtones as believers and nonbelievers continue to argue over the facts and their interpretation. Robert L. Marking a milestone of sorts, certain colonists during the French and Indian Wars resorted to trading smallpox-contaminated blankets to local tribes with immediate and devastating results.

While infected carcasses had long been catapulted into besieged cities, this seems to be the first time a known weakness in the immunity structure of an adversary population was deliberately exploited with a weapons response. When informed that the tribes depended on their muskets for taking game and would starve without ammunition, he remained unswayed, callously informing his aides that they should seed the complaining bands with smallpox so as to lend starvation a speedy hand.

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This book may appeal to general readers who do not know that uncounted multitudes of Indians died of various diseases introduced from. In late spring , the crew of a Missouri River steamboat carried smallpox to the Indian trading posts of the upper Missouri, and spread contagion to the.

In the spring of , during the Indian uprising led by Ottawa Chief Pontiac, a party of Delawares ringed British owned Fort Pitt now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania , calling for its surrender. The Indians readily accepted the offering, but still demanded that Ecuyer vacate the stockade. They had no inkling that the blankets and kerchief were more deadly than a platoon of English sharpshooters.

Ecuyer had ordered the presents deliberately infected with smallpox spores at the post hospital. NLM Customer Support. Although U. Army surgeons treated Native American victims of smallpox near the opening of the 19th-century, government concern for Native American health at this time was manifest more in counting the numbers of people who died from this and other diseases, and estimating how many were left, than in providing institutional remedies.

Jedidiah Morse's report indicates this interest: Determining where "Indians" were in North America and how many they were. The report is addressed to the Secretary of War. Indian affairs were administered by the War Department until The U. Government agreed to deliver regular provisions of food to many tribes, if they remained within certain restricted land areas.

This food was often delivered months later than promised. Thomas Williamson's article tells that a late delivery of food to tribes of Dakotas resulted in the deaths of many. Williamson served as a medical missionary doctor at Lac qui Parle, Minnesota, from until At this time, Native Americans were being interned on reservations, largely against their will.

Reservation life for Native Americans meant increasing risk to disease, due to poor conditions. The administration of reservation health care became a major challenge for the Office of Indian Affairs and remained so throughout its tenure of Native American health care. Army, for an book by Henry Schoolcraft. See below. This map is probably by Morse, who is known as the "father of American Geography.

Prevalence of the Small-Pox amongst the Western Indians. Van Buren, President. The Summer of is rendered memorable in Indian history by the visitation of one of those calamities which have so much reduced the Indian population, viz: the ravages of the small-pox, which then swept through the Missouri valley. The disease was introduced among them from a steamboat, which ascended that river from the city of St. Louis, in July.