Epidemics like the coronavirus, recently evolved or new to an area, are not unusual in world history, or the history of the Pacific Northwest. They have appeared time and again, whether the Bubonic Plague in 14th century Europe, the smallpox pandemic of the early 1500s in the Americas, or more recent plagues of the 20th century: The 1918 influenza, 1950s polio, 1980s AIDS. Each epidemic has followed a more-or-less predictable sequence: Sudden introduction and rapid spread in “virgin soil” populations, death and suffering, social disruption and culture change.

We’ve seen and experienced all this with the coronavirus. But the epidemics of the past were, by almost every measure, far worse — in symptoms and suffering, in proportion of those who died, in destruction of families and communities, and in culture loss, replacement and change.

The effects were especially dire when peoples from distant parts of the world, with their own distinctive inventory of diseases first met and where medical systems did not have the knowledge, treatments or capacity to respond. Such was the Pacific Northwest in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when Euro-American explorers, traders and settlers encountered Indigenous Native Americans. In rapid succession, they brought new diseases and epidemics — smallpox, malaria, measles — most far deadlier than coronavirus and many times more destructive in their social and cultural effects. The cumulative impact of introduced diseases on Native Northwest peoples was nothing short of apocalyptic; and the process of how they spread, and their effects, must be recognized, acknowledged and understood by all of us.

In the late 1770s or early 1780s, a smallpox epidemic spread through (apparently) the entire Pacific Northwest. The most likely year was 1781, concurrent with a smallpox pandemic that occurred in the rest of North America; and the most likely mode of entry was from two infected men left behind by a ship off the northern Oregon coast, though research for my book, “The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence,” suggests the disease may have arrived earlier and by other routes. Like COVID, smallpox spreads through “droplet infection”— breathing, close contact and touch. It circulates rapidly and efficiently in small face-to-face societies, and by movement between communities. 

Members of the 1792-94 Vancouver and 1804-05 Lewis and Clark expeditions commented on the prevalence of pockmarked natives and long abandoned villages. Native informants told early visitors of widespread mortality. From the North Coast Haida chief Kowes said “the small Pox swept off two-thirds of the people,” and from the lower Columbia “the Clatsops inform us that this disorder raged in their towns and destroyed their nation.”

We’ll never know the number of people who died from the first epidemic, but studies of smallpox outbreaks in non-immune virgin-soil populations suggest that an average 30% of those infected die a gruesome death. Immunity-producing variolation (by powdered smallpox scabs scratched into the skin) was available on the East Coast in 1781, but the first smallpox vaccine was not developed until 1796, so the Northwest epidemic ran its course unimpeded.

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The next major Northwest epidemic to appear was “fever and ague,” recurring each summer during the 1830s in “interior valleys” west of the Cascades, from the Cowlitz to the Rogue rivers. The epidemiology, symptoms, treatments point to virgin-soil malaria. Malaria, spread by mosquitoes (a fact not proven until 1897), was treated with cinchona bark and quinine, available at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver, but in quantities sufficient enough to treat only the fort employees — Indians were reluctantly turned away. Hudson’s Bay and other estimates suggest that from the Portland basin and Willamette Valley alone in the 1830s, there were more than 13,000 Indigenous deaths, or 88% of the prior population. Villages and bands disappeared or consolidated; elderly knowledge holders and specialists died off; families disintegrated, and there was a collective trauma among the survivors.

As settlers began to arrive in the 1840s, more exotic diseases came with them; at Cowlitz Hudson’s Bay Company employee George Roberts recalled, “Every fall the Indians were excited as to what new ill was to come …. Every year [the immigrants] brought something new …. Whooping cough, measles, typhoid fever ETC. …. the country was free from all these maladies till then — when first introduced they seemed much more violent than now …. [and] scourged the poor Indians dreadfully.”

The third “virgin soil” epidemic was measles in 1847-48. Mid-Columbia natives who had been to California seeking cattle carried it back to Fort Nez Perces (Walla Walla), and from there white immigrants carried it down the Columbia and then by Hudson’s Bay Company ships all along the coast to Alaska. Like coronavirus and smallpox, measles spreads by “droplet infection.” Well known as a factor in the killings of missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, more importantly measles killed an estimated 10% of the afflicted Indigenous population.

In the turbulent years of the early 1850s, with wars and removal to reservations, smallpox appeared again, brought on a ship from San Francisco. Different sources document that the 1853 epidemic killed half of the Native villagers at The Dalles, Columbia mouth Chinook and Makah at Cape Flattery (among others); again, several thousand deaths. 

The last major epidemic was once more, smallpox, in 1862-1863. As a decade earlier, introduced by a carrier on a ship from San Francisco, this time to Victoria, it spread rapidly to the city’s outskirts, where several thousand North Coast peoples were present for trade. Victoria was unincorporated, with no public health system, and limited resources, and as always in settler colonial societies, the well-being and interests of the colonists took priority over those of Indigenous peoples.

The authorities evicted them, and canoe loads of infected but not yet symptomatic Kwakwakawakw, Heiltsuk, Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit sailed to their coastal homelands. Through miners, surveyors, and intertribal contact smallpox spread from the coast to interior tribes. More than 20,000 North Coast and interior B.C. First Nations people died, while thousands more on the lower Fraser were saved by a Catholic missionary vaccination program. In the affected areas of British Columbia, the pattern of village abandonment and consolidation, loss of knowledge holders, family disintegration and community trauma that had occurred on the Lower Columbia 30 years earlier repeated itself.

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The process of disease introduction and the incorporation of the previously isolated Pacific Northwest into the larger world “disease pool” was inevitable, and its contribution to Indigenous depopulation was of a kind with the “Great Dying” that occurred following first contact by Europeans in more accessible parts of the Americas (and later, in the Pacific islands).

The comparison to our contemporary experience with the coronavirus is apt, because of the many pattern similarities, but the order of magnitude for most of the early Northwest epidemics was several times greater. Imagine COVID times ten or more, in death, cultural disruption and human suffering, and you won’t be far off.

Epidemics of “new diseases” are part of the heritage of Northwest Indigenous peoples, but of course, it is not all. Disease was the first of what Oregon Indigenous scholar David Lewis has called “four deaths”: disease and depopulation, followed by removal from traditional territories to reservations, then by the aggressive acculturative methods of Indian boarding schools, and finally (within the life-spans of the eldest of us) the misguided federal “termination” policy, which aimed to eliminate reservations and fully integrate Native people into the dominant culture, effectively wiping out their cultural identity. 

In the last 50 years, the trajectory has reversed, Native populations have rebounded, and the resilience and rejuvenation of their cultures have taken over. The change is gratifying and inspiring, but the historical heritage remains. And it started with a “virgin soil” epidemic of a deadly “new” disease spread by droplet infection which had no immediate cure — like the coronavirus.

Epidemics have often had a profound effect on the course of human history, but their influence has rarely been recognized by scholars or the general public. Our recent experience with the coronavirus pandemic, and going back in history, the Native American experience with epidemics of introduced diseases suggest that we need to shift focus and start paying serious attention to these broad epidemiological processes, which at their basics, after all, are matters of life or death.

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