1837 - Small Pox epidemic devastates western tribes

Small pox travelled up the river from St. Louis on blankets aboard the steamboat St. Ange

         The small pox plague of 1837 was devastating (and decimating) to the plains Indians.  They had no natural immunity to this disease and no effective way of treating it.   The white men knew about vaccination but were unable to inoculate their own people, let along the Indians. (click here for more on small pox and the Indians)

Small Pox

         The 1837 plague struck with devastating speed and violence.  Its victims experienced excruciating pain in the head and back and then died within a few hours. Bodies turned black and swelled to three times their normal size. Nearly everyone who contracted the disease died.  http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/smallpox1.html In the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara villages, hundreds perished every day. With so many deaths among so few survivors, burials were impossible.  Corpses were heaved over the cliffs into the river.

         The epidemic raged through the summer and into the fall. The Hidatsa and Arikara, out on the plains hunting, managed to escape the worst of it by scattering into the country. The Mandans, hemmed in by Sioux war parties, were penned into their villages where the disease made them easy prey.

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         The artist George Catlin described their plight: "The Mandans were surrounded by several powerful enemies. Had they been able to disperse onto the Plains many might have survived, but they were imprisoned within their villages where the disease went through them without prejudice.  Nearly half destroyed themselves with their knives, guns, and by dashing their brains out by leaping head first from a thirty-foot ledge of rocks in front of their village. The bodies were left in horrid piles in their own earth lodges, left there to decay under buffalo robes and devoured by their own dogs."

         The Arikara and Hidatsa populations were cut in half, but the Mandan fell from 1800 people in June to fewer than 100 by the end of the year.    (click here for more)

       There are few examples in human history of any people being so completely devastated by a disease in such a short period of time.