1837 - Small pox redux

Joshua Pilcher attempted to innoculate Missouri River Indians against small pox, but his efforts proved to be too little too late in 1837

        Hoping to stop the spread of small pox, Indian Agent Joshua Pilcher persuaded William Clark to send him up the Missouri with Dr. Josephy Prefontaine and a supply of vaccines.  They sailed on the American Fur Company steamboat, Antelope, picking their way along the crowded levee in St. Louis below the 'badly drained, filthy and fly infested river front,' and set off on their trip.  They distributed food to starving tribes and began the inoculations.  Dr. Fontaine estimated that he inoculated 3,000 Sioux, but at least 17,000 had died of the disease the previous year.

Small Pox

  The small pox outbreak of 1837, which is believed to have been brought ashore on blankets owned by passengers on the steamboat St. Ange, spared fewer than a hundred Mandan (and killed many thousands of other plains tribes).  This was one of twenty-nine identified ''plagues' between 1519-1900 that decimated Native American populations in the Americas.

(for more on the Mandans, click here)

         This was a perilous journey for Pilcher and the doctor.   They realized that the Indians were certain to blame them for bringing this invisible killer into their midst, yet the two men were willing to take the chance.  The greatest setback was not having enough vaccine to continue travelling up the Missouri to the Mandan Villages.

         "The question that keeps cropping up is the assignment of blame," wrote Pilcher.  (for more on small pox, click here)

 On June 19, three Arikara women disembarked from the American Fur Company's steamboat,St. Peter,sat Fort Clark, and then disappeared among the throngs of Mandans waiting at the boat landing.  Two weeks later, the resident trader at Fort Clark, a half-breed alcoholic cur named F.A. Chardon, wrote to William Clark that "the small pox has broken out in this country and is sweeping all before it.  Unless it be checked in its mad career I would not be surprised if it wiped the Mandan and Ricaree tribes clean from the face of the earth."

(for more on small pox and Indian tribes, click here)

         The most serious criminal charge that could be brought against the company that owned the steamboat was negligence.  The company sent the St. Peter farther upstream, even after the deadly illness had been discovered aboard.  No one in the company wanted to see anything happen to the Indians, for without Indians they had no trade.  Nevertheless, the captain of the ship bore a good deal of the responsibility for devastating a fur industry that was already struggling.  The hostility that resulted from the epidemic influenced trade with the Missouri River tribes for the duration of the fur trade. 

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