1837 Great Plains smallpox epidemic

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The Great Plains
Countries United States, Canada, Mexico
Coordinates 37°N 97°W / 37°N 97°W / 37; -97Coordinates: 37°N 97°W / 37°N 97°W / 37; -97
Length 3,200 km (1,988 mi)
Width 800 km (497 mi)
Area 1,300,000 km2 (501,933 sq mi)
Approximate extent of the Great Plains[1]
Website: Library of Congress (US)

The 1837 Great Plains smallpox epidemic was believed to have begun in the spring of 1837 when a deckhand became ill aboard an American Fur Company steamboat, the S.S. St. Peter.[2] The epidemic ended in 1838. In July, 1837 the Mandan tribe numbered around 2,000. By October of that year, their numbers had been reduced to 138 survivors.


1837 Great Plains smallpox epidemic
Classification and external resources
Specialty Infectious disease
ICD-10 B03
ICD-9-CM 050
DiseasesDB 12219
MedlinePlus 001356
eMedicine emerg/885
MeSH D012899

The steamboat, traveling up the Missouri River to Fort Union from St. Louis, docked at Fort Clark near the two earth-lodge villages of the Mandan people on June 18, 1837. The disease spread to the Mandan people.[3] In July 1837, the Mandan numbered no more than 2,000; by October that number had dwindled to 138. On August 11, Francis Chadron, a trader at Fort Clark, wrote,“I Keep no a/c of the dead, as they die so fast it is impossible."[4]

By the time the S.S. St. Peter made it to Fort Union, several deck hands had died, but only Jacob Halsey, an American Fur Company clerk, showed visible signs of the disease. In an attempt to stop the spread of the disease, fort personnel performed primitive inoculations. Pus from Halsey's skin eruptions was used to inoculate approximately thirty Native American women and several white men living in or around the fort. Within two weeks, the women who received the inoculations began dying from the disease.[3]

As the disease reached a peak at Fort Union, bands of Native Americans continued to arrive at the fort for trade.

Halsey wrote:

I sent our interpreter to meet them on every occasion, who represented our situation to them and requested them to return immediately from whence they came however all our endeavors proved fruitless, I could not prevent them from camping round the Fort-they have caught the disease, notwithstanding I have never allowed an Indian to enter the Fort, or any communication between them & the Sick; but I presume the air was infected with it for a half mile...:

Later, a longboat was sent to Fort McKenzie via the Marias River. At Fort McKenzie the disease spread among the Blackfoot people housed there.[2] The epidemic continued to spread into the Great Plains, killing thousands during the fall of 1837, but largely died out that winter. In the end, it is estimated that two-thirds of the Blackfoot population died, along with half of the Assiniboines and Arikaras, a third of the Crows, and a quarter of the Pawnees.[4]

Claims by Churchill[edit]

The Investigative Committee of the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct at the University of Colorado at Boulder reviewed a claim by Ward Churchill, comparing to the cited source his claim that in 1837 the United States Army deliberately infected Mandan Indians by distributing blankets that had been exposed to smallpox, and reported "Professor Churchill therefore misrepresents what Thornton says." Most other historians who have looked at the same event disagree with Churchill's interpretation of the historical evidence, and believe no deliberate introduction of smallpox occurred at the time and place Churchill claimed it had.[5][6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wishart, David. 2004. The Great Plains Region, In: Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, pp. xiii-xviii. ISBN 0-8032-4787-7
  2. ^ a b Garneau
  3. ^ a b S.S. St. Peter's & the 1837 Small Pox Epidemic
  4. ^ a b Calloway, p.265
  5. ^ Brown's essay at the Wayback Machine (archived February 12, 2005) Others who made the claim include Ann F. Ramenofsky in "Vectors of Death: The Archaeology of European Contact" (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1987), p. 148. Churchill first published his disputed claims in Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1994). For a critique of Churchill's claims, see "The charge: Fabrication". Archived from the original on 8 June 2005. Retrieved 10 March 2009. 
  6. ^ Guenter Lewy. "Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?". Archived from the original on 2 March 2009. Retrieved 10 March 2009. 


  • Calloway, Colin G. Defending the West 1830–90. First Peoples. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004. 259–334.
  • Garneau, D. "Indian History 1825–1849". Canadian History Directory. 19 Mar. 2007. 6 Nov. 2007 on telusplanet.net
  • "S.S. St. Peter's & the 1837 Small Pox Epidemic". Malachite’s Big Hole. 28 Jan. 2007. 12 Nov. 2007 on home.att.net at the Wayback Machine (archived March 3, 2007)