Baleful Gifts of Civilization: Smallpox Epidemic 1853


It is well recording in numerous sources that diseases from Europe came with the exploring Whitemen and infected millions of the indigenous peoples of the World with waves of pandemics, causing the death of more people in the exploratory period than all of the wars of humankind. An estimated 100-300 million indigenous peoples worldwide died in this manner, a number which is a broad estimate because no one knows for sure how many indigenous peoples existed before the disease and viruses visited them. Many indigenous people, those of the island communities, Australia, and the Americas had no resistance to the illnesses and the majority of their peoples died in waves of pandemic illness.

The epidemics were cast far from the original European settlements as indigenous communities had broad trade networks and unknowingly passed the illnesses far and wide well before white exploration. It appears that some natural barriers may have halted illnesses, oceans, mountain ranges, wintertime snows and large rivers or lakes which were not crossed in winter times. Still, European exploration eventually spanned all of the worlds’ lands and eventually every indigenous civilization was affected by waves of diseases.

Diseases are likely one of the main effects of colonization that caused changes in tribes before actual contact with the Europeans. Even similar and parallel epidemics among plant, animal, bird and fish communities, from introduced exotic plants and animals, would have affected the tribes who subsisted on these communities for their resources. In Oregon, there is know to have been a 1770s smallpox epidemic that was heard about by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. The cause of this epidemic is not known but it is suspected some exploring merchant passed the disease to the Northwest Coast. There were many official explorations, which may have been a source, but there were unofficial explorations as well that were not well recorded.

The next big disease to strike for Oregon was the fever and ague, thought to be malaria in 1830. In the first few years of malaria some 90-97% of most tribes on the lower Columbia, Chinookans, and Willamette valley, Kalapuyans, and Molallans, died (see Robert Boyd’s, the Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence, 1999). This caused huge structural changes in the culture of the tribes, loss of the ability to protect their territories, and left openings for encroachments by settlers and other tribes. The effects of this illness are still be recorded today.

At the same time, tribes on the Oregon coast did not suffer malaria, but instead, illnesses brought by merchants to the coast. They had venereal diseases, smallpox, influenza, and others based on their marine connections.

Joel Palmer saw at least one epidemic in the earliest days of his tenure as superintendent of the tribes of Oregon in May 1853. His first report mentions the ravages of smallpox on the tribes in the region. In this report, he presents a caring demeanor asking for vaccinations for the tribes who are quickly being taken away by the malaria virus brought by the Anopheles mosquito, the vector for malaria worldwide.

Then in a later letter Palmer addresses the need to save the tribes by removing them from the American settlement. It is the case that most of the American towns were established on top of the native villages. In fact, the Americans supplanted the tribes, took their land and resources and sometimes prime resources locations alongside rivers and falls. The previous superintendent, Anson Dart, placed allowances in most of the 1851 treaties that the tribes may remain in their houses for the remainder of their lives. But as Palmer shows, this allowance, had the tribes living inside American settlements and thus subjected at all times to new diseases and viruses brought by tens of thousands of settlers who traveled through the towns on the way to their Donation land claims in the region. Palmer’s note about this issue is a revelation to this scholar, never having considered that fact of constant exposure of native peoples to white encroachment was a big problem of illnesses.

Palmer’s final note for the year, presented here, is about malaria and how it was still very prevalent on the Willamette. While malaria carried away many tribal members in the 1830s, new generations would be constantly exposed to malaria throughout their lives if they remained in the malaria region (that region occupied by the mosquitos who carried it). Malaria existed in Oregon into the 1950s, when spraying of lakes and other standing water sources, with insecticides became policy and in time eradicated the insect.

Office Superintendent Indian Affairs

Milwaukie Oregon.

[Report of] May 27th 1853

The encroachment of the whites upon their lands growing impression that the Government is delaying to make permanent provision for them till they have dwindled away & the mortality that has attested diseases brought among them by the whites, have generally aroused the apprehensions of the Indians, and serious difficulties among the more warlike tribes of the Upper Columbia can only be prevented by prompt and efficient measures to conciliate or intimidate them. I have learned that it has been deemed advisable to send a small detachment of troops from Fort Vancouver to The Dalles.

A small, pox has made fearful ravages among the Indians south of Clatsop Plains and north of the Columbia River as far as Puget Sound- entire families have been cut off and whole villages destroyed. Late accounts are received that it has made its appearance at The Dalles and is making fearful progress in its fatal work among the Indians of that vicinity. The only hope of arresting the ravages of this terrible disease among the unfortunate natives appears to be vaccinations, and I would respectfully and earnestly press upon your consideration the propriety of authorizing the superintendent and agents to appoint physicians to meet the Indians at suitable points and vaccinate the remaining tribes.

[Report of]  June 23, 1853

That these Indians cannot long remain on the reserves in the heart of the settlement, granted them by treaty (1851 treaties) even should Congress confirm those treaties, is too clear to admit of argument, vice, and disease, the baleful gifts of civilization, are hurrying them away, and ere long the bones of the last of many a band may whiten on the graves of his ancestors. If the benevolent designs of the government to preserve and elevate these remnants of the aborigines are to be carried forward to a successful issue, there appears to be one path open; – a home remote from the settlement must be selected for them; there they must be guarded from the pestiferous influences of degraded whitemen, and restrained by proper laws from violence and wrong among themselves let comfortable houses be erected for them, seeds and proper implements furnished and instruction and encouragement given them in the cultivation of the soil; let school houses be erected and teachers employed to instruct their children, and let the missionaries of the gospel of peace be encouraged to dwell among them.

[Report of] July 8th 1853

A general feeling of excitement exists among all the more powerful tribes of the interior arising in part from the fatality recently attending the smallpox among them, and a mere trifle may impel them to hostilities. It is well known that in the immigration of every year there are reckless and evil-minded persons ready and anxious to commit violence upon all Indians they meet and the Indians have already learned that they have nothing to expect from their justice or humanity.

[Report of]  October 25th 1853

Since the subsiding of the waters occasioned by the annual rise of the Columbia Milwaukie has proved exceedingly sickly the fever and ague (malaria) prevailing extensively. Being myself attacked with this disease and my clerk wholly prostrated by it, I deemed it not only expedient but highly important that the office should have at least temporarily another location, and have accordingly removed it to this place (Dayton).


The conditions and results of the pandemics among the Indigenous peoples of the world is a horrible story of cultural change and loss of populations, as Indigenous people were reduced to conditions of near-extermination. It is clear that most colonial authorities were very aware that they brought illnesses with them and yet did nothing to stop their colonization. Rarely was treatment or vaccination offered in time to save the people. Clearly, the right for Europeans to make more wealth was more important than the lives of poor savage indigenous peoples. This story repeats many times in history.

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