The Second Plague: Indian Reservations

Much has been written about the impact of pandemics on indigenous populations. Columbus and his exploratory contemporaries brought slavery (some tribes had slavery already) and conquest to the new worlds, and that conquest was greatly aided by the fact that the conquistadores passed on numerous illnesses, diseases and viruses, to these new worlds. These illnesses attacked virgin populations of indigenous peoples who for the first time had to contend with new strains of influenza, smallpox, malaria, measles, and other illnesses that carried away millions of people to their graves. The estimated worldwide deaths by epidemics are in the 90 million range.

These “virgin” soil epidemics certainly came to visit most tribal peoples of North America. Many scholars have concentrated their attention on tribes in the Plains for their studies. The Plains tribes had a huge smallpox epidemic in 1837 that seriously depopulated many tribes. In these events are born the theory of the small-pox infected blankets, and suggested by a myriad of native people on social media. The actual happening of Smallpox blankets being used against tribes actually relates to the Pontiac Rebellion of 1763. Pontiac and his forces were beating the British at Fort Pitt (Pittsburg) when the British General Amhurst approved the sending of small-pox infected blankets to Pontiac as a gift so they could “reduce their numbers.” Thus is born the fact that blankets infected with small-pox were used against native peoples. But this is not the case for all instances of small-pox infecting populations of Native peoples. Small-pox itself is highly contagious and so just being in the vicinity or the same room as an infected person will cause the illness to spread.

Interesting enough, the date of the Sioux Small-pox epidemic is right in the midst of when the malaria epidemic was happening in Oregon. Oregon had had a smallpox epidemic in the 1770s, as noted by the Lewis and Clark expedition when they saw pockmarked skin and asked a few questions of the natives, likely due to some connections with coastal explorers, of which were many in the 18th century. The Oregon malaria epidemic caused by the transportation to Oregon the Anopheles mosquito which is the vector for the disease, likely by the Hudsons Bay fur traders, began in 1830 and was still ranging in the early 1840s. This disease described in historical accounts as fever and ague, destroyed at least 90% of the native peoples, with some tribal percentages reaching 97% (see Boyd 1999). But Malaria was not everywhere, for example, it did not hit the coastal tribes, probably because of environmental factors. the Mosquitoes need the right environment to propagate and cold windy coastal Oregon is not that environment. the relative shelter of the Willamette valley aided the mosquitoes to survive and thrive and pass on their disease to the native populations. the Coastal communities of Oregon instead got whatever the merchant marine and coast traders brought, venereal diseases, measles, smallpox, and others.

Similarly, the remote inland tribes did not get many of the epidemics. There is no information about malaria among the Rogue Rivers or even the Umpquas. These tribes were somewhat remote, had very little contact with outsiders, and were not as exposed to trading with the merchant marine. They were likely protected by what I call the cold barrier, the fact that their country is much of the year rather cold and high up, and so they are less likely to become infected by diseases if there is less contact. I wonder if the Cascades and Rocky Mountains also were barriers to diseases as well, not just keeping mosquitoes from traveling through high altitudes but really keeping humans from traversing their high trails for much of the year, and then only limited crossing by tribes seeking trade or bison in the summers. (I know we have been watching Jedediah Smith type mountain men movies for generations, where these white men braved the winter snows over the Rockies to get wealthy off the fur trade, but tribal peoples had more sense than they.)

So the environments of the West I would presume had a huge effect on the epidemics and because of our extreme environments, many pandemics did not hit some peoples.

This all changes with reservations beginning in 1856. When tribes are moved to reservations in Oregon there is a huge cultural change to them all. First, they are concentrated together in one space like never before. Second, they are normally in Oregon not only one tribe but either three tribes (Klamath), of four or more tribes (Warm Springs),  to 25 tribes (Coast/Siletz), to 27 to 35 tribes at Grand Ronde. Other reservations like Nez Perce and Malheur had one tribe, which may have helped, but they also did not exist very long as reservations, only a few years before being terminated. The large number of tribes on a reservation like Grand Ronde and Siletz had to have an effect on their disease vectors. Besides all of the different tribes from different regions of Oregon living in one or a few locales, they are also exposed to white people, about a dozen or so that are the Indian agents and their staff that are running the reservations.  This is a situation that the Rogue River tribes had not endured before, while the tribes like the Kalapuyans and Chinookans had been living amongst white people for at least 30 years. Fort Vancouver was built inside Chinookan territory in 1824 and they maintain vigorous trade relationships with many tribes in the area constantly exposing all of these peoples to new contagions.

Therefore, I wonder if there was not a 2nd big epidemic on the reservations following 1856. This epidemic was actually a series of epidemics made up of all of the illnesses suddenly attacking tribal peoples that had never experienced them before. This thesis is borne out in my essay “Sickness Issues from the Trumpet” which shows that the Rogue River tribes were dying very fast to the point that the Siletz Agency Indian Agent wonders in his annual report whether the Rogue Rivers will eventually disappear because so many are ill and dying. Nowhere I have read where anyone notes that these tribes are newly exposed to all manner of illnesses when removed to the reservation, nor why they seem singled out, likely related to the fact that most other tribes had previously been exposed, had already seen the effects of population reductions and had gotten some immunity from this, as well that many of the Kalapuyans, etc, were now mixed-blooded peoples (French-Indian, American-Indian, Spanish-Indian) which also gave them some immunity. There are as yet few figures of what the population’s reductions were in the first few years at the reservation from diseases or illnesses. It is hard to figure out because annual medical reports are rare and incomplete, and raw population counts also include the missing peoples due to escapement. Many Natives chose to return home, illegally, and so there were some 20 years of escape and recapture and of new captures of tribes never before having gone to the reservation. So raw population counts are difficult to use as a disease reduction count.

But in the first year at Grand Ronde, the first fully occupied reservation shows a new hospital built with 70 beds and counts of several hundred in camp ill. The cultural practice of natives of not visiting the medical doctor in the first 20 years of the reservation also works against getting accurate counts. Then many families chose to bury their dead in the forest without reporting it and so we do not get a good burial count. From the initial population after the removal of the Rogue Rivers and others to Siletz in 1857 remains for Grand Ronde in the 1200 range and this number declines to about 400 by 1900.

The reservation population decline goes against what the tribes were being told to convince them to remove to the reservation. Agents promised that they “would be better off” they would all get houses, food, and money and would be protected from the whites who wanted them all dead. What actually happened is the tribes were immediately impoverished, they were given canvas tents to live in, they had to build their own houses. Food was to be supplied, but was not consistent and were new foods that the tribes had never experienced before. There were many starvation periods between food shipments. Then the money was also inconsistent, checks to the west coast were held in San Francisco and there was usually not enough funds to build up the reservations so to enable the people to feed themselves.  Numerous are the letters from agents asking for more funds or to give old cattle to the Indians who were starving and cold. So the reservations really turn into a slum of poor management and no resources, which may be why so many Indians wanted to escape.

Even education was not consistent until the 1870s, and so children were not learning to read or how to fend for themselves in the new culture. It was not until the 1870s that people were given land or appropriate farm equipment or support for self-reliance. The culture at the reservation then would cause any people to look for answers so that their children would survive and thrive. The poverty and lack of skill-building likely contributed to young people leaving the reservation, and stop identifying as Indians so they can survive in white American society.

Reports by Special Agents give us another piece of the situation. The reports stated that there were extreme poverty and much illness and no opportunity to grow their foods at the reservations of Grand Ronde and Siletz. They then noted that if this continues, then enough people will die from maltreatment that there will soon not be a food problem. We really then have to wonder if the special agent understood the situation correctly through their investigation? Was it the case that the maltreatment of the tribes on reservation caused the death of hundreds of people and was this forced starvation planned? We have no evidence either way for this, but maybe that does not matter because we can see the effect. In another issue, medical care access was also a big problem. Many tribal members did not use the white doctors but we really wonder if they had cause as well? How did the medical doctors treat them and were the treatments for illnesses effective and based on current science with the appropriate level of medications? This is difficult to understand but it was the case that there were epidemics that raged through the reservations but that the doctor did not always have the medicines they needed due to funding concerns. The access issue clearly needs more investigation. In the 1870s there are a few cases in correspondence (SWORP) where natives pool their money to send someone to the town to get medicines for their sick children. Why would they have to do this is the reservation doctor was supposed to be caring for them?

We ask then, what happened to the people at Grand Ronde? Why this huge decline of 800 by 1900? A good question. I think clearly a large percentage of this number is related to diseases, but the bigger number had to be people leaving to find opportunity. The first few years are key, but there is a lack of good records of that period. In this period, 1856-1860, we likely see the death of a good number of people newly exposed to illnesses, they likely did not have enough medicines at the reservations and they may have been saddled with other factors too. Many of these people are newly out of a war of extermination where they lost hundreds of their own family members to white aggression and war. Were they psychologically scarred as well? Then the other factor would be nutrition and environment. Many of these people had to adjust to a new diet based on beef, wheat and swine, and new vegetables, and the environment of the Yamhill valley was not like their original lands. These new factors and poverty likely contributed exponentially to the loss of hundreds of natives in just a few years.

It does not help that the records of this are difficult to come by if records were even kept.

For additional reading: The Native American experience with COVID-19 is only the latest chapter in a centuries-long tragedy.