The Columbian Exchange: Disease in the Northwest

The Columbian Exchange:  Disease in the Northwest

A little over 120 years ago fighting was still going on along the eastern seaboard of what is now the United States between two groups of Europeans.  At the same time, three thousand miles west, people living along the Nisqually River began dying in large numbers.  Those suffering experienced throbbing headaches and backaches.  They began vomiting.  Their temperatures shot upward.  Within days some would die.  Others survived these symptoms, but suddenly sores appeared in their mouth and throat.  Pustules arose from their skin.  Many must have died for the Nisqually people had been overrun by a European disease, smallpox, well before they ever set eyes on Europeans.  The death toll is unknown, but if the history of smallpox is any guide, 30% or more of the people who contracted the disease succumbed to its devastating power.  Families must have been, destroyed, stories of days past were lost, skills were not handed down, fears and doubts would have increased.  Yet, people survived, life and trade, joking and laughter returned. 

Less than a generation passed when a sailing ship with Englishmen aboard, under the command of Captain George Vancouver, plied the waters of the south Puget Sound region.  On May 21, 1792 Peter Puget wrote  the following passage:

Carr Inlet

 [I]n the SW corner of the Cove was a small Village. . . Two of the three in the canoe had lost the Right Eye & were  much pitted with the Small Pox, which disorder in all probability is the Cause of the Defect.

The pox had struck hard and fast in the region.  Examples of its destructive path of unburied skeletons, abandoned houses, overgrown villages greeted Vancouver’s crew as they moved back and forth in the newly named “Puget Sound.”   What Vancouver and others examining the subject did not realize was that this smallpox outbreak had probably begun it’s migration in Mexico City and before it had exhausted its human hosts it had infected people across the continent.  For the Nisqually people the disease must have reached them after traveling among the horse mounted tribes of the plains, over the Rockies, down the Snake-Columbia River system and then north.  The airborne disease remain hidden for two weeks and was not contagious.  Then around day fourteen the first symptoms would be experienced.  For the next two weeks the airborne disease was at its most contagious.  Consequently, people on the move, people involved in the trading networks of the Native peoples of the west unknowingly brought more than trade items to barter.  

This was, however, just the beginning.  The indigenous people of North America had never been exposed to dozens of deadly diseases that had moved back and forth between the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe.  There the disease created their deathly work and slowly their impact faded as immunities were developed among the living and methods were developed to limit the damage of the pathogens.  For the people living along the rivers and creeks of the south sound they had centuries of disease history to catch up on.  Their lessons would arrive rapidly.

When the Hudson’s Bay Company set up Fort Nisqually and the Puget Sound Agricultural Company they placed them near the Nisqually River.  The fort became a loading and unloading station for ships, a destination for those wanting to trade, and a way station for those moving north to Vancouver Island from the Hudson’s Bay installation on the Chehalis River.  Trade benefited, but it came with a cost.  Between the first epidemic previously mentioned and 1853 deadly diseases would regularly strike the Nisqually people.  Smallpox returned in 1801, 1824, and 1853.  The intermittent fever and ague, a form of malaria struck off and on during the decade after it’s introduction to the region in 1837.  Measles appeared in 1848.

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