Tall Tale or History: Edgar on Sauvie Island

Tall Tale or History: Edgar on Sauvie Island

By Ed Bergh

In 1853, Edgar joined a group of men who set out to establish a route over the Cascades that might be used by wagons arriving from the east. They were led by Edward Allen who called them the Committee and considered them a wonderfully “motley group.” Allen kept a journal of their trip. Sitting about the campfire, shadows cast on the screen of the surrounding woods they engaged in a delightful “interchange of thoughts and confidences.” One night George Shazer kicked off the evening with one of his “life yarns.” Cannibalism was involved and his description of a “compost” of bear and human flesh. It was disgusting.

Edgar’s turn came next. He had spent time at Ft. Vancouver down on the Columbia River earlier in his Hudson’s Bay career. There he spent time on Sauvie Island where the forces of the native world and the newly arrived Euro-Americans had engaged in biological warfare. The Indians had lost. Invisible wave after invisible wave, smallpox, intermittent fever, smallpox again had destroyed the island’s original inhabitants. Bones were scattered across the island. Finally, John McLaughlin at the Hudson’s Bay Vancouver ordered the bones gathered and any structures burned to the ground to dissipate the danger. They departed, leaving small clusters of cattle and hogs. Edgar had crossed to the island and observed their feral descendants. Allen recounted that Edgar considered those “wild times.” Edgar reasoned that their numbers, located on an island in the Columbia River, had become “so numerous and destructive that it became necessary to wage a war of extermination against them.” Edgar had hunted down and killed the cattle and hogs that had gone feral. New sets of bones bleached on the sands of Sauvie Island, and birds returned to lay their eggs among the rejuvenated plant life. Reminiscent of the scene of extermination on Sauvie Island, on the current trip the men had decided to empty their revolvers into the wild cattle of Muck Prairie. For reasons unknown they stopped short of carrying out their wasteful mission.

Edgar’s other memorable story during the trip must have started the men speculating about Ta-co-bet. Around the campfire, in front of their horse blanket tents, Edgar told the story of Mt. St. Helens blowing its top. A sulfurous ash coated the pastures of Ft. Vancouver, killing cattle who ate it. Edgar added that they moved most of the cattle to Nisqually at that time. The next prairie that crossed afforded a view of the quiet volcano, Ta-co-bet.

A wilderness trail was a conduit of commerce and a frontier bulletin board as strangers crossed paths, sharing information and ‘life yarns.’ Edgar and the Committee were not far from the White River when they came across a band of Indians. They too had been headed east, but had halted on receiving news that smallpox was on the march up the Yakima valley. Allen recorded that the Indians told “doeful tales of the small-pox being very bad across the country— [with] many dying.” He also noted the practice of feverish pox-ridden Indians plunging into extremely cold river water that was denigrated as a medical technique by Euro-Americans who witnessed the resulting spike in mortality rates.

It had been five years since the last measles outbreak. When combined with other newly-arrived microbes, like smallpox and malaria, the impact on Indian populations had been catastrophic. This particular infection had literally crashed on the shores of Washington territory somewhere between the Columbia River and Grays Harbor. Between December 1852 and January 1853 a number of ships engaged in the San Francisco oyster trade had run aground in winter storms. There among the beached shipwrecks Chinooks salvaged trunks of clothing and money. It is more than likely that the clothes were infected. Within months half of the Chinook were dead. Trade carried smallpox to Ft. Vancouver on the Columbia River. By May 1853 the disease had made its way up river to The Dalles where Indians were “dying in crowds” according to Peter Skene Ogden. Edgar and the party left in June of that year.

By the time Edgar and the party were on the way down the eastern side of the mountains it became apparent that smallpox had arrived earlier. Short on food, the Committee tried to trade for dried salmon. But the Indians had none for sale. Smallpox had carried off so many tribesmen that the remaining ones had not caught enough salmon for subsistence, let alone trade. There, “scattered about” in groups of twos and threes, they scoured the valleys for roots and berries.

They told Edgar and the Committee that the plague had come from Ft. Vancouver. There, “bad Indians” had robbed a store. The owner, seeking revenge, invited the Indians to a great dinner. He cynically lavished his guests with small gifts, sugar, and “every Indian luxury.” Unknown to them he infected the gifts so they carried the disease back to their homes in the Yakima Valley and its tributaries. Allen wrestled with the possibility that the men at Ft. Vancouver had intentionally infected their trading partners. He wrote, “I can hardly believe such a fiendish act of retaliation possible, but it seems not improbable, when one recalls Sublette’s devilish revenge [on the Sioux who robbed him] by causing a mule load of inoculated blankets to be exposed to their depredations.”

As far as Edgar knew, Betsy and the rest of the children were safe. Living away from the fort had protected them from the measles and he hoped it would be similarly true with the smallpox. It was. The entire family greeted him on his return. [From “Betsy and John Edgar: Pioneer Settlers on the Yelm Prairie”]

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