The Four Directions of Native American History - The 50 Smallpox Epidemics


THE FOUR DIRECTIONS by Julie LaMay, Ph.D. and Larry T. B. Sunderland
Direction Episode Removed from Ancestral Lands Depopulation Number
Yellow the East: The Beaver Wars 1640-1680 200,000 100,000
Red the South: The Removal Act of 1830 200,000 10,000
White the North: The 50 Smallpox Epidemics 200,000
Black the West: The California Genocide   140,000
Totals   400,000 450,000


     Smallpox is a highly contagious deadly disease first introduced into the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492.  It is a disease that is equally contagious to all races resulting in an average mortality rate of 30% for those who contract the disease.  Native Americans were no more susceptible to the disease that the people who infected them. 
     The first known smallpox epidemic in what is now the United States occurred in Florida and is estimated to have killed 2,000 of the now extinct Utina tribe.  There are, however, ancestors of the Utina among the Seminole of Florida and Oklahoma.  The last such epidemic occurred in California in 1921 among the Shasta and resulted in the death of approximately 200 persons.  Between those two dates, it is estimated that 200,000 Native Americans died from smallpox.
     The last case of smallpox in the United States was in 1949.  The last case the the world was in Somalia in 1977.  Smallpox vaccinations have long since been stopped.
     Several possibly linked smallpox epidemics killed almost 27,000 Native Americans between 1670 and 1698 on the Eastern Seaboard affecting at least 32 tribes and ultimately destroying some of those tribes.  An epidemic which swept across the Northern Plains and the Northwest Plateau in 1781 killed more than 16,000. 
     Many believe that Lord Jeffrey Amherst provided Indians with smallpox infected blankets during the French and Indian War in 1763.  Amherst and his men were under siege by Ottawa led by Chief Pontiac.  Claims that a similar experience befell the Cahuilla and Serrano of Southern California have not be substantiated.

Exercise:  Consider a tribe which had 10 specialists.  Have three students select a number between one and ten and eliminate those specialists from the tribe.  Discuss what effect the loss of those specialists would have on the tribe: 

1. Medical healer
2. Basket weaver
3. Potter
4. Chief
5. Spiritual leader
6. Rival to chief
7. Storyteller
8. Matriarch
9. Flintknapper
10. Best hunter