Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

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Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

The 1837 Smallpox Epidemic at Fort Union:

Charles Larpenteur, in Forty Years a Fur Trader, presents an eyewitness view of events as they unfolded during the Smallpox epidemic at Fort Union starting in June 1837.  For a description of the symptoms and progress of the disease follow this link.  

"After my return from the Canoe camp [an Assiniboine Indian trading camp] nothing worthy of remark took place until the arrival of the steamer, late in June [1837]. The mirth usual on such occasions was not of long duration, for immediately on the landing of the boat we learned that smallpox was on board.  Mr. J. Halsey, the gentleman who was to take charge this summer, had the disease, of which several of the hands had died; but it had subsided, and this was the only case on board. Our only apprehensions were that the disease might spread among the Indians, for Mr. Halsey had been vaccinated, and soon recovered.  Prompt measures were adopted to prevent an epidemic.  As we had no vaccine matter we decided to inoculate with the smallpox itself; and after the systems of those who were to be inoculated had been prepared according to Dr. Thomas' medical book, the operation was performed upon about 30 Indian squaws and a few white men.  This was done with the view to have it all over and everything cleaned up before any Indians should come in, on their fall trade, which commenced early in September. The smallpox matter should have been taken from a very healthy person; but, unfortunately, Mr. Halsey was not sound, and the operation proved fatal to most of our patients.  About 15 days afterward there was such a stench in the fort that it could be smelt at the distance of 300 yards.  It was awful — the scene in the fort, where some went crazy, and others were half eaten up by maggots before they died; yet, singular to say, not a single bad expression was ever uttered by a sick Indian.  Many died, and those who recovered were so much disfigured that one could scarcely recognize them.  While the epidemic was at its height a party of about 40 Indians came in, not exactly on a trade, but more on a begging visit, under the celebrated old chief Co-han; and the word was, "Hurry up! Open the door!" which had been locked for many days, to keep the crazy folks in. Nothing else would do — we must open the door; but on showing him a little boy who had not recovered, and whose face was still one solid scab, by holding him above the pickets, the Indians finally concluded to leave.  Not long afterward we learned that more than one-half of the party had died — some said all of them.  In the course of time the fort became clear of the smallpox, but the danger of infection continued. Fort William  [auxillary structures to Fort Union first erected by William Sublette and Robert Campbell] was still standing, and the remaining houses, which were no longer inhabited, were used as hospitals for Indians, with no other attendants than some old squaws.  It became the duty of John Brazo to take out the dead and dump them into the bushes, and some mornings, on asking him "How many?" he would say, "Only three, sir; but, according to appearances in the hospital, I think I shall have a full load to-morrow or next day."  This seemed to be fun for Brazo, but was not for others, particularly myself, as I happened to be the trader, who was liable to be shot at any time; but, singular to say, not even a threat was made, though the tribe was reduced more than one-half by next spring [1838].  Trade continued very nearly up to the average; on being asked how it happened that there were so many robes brought in, the Indians would say laughingly that they expected to die soon, and wanted to have a frolic till the end came.  The winter [of 1837-38] was spent in great suspense and fear, but, fortunately, nothing serious occurred except some few shots fired at me through the wicket during the night liquor trade; and as this had frequently happened before, it was not attributed to revenge for the smallpox."

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