Epidemics, extinctions, Europeans

A new post in the smallpox and American otherness series.

In 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived at the remains of an Omaha (Mahar) village. Here they learned that four hundred inhabitants, together with the chief Blackbird, were wiped out by smallpox four years earlier.[1] A small hill-like grave site remained, on which the expedition erected a flag.[2] What remained of the Omaha village presented a desolate landscape. Clark noted how the community never recovered; a sign of this was the return to a pre-agricultural subsistence. Here and below, we quote while maintaining the linguistic peculiarities of the handwritten “field notes”, which, especially in Clark’s case, often present peculiarities in the handwriting (we limit the squares to the transcription of those editorial interventions that the editor of the edition in use, Moulton, considered indispensable to the understanding of today’s reader): “The Situation of this Village, now in ruins Siround by enunbl. [innumerable] hosts of grave[s] the ravages of the Small Pox (4 years ago) they follow the Buf: and tend no Corn”,[3]

the ravages of the Small Pox […] has reduced this Nation not exceeding 300 men and left them to the insults of their weaker neighbours which before was glad to be on friendly turms with them – I am told whin this fatal malady was among them they Carried ther franzey to verry extroadinary length, not only of burning their Village, but they put their wives & Children to D[e]ath with a view of their all going together to Some better Countrey – They burry their Dead on the tops of high hills and rais mounds on the top of them, – The cause or way those people took the Small Pox is uncertain, the most Probable from Some other Nation by means of a warparty.[4]

A similar fate seemed to have befallen the Clatsop (Clot Sop), a Chinookan-speaking people who occupied an area south of the Columbia River in present-day Oregon. Clark noted that the nation in 1805 constituted what remained after the effects of smallpox or perhaps some other disease ‘which those people were not aquainted with’.[5] The decline of the Chinook (Chinookan), Watlala (Nechcole) and other populations on the west coast was also recorded, and abandoned or ruined villages were described: ‘The small pox has distroyed a great number of the natives in this quarter’.[6] In fact, as documented by the most recent research, the areas west of the Mississippi visited by the expedition, in particular the territories close to the Pacific coast, saw, starting from the 1770s and again in the early 1800s, particularly violent epidemic waves, afflicting even populations that had not been affected until a few years earlier. In Oregon the first documented smallpox epidemic dates back to 1780, in the Pacific Northwest subsequent waves occurred during the nineteenth century.[7]

In several cases, the disappearance of certain groups was attributed to various concomitant causes, in particular conflicts with other indigenous nations and/or Europeans, alongside smallpox. Of the Arikara (Ricara) for example, decimation was attributed to epidemics (occurring from about 1780 onwards, which mowed down about three quarters of the population)[8] but also to rivalry with the neighbouring Sioux (Dakota): many villages had recently been abandoned. Subsequent historiography will correct this perception in the sense of a more extensive role of the epidemic than understood by late 18th and early 19th century observers.[9] Similar observations apply to the Missourians, for whom smallpox was accompanied by rivalries with Sauk (Saukees) and Fox (Renars).[10] As the cause of the decimation of the Mandans in present-day North Dakota, in addition to smallpox the aggression of the Sioux was emphasised by Clark on several occasions.[11] The effects of eighteenth-century epidemic waves on intertribal dynamics were already visible. In particular, the smallpox epidemic of 1780-82 in the Great Plains, by hitting some semi-sedentary groups (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara) favoured the expansion of the more mobile Dakota groups, whose influence became prevalent in the first years of the 19th century, in the areas of the present North and South Dakota.[12] Historiography dealing with the effects of European colonialism in North America has recently placed smallpox and other infectious diseases alongside the introduction of firearms and horses in terms of their impact on the balance of power among indigenous nations.[13]

The link between the sudden decimation caused by epidemics and the fraying of the social fabric recurs in the journals. In particular, Clark tended to associate the devastation of smallpox – which in several cases preceded the passage of the expedition by a few years – with regressive characters in the social organisation: the disappearance of agriculture and the return to a nomadic lifestyle. With regard to the Pawnee or Chawi (Pānia, Panias) near the course of the Platte River in present-day Nebraska, Clark noted the reduction in numbers caused by disease and wars: “[… they] now rove […] No Corn Beens to Cultivate at present, lost all in the late maladey with the Small pox”. Further on, Clark attributed the return to a non-sedentary life to an epidemic in 1802: ‘they burnt their village, and have become a wandering nation’. Hence also the interruption of trade with the Europeans (“deserted by the traders”), which he blamed for the shortage of arms and ammunition, which, in a vicious circle, exposed the few survivors to the aggressions of the neighbours, reducing their numbers even further. Very similar observations were also referred to the Ponca (Poncare).

Like other witnesses already mentioned, Lewis described smallpox as an imported disease, assuming in this a difference from others considered endemic. At the Shoshone in 1805 (but reflecting in more general terms):

tho’ hese people have suffered much by the small pox which is known to be imported and perhaps those other disorders might have been contracted from other indian tribes who by a round of communication might have obtained from the Europeans since it was introduced into that quarter of the globe. but so much detatched on the other had from all communication with the whites that I think it most probable that those disorders are original with them.[14]

Can the use of the colour designation – white – be read as a sign of incipient racialisation on a biological basis? In the journals, the designation seems to be adopted as an alternative and essentially synonymous synthetic formula to European to designate settlements and groups, to simplify an opposition. A notation by Gass exemplifies the use of white in opposition to savage: “The best authenticated accounts informed us, that we were to pass through a country possessed by numerous, powerful and warlike nations of savages, of gigantic stature, fierce, treacherous and cruel; and particularly hostile to white men”.[15] Elsewhere savage was preferred to Indian – a no less constructed, opaque and problematic category, which agglutinates in colonial discourse due to differential gaps and flattening of First Nations’ socio-ethnological diversity.[16]

References to white settlements and objects and articles of exchange obtained from white people, seemed to imply mostly a schematic distinction between a European civilisation as opposed to First Nations, where old world national affiliations became secondary.[17] In several cases the use of the adjective white is attributed to native interlocutors. In one of Clark’s field notes, for example, the adjective is referred as used by Oto chief Little Thief, whose short speech was transcribed: “My father always directed me to be friendly with the white people […]”. However, it is not easy to imagine what the Oto term might have been here, and whether the use of skin colour was part of the original expression or appeared somewhere in the translation chain (which was not described), perhaps introduced by the interpreter (George Druillard ‘Drewyer’ or François Labiche), or by Clark in the transcription.[18]

Although in most cases the use of colour is not explicitly subservient to racialising discourses, there are also passages in which it refers to the construction of a difference between the European body and that of the indigenous peoples. A remark about the greater difficulty of childbirth for “Indian” women if the father was “white” was due, according to Lewis, to probable constitutional differences.[19] In some cases the presence of ‘half-white’ children or boys was noted or reported.[20] The use of colour should be placed in a context where early modern natural history and later biologically based racialisation processes are documented in the Anglophone context (although by a less conspicuous scholarship than that focused on the Iberian empires).[21]

Native interlocutors, far from being mere passive objects of designations devised by European travellers, exercised a documented cultural agency by employing, at least from the early eighteenth century, symbolism with reference to colour to distinguish between themselves and interlocutors from the ‘old world’.[22] In the text of the journals, however, the designation by colour can be read as an indication of a secularising milieu, which, in order to distinguish between “self” and “other”, favoured material elements over, for example, the traditional religious criterion.[23] The use of Christian to distinguish between European settlers and First Nations is almost absent.[24]

The adjective European is also used in the journals. The presence of material goods of European manufacture suggested the existence of contacts or exchange networks prior to the passage of the expedition.[25] The idea of ‘European’ may be encountered applied to species of the animal and plant kingdoms that were known to have been imported from Europe to America, or between which comparisons are made.[26] The attribute recurred with regard to articles, goods and settlements,[27] geographical knowledge, the history of exploration and proto-ethnographic knowledge[28] – elements of material culture and a knowledge system for which the cultural distance between components of the ‘old world’ is shortened in comparison to that between Europeans and Americans – and – as already mentioned – diseases.[29] More recurrent was perhaps the use of civilised, used in opposition to native Indian and savage, in the description of customs, techniques and material goods, or to indicate the penetration of the expedition into territories never explored by European men.[30]


[1] The Omaha, of Siouan-Dhegiha linguistic stock, linked to the Ponca suffered a very serious decimation between 1799-1800, although the absence of agricultural activity recorded by Clark is incorrect according to other sources (G. E. Moulton, editorial note in the Journals entry cited above); Hopkins, The Greatest Killer, 270ff.

[2] Journals, August 11, 1804, Clark; August 13, 1804, Ordway.

[3] Journals, August 14, 1804, Clark; on Omaha (Mahar) see also September 4, 1806, Odrway.

[4] Journals, August 14, 1804, Clark.

[5] Journals, November 22 [but 23], 1805, Clark; see also February 7, 1806, Lewis, Clark; April 3, 1806, Clark.

[6] About the Chinooks: Journals, February 7, 1806, Lewis, similar remark also in Clark on the same date; about the Watlala: Journals, April 6, 1806, Lewis.

[7] 1800-1801, 1824, 1836, 1853, and 1863, Robert Boyd, Disease Epidemics among Indians, 1770s-1850s, in The Oregon Encyclopedia, 2019, https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/, ad vocem.

[8] J. B. Truteau, Journal of Truteau on the Missouri River, 1794-1795, in Before Lewis and Clark: Documents Illustrating the History of the Missouri, 1785-1804, ed. by A. Nasatir, 1952, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press 2002, pp. 259-311, see p. 299.

[9] J. P. Ronda, Lewis and Clark among the Indians, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press 1984, digitized in Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, https://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/, section Books & Articles, ad vocem, cap. 3 – The Arikara Interlude; R. White, The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Journal of American History 65, 1978, pp. 319-343, doi: 10.2307/1894083, see pp. 325-327.

[10] Journals, Part 2: Estimate of the Eastern Indians: Winter 1804-1805 for this and subsequent citations in the text.

[11] Journals, October 22, 1804, Clark; see also February 13, 1805, Clark; March 10, 1805, Clark; August 18, 1806, Clark; the effects of smallpox among the Mandan were also recorded in the 1970s by the explorer Charles Mackenzie, Charles Mackenzie Writings, in Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains: Canadian Traders Among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, 1738-1818, ed. by R. W. Wood and T. D. Thiessen, Norman, OK, University of Oklahoma Press 1985, pp. 221-296, see 234; A. R. Hodge, Pestilence and Power: The Smallpox Epidemic of 1780-1782 and Intertribal Relations on the Northern Great Plains, The Historian, 27, 3, 2010, pp. 543-567.

[12] Hodge, Pestilence and Power; White, The Winning of the West, 326.

[13] Hodge, Pestilence and Power; C. G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark, Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press 2003; Fenn, Pox Americana, especially ch. 7 ‘Connections’, also for notations on Lewis and Clark; E. Fenn, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People, New York, Hill and Wang 2014, ch. 7 ‘Scourge: The Smallpox of 1781’.

[14] Journals, August 19, 1805, Lewis.

[15] Journals, May 14, 1804, Gass. J. E. Chaplin, Natural Philosophy and an Early Racial Idiom in North America: Comparing English and Indian Bodies, The William and Mary Quarterly, 54/1 (1997), pp. 229-252.

[16] R. F. Berkhofer, Jr., The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present, New York, Knopf 1978, especially parts 1 and 2.

[17] Occurrences of white settlement, white people, whitemen are for example in: Journals, May 25, 1804, Clark, Ordway, Gass, Whitehouse; August 14, 1805, Lewis; August 22, 1805, Lewis, Whitehouse; September 5, 1805, Whitehouse; September 21, 1805, Clark; September 22, 1805, Clark; October 11, 1805, Ordway (here in opposition to savages); October 17, 1805, Whitehouse; October 20, 1805, Ordway, Gass, Whitehouse; October 22, 1805, Clark, Whitehouse; October 24, 1805, Whitehouse (in opposition to both savages and Indians); October 29, 1805, Clark; October 30, 1805, Clark; November 1, 1805, Clark; November 4, 1805, Gass; November 17, 1805, Gass, Whitehouse.

[18] Journals, August 19, 1804, Clark; for other occurrences in indirect speech attributed to native interlocutors e.g.: October 7, 1805, Clark; October 8, 1805, Gass; October 10, 1805, Clark; October 16, 1805, Whitehouse; November 1, 1805, Clark; November 3, 1805, Ordway, Whitehouse; November 4, 1805, Whitehouse.

[19] Journals, August 26, 1805, Lewis, see also History of the expedition, I, 416.

[20] Journals, October 29, 1804, Clark; October 24, 1805, Whitehouse; December 31, 1805, Clark.

[21] Chaplin, Natural Philosophy.

[22] The broader background to the emergence of a system of racial hierarchisation in modern-day America is that of the trafficking and enslavement of men and women from Africa. N. Shoemaker, How Indians Got to be Red, The American Historical Review, 102, 3, 1997, pp. 625-644.

[23] It should be noted that the journals maintain a textual nature of field notes and, even in the version prepared for the first edition by Biddle, are not inclined to the discussion of theoretical themes and formulation of formalised systematisations. Certain cultural categories are evidently at work in the observation and description of the explorers’ pungo, but the text departs, in terms of objectives and disciplinary location, from the contemporary historical-philosophical and medical treatises cited at the beginning of this article.

[24] Journals, Part 2: Estimate of the Eastern Indians, Winter 1804-1805, includes, for the groups ‘Inhabiting the Countrey on the Missourie’, ‘The Names of the Christian Nations or the Companies with Whom they Maintain their Commerce and Traffick’.

[25] Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially during the Seven Years’ War and the height of the Indian Wars, there were episodes of deliberate spreading of epidemics among Indians by means of infected objects by whites, or documented plans whose execution remains inconclusive. Jones, Rationalizing Epidemics, pp. 12, 93-117 for William Trent and Jeffrey Amherst’s plans to spread smallpox to Delaware and Shawnee in 1763.

[26] Journals, July 2, 1805, Lewis; February 26, 1806, Clark; February 27, 1806, Lewis.

[27] Journals, Part 1: Affluents of the Missouri River, Winter 1804-1805, Lewis; Part 2: Estimate of the Eastern Indians, Winter 1804-1805, Clark; November 4, 1805, Clark; January 14, 1806, Lewis, Clark.

[28] Journals, May 14, 1804, Whitehouse, here in particular the ‘Preface’.

[29] Journals, August 19, 1805, Lewis.

[30] Journals, April 7, 1805, Lewis on departure from Fort Mandan in North Dakota: ‘on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden’; May 25, 1805, Lewis, Clark; August 19, 1805, Lewis; October 11, 1805, Whitehouse; October 17, 1805, Whitehouse; January 1, 1806, Lewis, Clark; January 6, 1806, Lewis; March 18, 1806, Lewis; March 19, 1806, Lewis, Clark; May 9, 1806, Lewis; May 13, 1806, Lewis, Clark. See also the first edition of the accounts edited by Nicholas Biddle: [M. Lewis and W. Clark], History of the expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the river Columbia to the Pacific Ocean: performed during the years 1804-5-6 by order of the government of the United States: Prepared for the Press by Paul Allen, Esq. Philadelphia, Bradford and Inskeep and Abm. H. Inskeep, and Newyork, J. Maxwell, printer 1814, 2 vols., I, 106 on various groups of Ricara more or less integrated with the Manda; 176-177 for considerations on painting, which stems from man’s need to pass on the past, whether civilised or savage; II, 139 on intoxication by alcohol as ‘the earliest and most dreadful present which civilisation has given to the other natives of the continent’.

This post is adapted from: Giulia Iannuzzi, “in the raging time of the small pox”: Il vaiolo e la documentazione dell’alterità americana tra fine Settecento e primo Ottocento, Diciottesimo Secolo, 6 (2021): 67-82, doi: 10.36253/ds-12544; ISSN: 2531-4165. This article is available in full green open access:

Cite this blog post
Giulia Iannuzzi (2022, November 6). Epidemics, extinctions, Europeans. Geographies of Time. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/przd

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