Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1837 Historic Marker
This historic marker relates the anguish of two Native American warriors who commit suicide when the return to see their village decimated by small pox.
Native Americans pursued a number of strategies in response to disease and other threats. Learn how the Cherokee tribes in the east responded to the small pox epidemic with this book from the University of Oklahoma Press.
Backstory and Context
This historical marker relates the experience of a number of Native American children who survived the event and recalled to depths of despair of their families. The children told of two warriors who were so afflicted by despair after returning from a long journey and found that their loved ones had perished. According to the story, the two men rode a blindfolded horse off a cliff so that they might be reunited with their beloved families in death.
Contrary to the view among colonial settlers in the 17th and 18th century that celebrated the spread of smallpox among Native tribes in the East as proof of "God's favor" for settlers of European descent who were members of Puritan or Anglican churches, by the 1830s most Americans hoped to limit the outbreak of smallpox. In fact, in 1832 Congress appropriated funds to vaccinate Native Americans against the disease. The effort was best by a lack of resources and miscommunication, and efforts to inoculate Native Americans in North Dakota in the years prior to the 1837 epidemic met only limited success owing. Oe of the reasons for the failure was the government's reluctance to attempt to reach tribes such as the Blackfoot who opposed the arrival of fur-trapping companies.
While some settlers made heroic efforts to try and stop the spread of the disease, there was little that could be done once the disease reached North Dakota and Montana. Given the relative isolation of Native tribes in the West, and the failure to inoculate Native tribes in these areas, few of the Natives who contracted the disease survived. Sadly, the entire episode might have never occurred had steamboat captains followed the advice of many who called for the quarantine of sick passengers. Instead, an estimated ninety percent of the Mandan and fifty percent of the Blackfoot perished, along with thousands of members of other tribes throughout the region.