As explorers and fur traders entered the Pacific Northwest by the 1700s, so did smallpox. Today, experts describe the infectious disease’s blow to regional tribes as devastating, sometimes wiping out entire villages.
From evidence in oral histories and journals, the region’s first big smallpox epidemic likely struck Native populations around 1780, including those in Eastern Washington. Educators believe that outbreaks caused widespread Native Americans’ deaths regionally—perhaps up to 50-60% of populations during the initial wave.
“The first big epidemic was around 1780 – the exact date keeps changing because of all the different sources – but clearly around 1780 or 1781,” said Steve Goodreau, a University of Washington professor who teaches an undergraduate course on biology and the history of epidemics .
“As far as we know, the Native populations in this area hadn’t really experienced much contact with European settlers before, so it hit really hard in the whole Pacific Northwest, all along the Oregon Coast, most of Washington state we think, and in large chunks of the British Columbia Coast.”
Other large smallpox epidemics in the Northwest include ones in 1853, and 1862-63.
Smallpox dates back some 3,000 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. By 1980, 20th-century vaccinations eradicated it.
In the 1770s and years afterward, fur traders roamed the Northwest, and Spanish, Russian, and English explorers were on the coast. Indigenous people before then hadn’t had any exposure to the smallpox virus, and it struck widely – all ages, at once. Survivors had the disease’s aftermath of face scarring, later noted by explorers and missionaries, as a way to trace outbreak timelines.
“Smallpox is incredibly contagious, and it’s extremely deadly,” said Eric Lofgren, associate professor at the Washington State University Paul G. Allen School for Global Health and an infectious disease epidemiologist.
“There are not a lot of supportive treatments for it. You also get opportunistic infections, like pneumonia. One of the things that impacted the Native populations in the United States and Canada generally is they were entirely immune-naïve to this.
“They hadn’t seen this before, so it tends to have these big booming waves of epidemics that decimate. Decimate technically means you lose one-tenth of the population, so it more than decimated populations.”
Understanding the impact from the first outbreak is based on Native Americans’ oral histories of “a pestilence,” explorers and traders’ accounts about Indigenous people, and reports by colonial groups finding absent villages, Lofgren said.
“You often see in populations that aren’t used to smallpox, say this is the first time they’ve had this infection, you see 50 to 60% of the population die.
“You’d have reports of abandoned villages; some is seasonal movement, but some of it is genuinely you’re talking about populations that potentially collapsed.”
Arriving in the years afterward, a missionary also wrote about an earlier outbreak among the Nez Perce.
Goodreau said historians knew smallpox struck in Eastern Washington near 1780, based on a later report of the British fur-trading empire Hudson’s Bay Company, which established Fort Colvile near Kettle Falls. That Fort Colvile report is documented in a book by Robert Boyd, a Portland State University affiliated faculty member.
Boyd’s book is on the introduction of infectious diseases and population decline among Northwest Coast Indians 1774-1874. It quotes the 1829 Fort Colvile’s account: “Immense numbers of them were swept off by a dreadful visitation of the smallpox, that from the appearance of some individuals that bear marks of the disease, may have happened fifty or sixty years ago.”
In a December Seattle Times piece, Boyd also wrote, “Members of the 1792-94 Vancouver and 1804-05 Lewis and Clark expeditions commented on the prevalence of pockmarked Natives and long abandoned villages. Native informants told early visitors of widespread mortality. The North Coast Haida chief Kowes said, ‘The small Pox swept off two-thirds of the people.’ From the lower Columbia, ‘the Clatsops inform us that this disorder raged in their towns and destroyed their nation.’ “
Other diseases new to different tribes also decimated, including a major measles outbreak, and malaria.
A late-1770s smallpox epidemic spread across the continent, affecting other tribes throughout the present US, but for regional Natives, early exposure was likely from coastal explorers by sea or land from the north.
Goodreau said the 1836-38 epidemic was worse in Oregon and British Columbia, but less so in Washington. The 1853 one was “especially bad” statewide.
Similar to COVID, smallpox is transmitted through respiratory droplets, but unlike the coronavirus, it was deadlier, he said. Early victims lacked vaccines, but smallpox survival meant lifelong immunity.
With each wave, some historians tend to go with a lower fatality rate of at least 30%, Goodreau said. Comparatively, “COVID has killed a little less than 2% of the US population, and it mostly killed the elderly.
“These diseases that were coming through and killing – 30% each time is like the minimum – and across the board, so you’re seeing things happen like the knowledge of where to find food, where to hunt and where to gather getting lost. An entire tribe is losing so many people, they are having to kind of merge with a neighboring tribe.”
It brought societal destruction. By the 1770s, larger connected populations in Europe and today’s US East Coast had long grappled with smallpox, Goodreau said. Adult survivors had immunity, and families had large numbers of children. It became a disease most people got as a child and either died or survived.
“It was a major killer, but it didn’t disrupt society,” Goodreau said. “It took centuries for it to evolve to be like that. But when it’s introduced to a new population, it will kill large swaths of the whole population.”
By 1853, Washington was a territory, more settlements were established and connections to trade had grown. He said that outbreak also impacted Eastern Washington, apparently traveling up the Columbia River to Kettle Falls.
“A Catholic mission there at Kettle Falls recorded it.”
After years of dispute over land between the US and Britain, a treaty allowed Hudson’s Bay to continue trading in the Northwest. At Fort Vancouver, now Vancouver, Washington, Hudson’s Bay still had a presence there.
“Future president Ulysses S. Grant was stationed at Fort Vancouver at the time. He wrote about how rapidly the Natives were dying and had high mortality rates compared with white Americans,” he said. Hudson’s Bay set up a hospital and tried to care for the Natives, “but the American’s didn’t.”
In the Seattle Times’ piece, Boyd wrote that the 1853 outbreak, based on different sources, “killed half of the Native villages at The Dalles, Columbia mouth Chinook and Makah at Cape Flattery (among others); again, several thousand deaths.”
Goodreau said modern debate has weighed in on compounding factors – more so among later waves – that heightened exposure in Native populations.
That included forcing nomadic tribes to settle down and gathering tribes up in larger densities and settlements around missions and forts. The introduction of the horse meant wider trade networks.
He said in some parts of the Americas, Natives were essentially made slaves for hard, forced labor—overworked and underfed. With traditional food sources interrupted, being underfed and having poor nutrition often weaken the immune system.
White settlers tended to get the early smallpox vaccines, Goodreau said. But Hudson’s Bay held large-scale vaccinations for Native populations throughout Western Canada, and Catholic missionaries in Kettle Falls secured vaccines for Indigenous people, he said.
He sees a connection of wave after wave of epidemics, and then, “the Native populations are so decimated and weakened, they agree to move to reservations.”
“For the most part in the state, one after the other, that was in all 1855. You have this epidemic in 1853 that yet again tears the communities and societies apart and kills off a large portion of the population. Then within two years, they’re signing treaties. To me, that has to be connected.”
As the smallpox vaccine became widespread, the last US natural outbreak of smallpox was in 1949. Then, health specialists looked to wipe it out globally. Eastern Washington has a local tie with epidemiologist and former CDC director William Foege, who spent much of his childhood first in Chewelah, then Colville.
In 2012, Foege was recognized for his role in leading the effort to eradicate smallpox with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is credited with developing a strategy of tracking and containing the disease, which proved more effective and realistic than vaccinating most every person in the world at an enormous expense. Instead, Foege advocated vaccinating smaller groups of people, and then tracking the population until the disease was removed.
English doctor Edward Jenner discovered the basis for the smallpox in 1796 – a medical milestone. “The smallpox vaccine was the first vaccine of any kind,” Goodreau said.