Smallpox epidemic ravages Native Americans on the northwest coast of North America in the 1770s.

During the 1770s, smallpox (variola major) eradicates at least 30 percent of the native population on the Northwest coast of North America, including numerous members of Puget Sound tribes. This apparent first smallpox epidemic on the northwest coast coincides with the first direct European contact, and is the most virulent of the deadly European diseases that will sweep over the region during the next 80 to 100 years. In his seminal work, The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence, historian Robert Boyd estimates that the 1770s smallpox epidemic killed more than 11,000 Western Washington Indians, reducing the population from about 37,000 to 26,000.

By the 1850s, when the first EuroAmerican settlers arrived at Alki Point and along the Duwamish River, diseases had already taken a devastating toll on native peoples and their cultures. During the 80-year period from the 1770s to 1850, smallpox, measles, influenza, and other diseases had killed an estimated 28,000 Native Americans in Western Washington, leaving about 9,000 survivors. The Indian population continued to decline, although at a slower rate, until the beginning of the twentieth century when it reached its low point. Since then the Native American population has been slowly increasing.

Witness to Devastation: The Vancouver Expedition

In 1792, members of the Vancouver Expedition were the first Europeans to witness the effects of the smallpox epidemic along Puget Sound. On May 12, 1792, expedition member Archibald Menzies noted “Several Indians pock mark’d – a number of them had lost an eye” (Menzies, 29). Commander George Vancouver (1757-1798) stated that two days earlier members of his expedition exploring Hoods Canal spotted “one man, who had suffered very much from the small pox.” He went on to say, “This deplorable disease is not only common, but it is greatly to be apprehended is very fatal amongst them, as its indelible marks were seen on many; and several had lost the sight of one eye, which was remarked to be generally the left, owing most likely to the virulent effects of this baneful disorder” (Vancouver, Vol. 2, p. 241-242).

On May 21, 1792, Peter Puget discovered further signs of this disease on the Puget Sound residents. While Lieutenant Puget explored the southern reaches of the sound soon to receive his name, he met some Indians in a canoe. He stated that “Two of the three in the Canoe had lost the Right Eye & were much pitted with the Small Pox, which Disorder in all probability is the Cause of that Defect…” (Peter Puget, PNW Quarterly, 198). On August 18, 1792, while near the Queen Charlotte Islands, Peter Puget gave a summary description of the Indians of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia: “[T]he Small pox most have had, and most terribly pitted they are; indeed many have lost their Eyes, & no Doubt it has raged with uncommon Inacteracy among them.” (Boyd, 30)

The Vancouver expedition encountered likely evidence of the havoc wrought by the epidemic. The expedition’s two ships Discovery and Chatham entered Juan de Fuca Straits and anchored at Port Discovery. On May 2, 1792, Commander Vancouver described the signs of a calamity at a nearby Indian village: “The houses … did not seem to have been lately the residence of the Indians. The habitations had now fallen into decay; their inside, as well as a small surrounding space that appeared to have been formerly occupied, were overrun with weeds; amongst which were found several human sculls, and other bones, promiscuously scattered about” (Vancouver, Vol. 2, p. 229-230).

In mid-June, while exploring Semiahmoo and Boundary bays on the east side of Puget Sound, members of the expedition landed near a large deserted village that they estimated was large enough for 400-500 inhabitants, “[T]ho,” Menzies stated, “it was now in perfect ruins – nothing but the skeletons of the houses remain’d.”

At the conclusion of this 12-day exploration Menzies wrote in his journal: “In this excursion the Boats went … about a hundred & five leagues. They found but few Inhabitants in the Northern branches but if they might judge from the deserted Villages they met in this excursion, the Country appeard to be formerly much more numerously inhabited than at present, tho they could form no conjecture or opinion on the cause of this apparent depopulation which had not an equal chance of proving fallacious from their circumscribed knowledge of the manners & modes of living of the Natives” (Menzies, 60, 63).

Menzies and other members of the expedition did not make the connection between the depopulated villages and the Indians “much pitted with the Small Pox,” but historian Robert Boyd did. Boyd conducted extensive research on the effect of European diseases on Northwest coast Indians. In his book, The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence, he states that although there are several possible explanations for why these villages were void of human habitation (seasonal migration topping the list), the evidence provided by Vancouver and others who explored the Northwest coast strongly suggest a disease of epidemic proportions.

Native American Accounts

A few Indian oral histories survive that may describe the 1770s epidemic. In the 1890s, an “aged informant” from the Squamish tribe, located near the mouth of the Fraser River, related the history of a catastrophic illness to ethnographer Charles Hill-Tout. The ethnographer wrote:

“[A] dreadful misfortune befell them. … One salmon season the fish were found to be covered with running sores and blotches, which rendered them unfit for food. But as the people depended very largely upon these salmon for their winter’s food supply, they were obliged to catch and cure them as best they could, and store them away for food. They put off eating them till no other food was available, and then began a terrible time of sickness and distress. A dreadful skin disease, loathsome to look upon, broke out upon all alike. None were spared. Men, women, and children sickened, took the disease and died in agony by hundreds, so that when the spring arrived and fresh food was procurable, there was scarcely a person left of all their numbers to get it. Camp after camp, village after village, was left desolate. The remains of which, said the old man, in answer by my queries on this, are found today in the old camp sites or midden-heaps over which the forest has been growing for so many generations. Little by little the remnant left by the disease grew into a nation once more, and when the first white men sailed up the Squamish in their big boats, the tribe was strong and numerous again” (Boyd, 55).

During the first or second decade of the 1900s, the photographer of Native Americans Edward S. Curtis interviewed an Indian who lived on the northwest side of Vancouver Island. Referring to the time of his great-great-grandfather, the Indian stated that a disease beset the village: “So great was the mortality in this epidemic that it was impossible for the survivors to bury the dead. They simply pulled the houses down over the bodies and left them” (Boyd, 27). Although his informant told Curtis that the deaths were caused by an epidemic, others reported it was caused by warfare. So this may or may not refer to the late 1700s smallpox epidemic.

The Smallpox Virus

A person with smallpox (variola major) infects others by passing the virus through the air by coughing or by coming into physical contact. Once another person is infected, there is no way to stop the disease until it has run its course and the sick person either dies or survives.

One to two weeks after infection the first symptoms occur with fever, headache, and pains. About two days later, rashes appear as red spots on the face, hands and feet. Smallpox symptoms last about two more weeks. The red spots spread across the whole body and get larger, becoming pustular lesions. These lesions that look like blisters itch until they scab, dry up, and fall off. Survivors are left with deep scars or pockmarks on the face and body. It takes about one month after the initial infection for the disease to run its course. Those who survive are immune from the disease for life.

Worldwide studies show that the fatality rates to people never before exposed to smallpox are at least 30 percent of the entire population and sometimes as high as 50 to 70 percent. A vaccination to smallpox was discovered in 1798 by an Englishman and first used in Puget Sound during the 1836-1837 outbreak.

The Range of the 1770s Epidemic

The 1770s smallpox epidemic affected a large area of the Northwest Coast of North America ranging from Alaska to Oregon. In 1787, English fur trader Nathaniel Portlock noticed it to the far north. Upon entering a harbor near Sitka, Alaska, he expected to find a “numerous tribe” but met only six adults and seven children. Portlock stated, “I observed the oldest of the men to be very much marked with the small-pox, as was a girl who appeared to be about fourteen years old.” Portlock went on to say, “The old man … told me that the distemper carried off great numbers of the inhabitants, and that he himself had lost ten children by it …” (Boyd, 23-24).

The Lewis and Clark Expedition across North America found evidence of smallpox when they camped along the lower Columbia River. On April 3, 1806, William Clark noted in his journal that “an old man … brought forward a woman who was badly marked with the Small Pox and made Signs that they all died with the disorder which marked her face, and which She was very near dieing with when a Girl …” (Boyd, 29). Clark estimated this outbreak had occurred about 28 to 30 years ago (1776 to 1778).

Fur traders also noticed signs of smallpox farther south along the central Oregon coast. And signs were seen east of the Cascade Mountains. In April 1829, Hudson’s Bay Company employee John Work, while at Fort Colville located in the Columbia River Basin, saw the disfiguring evidence of the disease. He wrote that, “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” (Boyd, 28). Work also estimated the smallpox epidemic occurred during the 1770s.

Spanish Explorers the Likely Carriers

There are various theories as to how smallpox reached Puget Sound and the Northwest Coast. Boyd considers three possibilities. One is that Indians hunting for bison or Indian traders traveling by horses carried the disease across the Great Plains and the Columbia Plateau. Another theory is that Russian voyagers carried smallpox from the Russian colony of Kamchatka in eastern Siberia, then along the Aleutian Islands to mainland Alaska and south along the Northwest Coast. Kamchatka had a smallpox outbreak in 1768. The last possibility Boyd considers is that Spanish explorers carried smallpox on one of their three expeditions undertaken from 1774 to 1779 from Mexico to the Northwest Coast. Boyd believes that the 1775 Spanish expedition was the most likely carrier.

The 1775 expedition was led by Bruno Hezeta, commander of the Santiago and Juan Fracisco de la Bodega & Quadra, commander of the Sonora. The expedition went ashore and made contact with natives at Trinidad Bay in California, at Quinault in Washington, and at Sitka, Alaska. There was evidence of an unknown disease on the Santiago.

The smallpox epidemic of the 1770s was the first and the most devastating of a number that were to follow. During the next few decades, less virulent but still extremely damaging epidemics, would attack eastern Puget Sound Indians again and again. Boyd documents the following:

  • A smallpox epidemic perhaps in 1800-1801;


  • influenza in 1836-1837;


  • measles in 1847-1848;


  • smallpox again in 1862.

Credit: historylink