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Smallpox and Indians: When Pandemic Warnings Go Unheeded

We’re at the height of this epidemic, so the collapse of the Mandan Indian Nation in North Dakota in the late 18th and early 19th centuries from outbreaks of smallpox is a reminder of how ignorance can be so deadly.

Mandan Village/George Catlin, 1832

Any study of the history of plagues and pandemics teaches us one great truth: we are immensely fortunate to live in the time we do. We have an advanced science of epidemiology and a global infrastructure to address the disease. We understand infection and contagion. We know what causes pandemics. We know how a virus works in the human body. We have ways to test people for the virus. We understand the concept of vaccines and we have incredibly sophisticated laboratories that can produce them, and indeed mass produce them. We have efficient global distribution networks. We have the Internet, including social media, to get important information into the hands of most of the people on earth more or less simultaneously. This differentiates us from almost every previous epidemic and gives us an enormous comparative advantage.

Much of the terror of previous epidemics was caused by ignorance. Those afflicted with the disease did not know what it was, who or what caused it, where it came from, how to prevent it or how to treat it. It felt (as this coronavirus does for each of us at times, no matter what our rational intelligence tells us) like a visitation from the gods or an angry God.

We also have the capacity to get on top of modern pandemics fairly quickly, if not to nip them in the bud, as with the Ebola outbreak of 2014, at least to prevent them from becoming the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (50-70 million dead) or the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793 (one in 10 dead). We should all bow down to the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and their aftermath. The smallpox epidemic of 1837-38 among the Mandan Indians of what is now North Dakota is a chilling case in point.

Prelude — The First Catastrophe: 1781-1782

The first great smallpox epidemic on the Great Plains occurred in 1781-82, well before white people arrived among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians of what is now North Dakota. Think of this. Smallpox — brought to the New World by white men — got to the Upper Missouri region before the first white explorers and traders arrived! Disease travels fast. Apparently an individual or individuals of a tribe that lived in the vicinity of St. Louis (founded 1764) got the infection and inadvertently took it back to their tribe, from which it moved tribe by tribe up the Missouri River from what may have been incidental contact.

It has been estimated that the 1781-82 epidemic killed 13,000 Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa, some 68 percent of their whole population. The disease was much more devastating to the Mandan, Arikara, Pawnee, and Hidatsa, who lived in semi-permanent earthlodge villages, than to other tribes that practiced a more nomadic lifestyle. Population density coupled with sedentary lifestyles proved to be a particularly deadly combination.

When Lewis and Clark arrived at their first aggregation of earthlodge villages in what is now northern South Dakota in early October 1804, they found evidence of catastrophe. Several of the villages they saw from their boats were abandoned. When the captains visited the mounded semi-subterranean lodges of several of these villages, they found evidence of hasty evacuation: squash still growing in the fields, mats, baskets, and bullboats in and around the lodges. What Lewis and Clark could not know, but sensed, was that the smallpox epidemic of 1781-82 had shattered Arikara life.

Historians estimate that as many as 75 percent of the Arikara had perished in the epidemic. From approximately 18,000 in as many as 18 villages stretching over 200 miles of Missouri River frontage, the Arikara had been reduced to perhaps a thousand individuals living in just three villages. The survivors had found each other like refugees in a post-apocalyptic film. Lewis and Clark discovered that some of the people living in the three inhabited villages near the mouth of the Grand River were suffering from post-traumatic social breakdown: the Arikara dialects were sufficiently different to cause linguistic confusion and incomprehension; there were great tensions among the remaining leaders (chiefs), because the people of many previous villages were now jumbled into three, and men formerly held in the highest esteem had to compete for a limited number of leadership positions. As historian James Ronda put it, “the waves of disease so shattered the ranks of chiefs, elders, bundle holders, and important women as to make future intervillage leadership highly unlikely. . . intense factionalism flared between dozens of once powerful chiefs and warriors.”


The Mandan Indians lived in semi-subterranean dwellings called earth lodges. They were semi-sedentary, not nomadic, and therefore more susceptible to epidemics.

Lewis and Clark were not quite sure what had happened to decimate the Arikara sevenfold. They hastened on to the Mandan and Hidatsa villages in central North Dakota where things seemed better. After 1782, the Mandan had abandoned a dozen or so villages at the mouth of the Heart River near today’s Bismarck, N.D., and relocated themselves in two villages at the mouth of the Knife River, 100 miles north, near their cultural and linguistic cousins the Hidatsa.

Round Two: The Shattering of the Mandan Nation

In the late spring of 1837, the steamboat St. Peters was on its way from St. Louis to Fort Union in what is now northwestern North Dakota, carrying trade goods to distribute among American Fur Company trading forts on that 1,900-mile stretch of the Missouri River. Steamboat traffic on the Missouri River was just five years old in 1837. The AFC’s boat visited each upriver village twice each summer: once, filled with trade goods, mail, old newspapers, whiskey and agency personnel in May or June, and a second time as it returned to St. Louis with peltries, artifacts and discharged employees of the company.

The St. Peters arrived in Fort Leavenworth (today’s Kansas) on April 29. A deckhand exhibited signs of smallpox at that time. Although the captain of the boat knew that smallpox was far more devastating to Native Americans than to white people, he neither removed the infected individual nor paused long enough for the contagion to run its course among his crew. Somewhere farther upriver, the St. Peters took on board three Arikara women, each of whom had been infected, to return them to their home villages in today’s North Dakota.

At 3 p.m. on Monday, June 19, the St. Peters arrived at Fort Clark on the south bank of the Missouri River at the base of the Mandan and Hidatsa villages. Attempts to keep the Native Americans of the area away from the boat failed. It was the annual arrival of industrial trade goods, which were now a vital part of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara economies, and eager individuals flocked to the dockside. As the trade goods were unloaded, there was much “Frolicking” at Fort Clark that night. It was just then that the second great smallpox epidemic came to the Mandan people. As historian Elizabeth Fenn has written, “We may never know the precise moment or mechanism that launched the virus into circulation. But one thing is clear: The stage was set for disaster.” The next day, Tuesday, June 20, 1837, the St. Peters continued its journey to Fort Union near today’s Williston, N.D.

It took a little over two weeks for the epidemic to overcome its incubation period and touch off the death rattle of the Mandan nation. The factor at Fort Clark, American Fur Company employee Francis Chardon, kept a running tally of the dead in his company journal. It is the best account we have of the smallpox epidemic. It is a horrifying document to read. I quote here only a fraction of his journal entries:

Friday, July 14, 1837: A young Mandan died to day of the Small Pox — several others has caught it. Monday, July 17: An other case of the small pox broke out to day at the Village. Tuesday, July 25: Several Young Men arrived from the dried Meat Camp… they say that the small pox has broke out at the Camp. Wednesday, July 26: The 4 Bears (Mandan) has caught the small pox, and got crazy and has disappeared from camp — he arrived here in the afternoon. The Indians of the Little Village all arrived in the evening well loaded with dried Meat —the small pox has broke out among them, several has died. Thursday, July 27: The small pox is Killing them up at the Village, four died to day. Friday, July 28: This day was very Near being my last — a Young Mandan came to the Fort with his gun cocked, and secreted under his robe, with the intention of Killing me, after hunting me in 3 or 4 of the houses he at last found me, the door being shut, he waited some time for me to come out, just as I was in the act of going out, Mitchel caught him, and gave him in the hands of two Indians who conducted him to the Village. The Mandans & Rees gave us two splendid dances, they say they dance, on account of their Not having a long time to live, as they expect to all die of the small pox. Saturday, July 29: Several more Mandans died last night. Two Gros Ventres [Hidatsa] arrived from their dried Meat Camp, it appears that it has no broke out among them as yet. Sunday, July 30: [The Gros Ventres] threaten Death and Distruction to us all at this place, saying that I was the cause of the small pox Making its appearance in this country—One of our best friends of the Village (The Four Bears) died to day, regretted by all who Knew him. Saturday, August 5: News from the Gros Ventres, they say that they are encamped this side of Turtle Mountain [the Killdeer Mountains], and that a great many of them have died of the small pox—several chiefs among them. They swear vengeance against all the Whites, as they say the small pox was brought here by the S.B. [steamboat]. Monday, August 7: Six more died to day. Tuesday, August 8: Four More died to day—the two thirds of the Village are sick, to day I gave six pounds of Epsom salts in doses to Men, Women, and children, the small pox has broke out at the Little Mandan Village—three died yesterday, two chiefs. Thursday, August 10: All the Ree’s that were encamped in the Mandan lodges, except a few that are sick, Moved down to the Island hopeing to get rid of the small pox—the Mandans talk of Moveing to the other side of the river, 12 or 15 died to day. Friday, August 11: Mandans all crossed to the other side of the river to encamp—leaveing all that were sick in the Village, I Keep no a/c [account] of the dead, as they die so fast that it is impossible. Sunday, August 13: an Old fellow who has lost the whole of his family to the Number of 14, harrangued to day, that it was time to begin to Kill the Whites, as it was them that brought the small pox in the Country. Monday, August 14: The Rees [Arikara] are Makeing Medicine for their sickness. Some of them have made dreams, that they talked to the Sun, others to the Moon, several articles has been sacrifised to them both—the Principal Cheif of the Mandans died to day—The Wolf Cheif)—An other dog, from the Little Village came to the Fort naked with his gun cocked, to Kill one of us, We stopped him. Wednesday, August 16: Several Men, Women, and Children that has been abandoned in the Village, are laying dead in the lodges, some out side of the Village, others in the little river not entered, which creates a very bad smell all around us—A Ree that has lost his wife and child threatened us to day—We are beset by enemies on all sides—expecting to be shot every Minute. Thursday, August 17: the Indians dying off every day—W[h]ere the disease to stop, I Know not—We are badly situated, as we are threatened to be Murdered by the Indians every instant, however we are all determined, and Prepared for the worst— I have hoisted the Black flag. Friday, August 18: An old Ree started this Morning to pay a visit to the Gros Ventres, the Soldiers would not let him enter the Village, they have made a quarantine and they will permit no one from this place to come near them. . . Nothing but an occasional glass of grog Keeps me alive as I am worried almost to death by the Indians and Whites, the latter (the men) threaten to leave me. Saturday, August 19: a Mandan and his Wife Killed themselves yesterday, to not Out live their relations that are dead—I was in hopes that the disease was almost at an end, but they are dying off 8 and 10 every day—and new cases of it daily—W[h]ere it will stop God only Knows. Sunday, August 30: Three more died in the Village last night—The Wife of a young Mandan that caught the disease was suffering from the pain, her husband looked at her, and held down his head, he jumped up, and said to his wife, when you was young, you were hansome, you are now ugly and going to leave me, but no, I will go with you, he took up his gun and shot her dead, and with his Knife ripped open his own belly—A young Ree that has been sick for some time with the small pox, and being alone in his lodge, thought that it was better to die, than to be in so much pain, he began to rub the scabs until blood was running all over his body, he rolled himself in the ashes, which almost burnt his soul out of his body—two days after he was perfectly well, it is a sever operation, but few are disposed to try it—however it proved beneficial to him. Tuesday, August 22: The disease still Keeps ahead 8 and 10 die off daily, Thirty five Mandans have died, the Women and children I Keep no account of—A Ree that has the small pox, and thinking that he was going to die, approached near his wife, a young woman of 19—and struck her in the head with is tomahawk, with the intent to Kill her, that she might go with him in the Outer World—she is badly wounded, a few Minutes after he cut his throat, a report is in Circulation, that they intend to fire the Fort—Stationed guards in the Bastion. Friday, August 25: An other Mandan cheif died to day—(The long fingers) total Number of Men that has died—50. I have turned out to be a first rate doctor St. Grado, An Indian that has been bleeding at the Nose all day, I gave him a decoction of all sorts of ingredients Mixed together, enough to Kill a Buffaloe Bull of the largest size, and stopped the effusion of Blood… I done it out of experiment, and am content to say that it proved effectual, the Confidence that an Indian has in the Medicine of the whites, is half the cure. Sunday, August 27: News from the Gros Ventres of the disease breaking out amongst them. Tuesday, August 29: Last Night I was taken very sick with the Fever, there is six of us in the Fort that has the Fever, and one the small pox—An Indian Vaccinated his child, by cutting two small pieces of flesh out of his arms, and two on the belly—and then takeing a Scab from one, that was getting well of the disease, and rubbing it on the wounded part, three days after, it took effect, and the child is perfectly well. Wednesday, August 30: All those that I thought had the small pox turned out to be true, the fever left them yesterday, and the disease showed itself. I am perfectly well, as last night, I took a hot whiskey punch, which made me sweat all last night, this Morning I took my daily Bitters as usual. Thursday, August 31: Month of August, I bid you farewell with all my heart, after running twenty hair breadths escapes, threatened every instant to be all murdered, however it is the wish of humble servant that the Month of September will be more favorable, the Number of Deaths up to the Present is very near five hundred—The Mandans are all cut off, except 23 young and Old Men. Friday, September 1: This Morning two dead bodies, wrapped in a White skin, and laid on a raft passed by the Fort, on their way to the regions below, May success attend them. Monday, September 4: a young Mandan that was given over for dead, and abandoned by his Father, and left alone in the bushes to die, came to life again, and is now doing well, he is hunting his Father, with the intent to Kill him, for leaveing him alone. Thursday, September 7: The disease not yet over, five and six die off daily. Friday, September 15: Two men arrived late last Night in a Canoe from Fort Union. The disease has broke Out at the Assinneboines and Black feet, several had died. Tuesday, September 19: I was visited by a young fellow from the little Village, he assures Me that there is but 14 of them liveing, the Number of deaths Cannot be less than 800—What a band of RASCALS has been used up. Friday, September 22: My youngest son died to day. Saturday, September 30: Two More Rees died to day, with the Small Pox, several More are sick at the Village. All the Rees and Mandans, Men’s Women’s and Children, have had the disease, except a few Old Ones, that had it in Old times, it has distroyed the seven eights of the Mandans and one half of the Rees Nations, the Rees are encamped With the Gros Ventres have just Caught it. No doubt but the one half of them will die also—as they talk of removeing down to this place. Tuesday, October 17: all the Indians have decamped, except one lodge, that has lately Caught the disease. Sunday, December 31: the rest of the Lodges are scattered, on the Little Misso—he has had No News of them, for two Months, in all probability they are all Dead, the last News that he had form them was, that 117 had died, and the disease was still rageing. Saturday, January 27, 1838: The Small Pox still ravageing.
In his revisionist history, Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America, Ward Churchill argued that the U.S. Army distributed blankets infected with smallpox to the Mandan to wipe them out. He provided no proof of his assertion, which makes no sense for at least two reasons. First, the Mandan had a longstanding reputation as “good Indians” in white man’s circles. They had befriended Lewis and Clark and provided food, horses, and other supplies to Fort Mandan, which was built just across from the lowest of the Mandan villages, Mituntanka. Thereafter, Mandan had been uniformly hospitable to white traders, trappers, explorers, and army personnel. It would have been perverse to punish Native people who were known as “friendlies.”

Second, the American Fur Company depended on the large concentrations of population at the earthlodge villages to prosper in the fur trade. The AFC would not have wanted one of its prime customer bases to be impaired, nor would the Army have contemplated an attack on the Mandan without consulting with the white individuals and businesses that had a physical presence on the Upper Missouri. Still…

Even if the smallpox epidemic was not deliberately introduced among the villager Indians as germ warfare, the responsibility lies with the white traders and transport crew, who chose profit over precaution after smallpox was discovered aboard the St. Peters as far down the Missouri River as northern Kansas. Just as we have learned to distinguish open from structural racism, so, too, we can differentiate deliberate genocide from appalling indifference that has genocidal ramifications. If the crew of the St. Peters had waited in Nebraska until all possibility of contagion was over, they might have been unable to ascend the Missouri River after the summer rise was over and thus lost a good deal of money, but they would have saved thousands of lives.


The Mandan routinely created these stark monuments to the dead on the margins of their villages.

Instead, they reckoned they could deliver the steamboat all the way to Fort Union, and somehow keep native peoples from getting close enough to the vessel to become infected. It was a cynical throw of dice representing life and death for Missouri River Indians, born of a sense of cultural superiority so deeply rooted that the steamboat crew could not see Native Americans as worthy of special precautions. As professor Fenn concludes, “it represented willful neglect of staggering proportions.”

In fact, this catastrophe was preventable in several ways. The previous year a smallpox vaccination crew had been dispatched by the U.S. Army up the Missouri River. It had considerable success in vaccinating Native Americans in the Missouri corridor, but an early winter stopped the team’s upriver progress before they reached the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara villages. Over the winter of 1837-38, the U.S. Army decided not to continue the vaccination program, and openly declared that the Mandan and their cousins were no longer central enough to the trade economy to merit vaccination. If the previous winter had come later or if the U.S. Army had continued its vaccination program, thousands of Native Americans, including the overwhelming majority of the Mandan, could have been saved. You cannot read accounts of this plague without becoming sick with grief and shame.

The Mandan people were sophisticated. They had no idea of what smallpox was and how the contagion worked, but they knew it came from white men. The best estimates are that the Mandan had a population of around 2,000 at the time of the 1838 epidemic. If so, more than 93 percent of the Mandan died in the epidemic.

A leader of Mituntanka known to whites as Four Bears, but whose name was Mato-Tope, fell ill with the disease on July 26. Four days later, horribly disfigured and dying, he delivered his death speech, which was recorded by Francis Chardon in his journal.

My Friends one and all, Listen to what I have to say—Ever since I can remember, I have loved the Whites, I have lived With them ever since I was a Boy, and to the best of my Knowledge, I have never Wronged a White Man, on the Contrary, I have always Protected them from the insults of Others, Which they cannot deny. The 4 Bears never saw a White Man hungry, but what he gave him to eat, Drink, and a Buffalo skin to sleep on, in time of Need. I was always ready to die for them, Which they cannot deny. I have done every thing that a red Skin could do for them, and how have they repaid it! Wth ingratitude! I have Never Called a White Man a Dog, but to day, I do Pronounce them to be a set of Black harted Dogs, they have deceived Me, them that I always considered as Brothers, has turned Out to be My Worst enemies. I have been in Many Battles, and often Wounded, but the Wounds of My enemies I exhalt in, but to day I am Wounded, and by Whom, by those same White Dogs that I have always Considered, and treated as Brothers. I do not fear Death my friends. You Know it, but to die with my face rotten, that even the Wolves will shrink with horror at seeing Me, and say to themselves, that is the 4 Bears the Friend to the Whites— Listen well what I have to say, as it will be the last time you will hear Me. think of your Wives, Children, Brothers, Sisters, Friends, and in fact all that you hold dear, are all Dead, or Dying, with their faces all rotten, caused by those dogs the whites, think of all that[,] My friends, and rise all together and Not leave one of them alive. The 4 Bears will act his Part.
Six years later, the ornithologist John Jacob Audubon added haunting details to the story. “A great chief who had been a constant friend to the whites, having caught the pest, and being almost at the last extremity, dressed himself in his fineries, mounted his war-steed, and, fevered and in agony, rode among the villages, speaking against the whites, urging the young warriors to charge upon them and destroy them all.”

Mato-Tope died within hours of delivering his farewell address. Such Mandans as survived did not seek retaliation against the white men who occupied their homeland.

It is true that Mato-Tope had been a steady friend to white trappers, traders, and explorers. He was painted by both Karl Bodmer in 1834 and George Catlin in 1832. He was universally regarded in white circles as an extraordinary man, warrior, and Mandan leader. George Catlin wrote, an “extraordinary man, though second in office, [he] is undoubtedly the first and most popular man in the nation. Free, generous, elegant and gentlemanly in his deportment---handsome, brave and valiant; wearing a robe on his back, with the history of his battles emblazoned on it; which would fill a book of themselves, if properly translated . . . I looked out of the door of the wigwam, and saw him approaching with a firm and elastic step, accompanied by a great crowd of women and children, who were gazing on him with admiration, and escorting him to my room. No tragedian ever trod the stage, nor gladiator ever entered the Roman Forum, with more grace and manly dignity than did Máh-to-tóh-pa enter the wigwam.”


The great Mandan leader Mato-Tope (Four Bears) cursed his former white friends as he died of the smallpox.

Mato-Tope had gone out of his way to offer protection to white visitors even when some members of his tribe were suspicious or threatened violence. He is still regarded by the Mandan people as one of their greatest leaders. A bridge across the Missouri River and a resort and casino complex on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation are named after him.


In two waves of smallpox on the Upper Missouri, separated by 56 years, the Mandan had been reduced from a proud nation of more than 15,000 individuals to a pathetic remnant of 145. The legendary Mandan were now hovering on the brink of extinction. The Mandan were regarded as Native Americans of a special status, often fair-skinned, culturally sophisticated (with zoning in their earthlodge villages), polite, hospitable, superb traders, and invariably generous to white people in spite of a long series of depredations, exploitations, and provocations.

Thomas Jefferson met their leader Sheheke-shote at the White House in the last days of 1806. Jefferson, like some others, wondered if they were descendants of Madoc the Welsh traveler who was said to have come to America long before Columbus. Lewis and Clark regarded them as among the finest Natives they met in their 28 months of transcontinental exploration. By 1838 they were nearly extinct through no fault of their own. They have never fully recovered.

Somehow the survivors held on. It is difficult now to provide any accurate population estimates of the Mandan today, because extensive intermarriage with their cousins the Hidatsa and other tribes have clouded their tribal lineage. We do know that the last full-blooded Mandan woman, Mattie Grinnell, died in 1975 at the age of 108. Grinnell was a remarkable woman, a civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C. The current population of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara) is 15,000. Many tribal members live on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in west-central North Dakota, one of the sweet spots of the Bakken shale oil field.

Elizabeth Fenn concludes, “The epidemic of 1837-38 stands with the epidemic of 1781 as one of the greatest catastrophes ever to strike the peoples of the northern plains.” Compared to this, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, while serious, is comparatively benign thanks to science, global networking, and political vigilance.


Join Clay this Friday evening, April 24, for the beginning of a special four-week online humanities course: "History & Literature of Pandemics." REGISTER.

For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast The Thomas Jefferson Hour.

Clay S. Jenkinson is a historian and humanities scholar based in North Dakota. He is founder of both the Theodore Roosevelt Center and Listening to America. He can be reached at
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