Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: April 2020


Small Pox 1781-1782

Disorder flying through the country: the forgotten 1781-82 smallpox epidemic

In the summer of 1781, a joint Cree-Piegan war party attacked a Snake village in the Red Deer River area.

The warriors found “no one to fight with,” according to one of the participants, “but the dead and the dying.”

It was smallpox, carried north from New Spain, infecting Indigenous bands along the way.

Not knowing what they had stumbled upon, the men returned to their home communities, with devastating consequences.

The ensuing epidemic would literally remake the map of what became Saskatchewan.

Smallpox first appeared on the North Saskatchewan River in the early fall of 1781.

Hudson’s Bay Company servant Mitchell Oman, who had been sent to winter among the Indians of the Eagle Hills region, came across a camp of Assiniboine decimated by the disease.

A few weak survivors bore the tell-tale pox marks on their bodies and faces.

Soon stricken Indians — suffering from debilitating headache, painful backache, intense fever, and violent vomiting — began straggling into the HBC’s two inland posts in search of relief.

A thoroughly shaken William Walker, master at Hudson House, was so taken aback by the “disorder flying though the Country” that he predicted “that in a short time I do not suppose that they will be a staid Indian Living.”

William Tomison at Cumberland House was astounded by how quickly the Indians succumbed to the disease, many of them dying within only a few days, before the blister-like rash developed.

“There is something very malignant,” he pondered, “either in the Constitution of the Natives or in the Disorder.”

Inoculation against smallpox was still in the experimental stage in the late 18th century.

But because European populations had developed a general resistance to smallpox from past exposure, only one inland trader evidently contracted and died from the disease.

The Indians, on the other hand, took the full brunt of the epidemic.

They had no immunity against the virus and did not realize how contagious it could be — that the disease was easily transmitted from person to person.

Those stricken seemed at first to have flu-like symptoms, but after about 10 days to two weeks, small reddish spots broke out, first inside the mouth and throat, and then all over the body.

The rash then erupted into pus-filled lesions (macules) that left the face permanently scarred — if the infected person survived.

Tragically, HBC operations helped spread the disease.

As the Cumberland House brigade paddled to the Bay, the reach of the epidemic could be seen in the sick Indians encountered along the way.

But it was not until the inland traders arrived at the coast that smallpox first made its appearance among the Indians there.

From there, the disease jumped to Fort Churchill up the western coast of Hudson Bay and soon spread to the Cree and Dene who patronized that post.

Smallpox, one historian has argued, “had unwittingly become an article of trade.”

The 1781-82 pandemic was one of the most horrific episodes in Indigenous history.

But it was overshadowed at the time by the American Revolutionary War and remains relatively unknown to this day.

Nor is it possible to state with any certainty exactly how many Indigenous people perished, especially given where the deaths took place.

Based on information that the Cumberland House brigade brought to York Factory, Matthew Cocking concluded that “the many different Tribes … are all almost wholly extinct … not one in fifty of those Tribes are now living.”

Samuel Hearne, meanwhile, suspected that the disease “carried off nine-tenths” of the northern Indians, a catastrophe remembered in the name Portage des Morts along the Churchill River trade route.

These mind-boggling mortality rates have since been adjusted downward to a range between one-half to two-thirds of the Indian population.

It is still an unbelievable measure of human loss — possibly more than the Black Death in Europe in the mid-14th century, which has been estimated to have carried away from one-third to half the affected population.

Not a single Indigenous group in the western interior — except for small, isolated hunting camps — escaped the scourge, and those who were left came together to form new societies.

Some of the hardest hit were the Assiniboine, rarely mentioned thereafter in HBC journals, and the Basquia and Pegogamaw Cree, who ceased to be identified as a distinct people.

What newcomers later described as an empty land was actually an “emptied” land.

PHOTO: Smallpox had a devastating impact on the Indigenous population of the western interior. LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA PA-181599.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix as part of the “Say It Ain’t So” series.

Historian Bill Waiser is author of In Search of Almighty Voice, available in May 2020.

Henry Kelsey Stamp 1960

Henry Kelsey was a passenger, not a pathfinder

The minister was on “a crusade” — not for God, but for a fur trader.

In the early 1950s, Reverend J.W. Whillans began championing the exploratory feats of Hudson’s Bay Company employee Henry Kelsey, the first known European to walk the northern prairies and see the great bison herds in 1690-92.

Whillans said that the forgotten Englishman was “the first of our western explorers … the greatest of them all.”

In fact, the minister claimed that Kelsey had traveled across the future province of Saskatchewan as far west as the Battle River.

Whillans’s campaign to revive the memory of Kelsey culminated in his 1955 book, First in the West.

Not only did Willans argue that the HBC man was the “discoverer of the Canadian prairies,” but from the title, it seemed that Indigenous people were just part of the flora and fauna.

There’s no question that Kelsey did travel inland from York Factory on the southwest coast of Hudson Bay and spend the better part of two years in the interior in the early 1690s.

But where exactly did he go?

One researcher claimed that the “problem” of his route is “like … a jigsaw puzzle.”

Others in the search for clues to his whereabouts have politely called his travel descriptions “vague.”

The mystery is further compounded by the fact that Kelsey’s original journal did not surface until 1926.

These documents confirmed that the HBC had officially sanctioned Kelsey’s two-year trip inland, but there are large gaps in his journal entries, stretching over several months.

That did not stop Reverend Whillans, who once preached in the Carrot River district, from taking Kelsey’s infrequent location references and trying to match them to places on the ground in Saskatchewan.

What gets overlooked, though, is that Kelsey was entirely dependent on the goodwill and cooperation of the Indigenous peoples of the region.

Indeed, it was impossible for Kelsey to make the trip on his own because he did not know where he was going, let alone how he was going to get there.

Simply put, the HBC servant was a passenger, not a pathfinder.

Kelsey left for the interior on June 12, 1690 with a group of Assiniboine and Cree people who were headed back up the Hayes River after their annual trade session at the fort.

He carried with him a sampling of trade goods and instructions to encourage the interior Indians to come to the bay to trade.

By July 10, a month after departing from York Factory, Kelsey had traveled southwest some 600 miles, including some 33 portages, before stopping at a meeting place at a bend in the Saskatchewan River.

It is now generally accepted that it was probably at The Pas, near the junction of the Carrot River, just on the eastern side of the Manitoba/Saskatchewan interprovincial boundary. It was the Assiniboine and Cree who chose the places to stop and camp on the way inland, in effect leading Kelsey in his so-called “discovery” of the interior by serving as guides and sharing their knowledge about the land.

Kelsey spent his first inland Canadian winter probably in the Upper Assiniboine River area on the edge of the northern parklands.

The following summer, around mid-July 1691, a Cree party took him up the Saskatchewan River through the maze of channels and marshlands that make up the river delta, west to the Carrot River where they left their canoes and set off overland on foot.

Kelsey’s escorts would naturally have followed the extensive system of trails that crossed Indigenous territories and had been used for generations.

Based on what is known about these travel ways from archaeological research, Kelsey must have walked along the Greenbush Trail.

This historic north-south travel way ran from the Shoal Lake area (south of the Saskatchewan delta/Carrot River) through the Pasquia Hills to the Red Deer Forks (where the Fir and Etomani rivers meet).

In fact, some trail features nicely match his journal descriptions, especially his comments about going from wet to drier ground.

These trail ways eventually led to the aspen parklands near Sturgis, Saskatchewan.

He was nowhere near — as Whillans later maintained — the junction of the North Saskatchewan and Battle rivers.

In retrospect, where Kelsey went and what he saw are certainly significant, but who he went with and how he got there are just as important to the story.

The Cree and Assiniboine accepted the European newcomer as their guest and allowed him to enter an Indigenous world, but on their terms.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix as part of the “Say It Ain’t So” series.

PHOTO: In 1970, on the 280th anniversary of Kelsey’s inland trip, Canada Post honoured “the first explorer on the plains” with a six-cent stamp. LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA POS-000573.

Historian Bill Waiser is author of In Search of Almighty Voice, available in May 2020.