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.