The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence
The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence

The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence:

Introduced Infectious Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774-1874

by Robert T. Boyd (Author)

In the late 1700s, when Euro-Americans began to visit the Northwest Coast, they reported the presence of vigorous, diverse cultures—among them the Tlingit, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl), Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Coast Salish, and Chinookans—with a population conservatively estimated at over 180,000. A century later only about 35,000 were left. The change was brought about by the introduction of diseases that had originated in the Eastern Hemisphere, such as smallpox, malaria, measles, and influenza.

The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence examines the introduction of infectious diseases among the Indians of the Northwest Coast culture area (present-day Oregon and Washington west of the Cascade Mountains, British Columbia west of the Coast Range, and southeast Alaska) in the first century of contact and the effects of these new diseases on Native American population size, structure, interactions, and viability. The emphasis is on epidemic diseases and specific epidemic episodes.

In most parts of the Americas, disease transfer and depopulation occurred early and are poorly documented. Because of the lateness of Euro-American contact in the Pacific Northwest, however, records are relatively complete, and it is possible to reconstruct in some detail the processes of disease transfer and the progress of specific epidemics, compute their demographic impact, and discern connections between these processes and culture change.

Boyd provides a thorough compilation, analysis, and comparison of information gleaned from many published and archival sources, both Euro-American (trading-company, mission, and doctors’ records; ships’ logs; diaries; and Hudson’s Bay Company and government censuses) and Native American (oral traditions and informant testimony). The many quotations from contemporary sources underscore the magnitude of the human suffering. The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence is a definitive study of introduced diseases in the Pacific Northwest.


Table of Contents

1) Historical Epidemiology: Background and Precedents

2) The First Smallpox Epidemics of the Historic Period

3) Diseases Caused by Treponemata and Mycobacteria: Precontact and Postcontact Forms [syphilis and tuberculosis]

4) The “Fever and Ague” of Western Oregon [malaria, 1830’s]

5) Becoming Part of a Broader Disease Pool, 1835-1847 [smallpox, influenza, dysentery epidemics]

6) Two Midcentury Epidemics: Measles and Smallpox, 1847-1848 and 1853

7) A Final Disaster: the 1862 Smallpox Epidemic in coastal British Columbia

8) North Coast Population History, 1774-1889

9) Lower Columbia Population History, 1775-1855

10) Conclusion: Population Decline and Culture Change


Northwest Coast Indigenous Ailments

Malaria and Smallpox: clinical and epidemiological characteristics and historical epidemiology

The Unidentified “Columbia Leprosy”

Two Local British Columbia Epidemics, 1868 and 1875 [measles, smallpox]



Praise for The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence

“[a] pioneering book…judicious approach…meticulous documentation … Robert Boyd has done much to shape my own thinking about historical possibilities.” Elizabeth Fenn (history, Duke University), author, Pox Americana (2001)

The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence [is] a major contribution to Northwest Coast Indian ethnography and history.  Its significance reaches far beyond the region, since the complex phenomena Boyd analyzes in meticulous detail or the Northwest Coast culture area are crucial for understanding the history of colonial contact throughout the Western Hemisphere, the Pacific and Australian region, and beyond.” Eugene Hunn (anthropology, University of Washington)

Peer-reviewed journals:

“To my knowledge, Robert Boyd’s “The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence” is the most comprehensive, detailed monograph on the impact of imported diseases within a single region of North America.  His exhaustive documentation of the mortality and devastation wrought by diseases is overwhelming…smallpox, venereal diseases and tuberculosis, malaria, smallpox again along with dysentery and influenza, measles, smallpox and again smallpox….Native memories…both personal accounts of particular individuals and communities and mythologized narratives, powerfully convey native explanations for the epidemics and their efforts to combat them….I highly recommend this book.” Ethnohistory summer 2001 (Nancy Shoemaker, history, University of Connecticut)

“a masterful study of the pestilences that were a pivotal part of the experience of initial and ensuing contact between Euro-Americans and Indians….The evidence is compelling and chilling….the fullest assessment that has been brought to the “fever and Ague” in Western Oregon and the subsequent measles and smallpox epidemics of 1847-48, 1853, and 1862 along the Northwest Coast….a fundamental reference work on Northwest Coast demography….provocative…a substantial contribution and a model of scholarly research in clear writing.”  Western Historical Quarterly, spring 2001 (Stephen Dow Beckham, history, Lewis and Clark College)

“This book goes far beyond most other examinations of the impact of disease on American Indians…Boyd’s accounts of the epidemiology of venereal disease and of malaria are especially valuable….His soundest evidence suggests population declines on the Northwest Coast of sixty-six to ninety percent…what I find unusual and valuable is the wealth of Native testimony relating to specific diseases…the sheer interest of lengthy excerpts from a variety of contemporary and retrospective sources makes this book compelling.” American Historical Review, June 2001 (Shepard Krech, anthropology, Brown University)

“masterly…an important event in Northwest Coast bibliography…knowledge of the data is impressive….grasp of the theoretical models of disease history and ecology, demography, and social organization is likewise faultless….the appearance of [introduced] disease was the critical factor in the history of White-Indian relations on the Northwest Coast.”  Anthropos, 1/2001 (Michael Harkin, anthropology, University of Wyoming)

“compelling story of change and suffering…meticulously researched…rich in historic detail…data are presented objectively and in a very readable style…This is a book that will appeal to a wide cross-section of readers and is an important addition to the library of any student of Pacific Northwest history or prehistory.” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2000 (Jerry Galm, archaeology, Eastern Washington University)

“a valuable contribution to understanding the impact of disease…likely to spawn a great deal of debate and hopefully, further research into this important question.  The value of a detailed approach to the study of diseases among particular populations is enormous….Boyd has provided a wonderful model for such studies.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, 2001  (Peter Twohig, Dalhousie University)


BOOK DETAILS for “The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence”

Hardcover: 428 pages
Publisher: University of Washington Press; Apparent First Hardcover edition: (November 1, 1999)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0295978376
ISBN-13: 978-0295978376




OREGON ENCYCLOPEDIA Disease epidemics among Indians, 1770s-1850s