New documentary source for the introduction of smallpox in the late 1700s

with No Comments

My first update concerns the late 1700s smallpox epidemic (chapter two), and a new discovery of my own that gives added weight to the hypothesis that smallpox first entered the region via a coastal contact. The source is an important one, and if I’d had the opportunity to revise, I’d have added it to chapter two and revised my discussion of the possible alternate routes of entry accordingly.
The new source is:
Minto, John
1915 “A Tale of the Oregon Coast.” pp. 56-80 in Rhymes of Early Life in Oregon and Historical and Biographical Facts. Salem: Statesman Publishing Company.
The book is held by 34 libraries (according to Worldcat), most in the Northwest, and accessible online. It was published the year of author John Minto’s death, and includes several poems and short papers, as well as three reprints, on Minto Pass and Oregon Indian population, and “A Tale of the Oregon Coast.” The first two reprints had been published in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, and I’d seen them; the third is a reprint from volume 8 (1903) of the “Oregon Teachers Monthly,” which I hadn’t. The manuscript of “A Tale…” is in the John Minto Papers at the Oregon Historical Society Library, and a copy of volume 8 of the Oregon Teachers Monthly is accessible online from Google Books. (A complete run of Oregon Teachers Monthly is held by the Multnomah County Library).
John Minto (1822-1915) was born in England and came to Oregon in 1844. He was a four-time member of the Oregon House of Representatives, and was a founder of both the Oregon State Agricultural Society and Oregon Pioneers Association. Early Oregon historian Horace Lyman prefaced “A Tale of the Oregon Coast” as follows: “I am glad to assure the readers of the Oregon Teachers Monthly that this is a perfectly accurate reproduction of the story as told to Mr. Minto more than fifty years ago” and “Simple acquaintance with Mr. Minto is sufficient guarantee of his fidelity to what he understands as fact.” My reading of Minto’s other papers seem to underline this endorsement, so Minto the writer seems to be a reliable source.
How about his informants? The tale was related to Minto in 1845 by “Edwin,” son of Clatsop Indian Cullaby, on the day after Cullaby himself had related it to his son, probably in Clatsop (though this is not stated), possibly in Chinuk Wawa (unlikely considering the detail). Cullaby himself claimed to be the grandson of the shipwrecked sailor who figures prominently in the first part of the narrative, and who married Culllaby’s Nehalem Tillamook grandmother. Cullaby first heard the story as a boy. The form of the tale, chronological and episodic, seems to fit the pattern of lower Columbia oral literature. Though (as related in 1845) it referred to events some sixty to seventy years earlier, and may have accumulated some embellishments while being retold during that time, Northwest Coast oral literatures are notable for preserving important historical facts and events, so the core details are probably correct.
The first part of “Cullaby’s Tale” concerns a shipwreck, from internal evidence probably in the early 1770s, at Nehalem, and the rescue of the shipwrecked white man who married Cullaby’s grandmother. Various episodes centered on the couple follow, and then about 2/3 through the entire story, under the heading “The Spotted Death,” is the following passage:
“…more than ten years before the Boston men brought the big ship into the great river [American Robert Gray, in 1792], a ship very much like this one came close to the shore near the Nehalem, and some of its people made a landing in small boats. When they went away, they left two sick men who afterwards died. Soon many of the Tillamook became sick in the same way. The disease caused their skins to turn very red and their faces to swell, making them almost blind. Many, many of them died, and the faces of those who survived were left spotted ever afterwards. The deadly sickness soon reached the Clatsops from the Tillamook people….The old chief soon died, and his son….died too, as did a younger half-brother….[the white man] advised those who were not yet sick to go to the highlands in small parties; many did so and some were saved from death by heeding his advice. So very many of the people died that the death wail for them was about the only sounds that could be heard for many days…after the plague was over…some of the people returned to Quatat [Seaside]….but the place never contained as many inhabitants as it had before. The spotted death, as it was called, had left its withering blight upon a once peaceful and happy people.”
The crucial elements are, of course, “spotted death”–a rapidly spreading disease that killed many people and left survivors with pock marks–clearly smallpox; and a date “more than ten years before” the first entry of the “Boston” (white) men to the Columbia, which would be American Robert Gray in 1792. Because of the “more than” preceding the “ten years,” I’ve assigned the tentative date of 1781 to the event. 1781, though it varies from my estimate in “Pestilence” of 1775, averaged from several estimated dates, agrees with the dates arrived at independently (and without this source) by Cole Harris (“Voices of Disaster: Smallpox around the Strait of Georgia in 1782,” Ethnohistory 41(4): 591-626), in 1994, and Elizabeth Fenn (Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. New York: Hill and Wang) in 2001. On origins, Harris and I agree on a coastal contact (probably from a Spanish ship from Alta California), while Fenn argues for spread from the Plains over the Rocky Mountains via intertribal contacts. Writing in 2021, and given the nature of smallpox epidemics and particular history of the 1775-82 pandemic, I believe that we’re all right and it is most likely that smallpox entered the Pacific Northwest from more than one direction at or about the same time. That is the most probable explanation, I believe, though we may never know for sure.