I remember when I
was in medical school, running across a thesis that someone had written on the
health problems suffered by the Five Civilized Tribes during the "Trail of
Tears," their forced removal from their homelands to Indian Territory,
in what is now the State of Oklahoma. Along the 4 to 800 mile journey 1 out
of 5 lost their lives. Many of the deaths were due to exposure - the winter of 1832 was
especially hard. Alexis De Tocqueville, visiting from France, described blocks
of ice floating down the Mississippi River. It was said that after the Indians
arrived they had lost almost all of their elders and small children.
It's really hard to
imagine the hardships endured by the Indians in those days. Not only were they
brutally mistreated due to the prejudice and greed of the white man, their
immune systems couldn't cope with the diseases that Europeans considered minor such as chicken pox and measles, so whole tribes had been wiped
out by disease even before the Trail of Tears.
The Indians way of
life before the Removal had protected them somewhat from disease. They lived in
small family groups, which limited transmission of disease. They got their
water from streams or wells which for the most part were not contaminated. They
hunted to provide fresh meat, and by the time of the Removal had learned to
cure meat by salting or smoking it.
During the Removal
Indians were forced to travel crowded together in large groups. They suffered from poor
sanitation, leading to typhoid, dysentery and cholera, and unscrupulous
contractors ordered food in advance and allowed it to sit out and spoil. The
Indians had to choose between eating spoiled food or nothing. Many of the
Chickasaw refused to follow the planned route. They made their way through the
swamps, killing game along the way. This frustrated their army escorts but it
probably saved lives.
One of the few
preventable diseases of the time was smallpox, a disease with a mortality rate
of 30 to 50%. Vaccination of the Native American population did not start until
the 1830's and it was not widespread. In 1834 there was a smallpox outbreak
among the Creeks and the U.S. Army physician, Dr. W. L. Wharton, vaccinated
over 7000 Indians, ameliorating the epidemic. Small pox broke out among a group
of migrating Chickasaw in 1837, and it spread to the Choctaw killing over 500.
The smallpox epidemic of 1837 also spread to the plains tribes, and many suffered
and died. The Mandan tribe, for instance, was reduced from 1500 to 15. A witness
described the devastation:
Language, however forcible, can convey but a
faint idea of the scene of desolation which the country now presents. In
whatever direction you turn, nothing but sad wrecks of mortality meet the eye;
lodges standing on every hill, but not a streak of smoke rising from them. Not
a sound can be heard to break the awful stillness, save the ominous croak of
ravens, and the mournful howl of wolves, fattening on the human carcasses that
lie strewn around … Many of the handsome Arickarees, who had recovered, seeing
the disfiguration of their features, committed suicide; some by throwing
themselves from rocks, others by stabbing and shooting. The prairie has become
a graveyard; its wild flowers bloom over the sepulchres of Indians. The
atmosphere for miles is poisoned by the stench of hundreds of carcasses
According to the
memoirs of my great great Aunt, Mississippia Paul Hull, her brother Sam
contracted small pox while scouting for the Army:
One of the things I remember which made such
an impression on my mind was the dreadful epidemic of small pox. There were two
kinds, the Black small-pox, which was usually fatal, and the red small-pox
which was a milder form. My brother Sam was on a scouting
expedition among the wild tribes and took the small-pox. My father heard of him
being sick, and when he located him he was almost dead, but he nursed him until
he got well, and brought him home.
That was the way that small-pox was brought
to our family, and we all had it. But we knew how to doctor ourselves and all
of the family lived. The plains Indians had caught it by this time too and died
in great numbers, sometimes an entire family died, because there was not one
left to wait on the other. They did not understand how to take care of
themselves and would go out and take cold. They were buried up and down the
river and where the town of Pauls Valley now stands.
This epidemic would
have taken place during the 1870's when the Army was forcing the nomadic tribes
onto reservations. There was a large group of Caddo Indians that lived near my
great great grandfather Smith Paul's farm, and many of them died in the
epidemic. My mother said that her mother used to point out a spot on Jackson
Hill, overlooking Pauls Valley, where a group of Caddo's were buried.
declared eradicated in 1979 by the world health organization.
Indian Removal, by Grant Foreman, Chap 8, P 110. Describes epidemic among Creeks
The Chickasaws, by Arrell Gibson: Chap 8, P 191. Small-pox among the Chickasaw and Choctaw
Pioneer Days in the Early Southwest, by Grant Foreman. Indian Warfare Between Texas and Mexico, P 235. Epidemic among Plains tribes, including Wichita and Caddo as well.