Monday, November 12, 2012

Disease among the Indians



      Small child with small-pox, Bangladesh, 1973.

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 unburied.  

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.  

Small-pox was 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.