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Newspaper accounts of 1862 small pox epidemic show racism that led to devastation

08/05/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 10/04/2012 05:12 EDT
Newspaper accounts of the 1862 small pox epidemic in the British colony that would become British Columbia:

March 18, 1862: The British Colonist newspaper confirmed rumours circulating for days that small pox has made its way north from San Francisco to the colony.

"The case is not considered a dangerous one by the attending physicians, although a consultation was held yesterday to determine its character," says the report on page 3.

March 27: A week later, Governor James Douglas stands in the House of Assembly to acknowledge the outbreak and ask for 400 pounds to set up a building to isolate victims of the disease.

March 29: The British Colonist notes in a two-sentence story that reports of an outbreak at a Songish village are untrue.

"Not a single case has occurred there, nor is any likely to occur."

April 26: The disease is ravaging the Tsimshian, and Christian missionaries are trying to vaccinate the First Nations living in encampments on the outskirts of Victoria. An estimated 500 natives have been vaccinated but the disease has been reported as far as Fort Simpson.

The rapid spread of the disease gives birth to a suspicion that persists today.

"On Thursday, several Nettineett Indians (who live near Cape Flattery) called on the governor and said that they had been deputized by their tribe to ascertain whether there was any truth in a story told them by some white scamps that Gov. Douglas was about to send the small pox among them for the purpose of killing off the tribe and getting their land. They were assured that they had been hoaxed, and left the next day for their home."

The newspaper launches the first of a persistent plea for the authorities to act.

"Great alarm exists at the village and it is thought that nearly the whole tribe will be swept away. We have not heard what action the authorities will take."

April 28: "The other fragments of tribes on the reserve will doubtless become infected, and thus the reserve will be one huge Lazaar house, in which its savage occupants will rot and die with the most revolting disease that ever afflicted the human race.

"Were it likely that the disease would only spread among the Indians, there might be those among us like our authorities who would rest undisturbed, content that the small pox is a fit successor to the moral ulcer that has festered at our doors throughout the last four years."

The newspaper says the Indians have free access to the town day and night.

"The entire Indian population should be removed from the reservation to a place remote from communication with the whites, whilst the infected houses with all their trampery should be burned to ashes and the graves of the dead covered as thoroughly as to make the escape of effluvia impossible."

April 29: The Songhees are loading their canoes to leave to their fishing grounds on the San Juan Islands.

"Last evening orders were issued by the Commissioner of Police to his officers to prevent the entrance of Indians into the town, and the Chimseans were given one day in which to leave the limits of the town, with their sick. One of the gunboats will assist in the enforcement of these orders."

May 14: "Yesterday, the Northern Indian huts were fired by order of the Police Commissioner and burned to the ground. Probably 100 huts were thus destroyed. The Indians were notified to leave on Saturday last and three days having elapsed and no notice being taken of the warning, fire was resorted to for the purpose of compelling them to evacuate, which they prepared to do yesterday afternoon after their houses had been levelled with the ground."

There have been at least 100 deaths among the tribes on the reserve, and probably another 100 among the tribes encamped in the Canal de Haro.

"We should not be in the least surprised if the disease were to visit and nearly destroy every tribe of Indian between here and Sitka."

May 27: "The ravages committed by this dreadful disease among the native tribes in this vicinity is frightful, and we have no doubt that if the mortuary statistics could be obtained that it would be ascertained that at the least one third of all the Northern Indians who were until lately encamped on the reserve or resided with townspeople as servants have already died under its influence! At the present rate of mortality, a Northern Indian will be an object of curiosity in two years from now."

June 5: "Out of 100 Indians who encamped at Ogden's Point four weeks since, about 15 remain alive, and but few of the Chimseans who were sent to the Island near Cabdoro Bay are left. A report prevails that the disease has attacked the Nanaimo Indians."

June 19: "The ravages of this most frightful disease continue unabated. It is said that there are at least ten white patients undergoing medical treatment within the limits of the town at the present moment, and the number of Siwash afflicted with the disease it is really impossible to estimate.

"Fresh cases and deaths are occurring daily, and the woods contain the decaying bodies of many human beings. The streets are in a deplorably unhealthy state, and the town generally seems in a splendid condition for the further spread of the pestilence among the white population. Something should be done, and done quickly."

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