Smallpox Epidemic of 1837-1838

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An artist’s depiction of a battle between Sioux and Blackfeet warriors

In 1837, the fur trade brought smallpox to the Great Plains. The subsequent epidemic left the Native American population decimated and the land war-torn. The disease left hundreds dead, upset the balance of power between tribes, and cast doubts on many of the tribes’ ways of life (Owsley, 1994).

The horticulturally-based tribes were most strongly affected by the epidemic, as the disease could spread rapidly through a village. Nomadic tribes, which also tended to be smaller, would often split up and disperse at the first sign of disease. These differences in settlement and movement patterns, along with selective vaccination (which occurred primarily in the southern Missouri), led to inconsistencies in how severely a given tribe was hit by the disease. This in turn led to changes in the balance of power between tribes. The once powerful horticulturally-based villages were now vulnerable to attacks by nomadic tribes, notably the Sioux tribe of southern Missouri (Owsley, 1994).

A Gros Ventres camp in Upper Missouri

As we discussed in class, human beings have a nearly universal fear of death. Around the world and throughout time, people have looked for ways to calm the fear that death inspires (van Gennep, 1960). In the case of Native Americans, European diseases were especially terrifying. Not understanding the communicability or cause of disease, most tribes attributed spiritual causes to these deaths (Ewers, 1958).

One of the nomadic Blackfeet tribes saw smallpox destroy a village that it was raiding, and attributed these deaths to the actions of a bad spirit. After returning home with the village’s spoils, smallpox broke out among them and the Blackfeet people assumed that the Good Spirit had abandoned them. In desperation, they made sacrifices of sacred objects in an attempt to placate the evil spirit (Ewers, 1958). Another tribe, the Skidi Pawnee, attributed the smallpox deaths to the Morning Star. In an effort to prevent more death, a young Sioux girl was kidnapped and sacrificed (Weltfish, 1965).

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A medicine man tending a patient

The Gros Ventre tribe also believed that smallpox was caused by a malevolent spirit. Atsa causes epidemics of smallpox, measles, and chickenpox. He is often associated with solar eclipses, a very ill omen among the Gros Ventre. The tribe never made offerings to Atsa; instead when disease struck, the people implored the Supreme Being to take Atsa away (Cooper, 1957).

Traditionally, medicine men handled the treatment of disease among Native Americans. These individuals relied on very specific formulas containing medicinal herbs and roots. Among the Omaha tribe, the knowledge of these plants and the accompanying songs was distinctly a spiritual matter (Fletcher, 1911). The actions of the medicine men in Pawnee culture were similarly tied to the Pawnee religion. Therefore, when smallpox and other European diseases that the medicine men could not cope with began to plague the tribe, the Pawnee’s entire belief system came under scrutiny (Wishart, 1979).


Cooper, J. M. (John M., & Flannery, R. (1957). Gros Ventres Of Montana: Part 2, Religion And Ritual. Catholic University Of America. Anthropological Series. Washington: Catholic University of America Press. Retrieved from

Ewers, J. C. (1958). Blackfeet: Raiders Of The Northwestern Plains. Civilization Of The American Indian. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Retrieved from

Fletcher, A. C. (Alice C., & La Flesche, F. (1911). Omaha Tribe. Twenty-Seventh Annual Report Of The Bureau Of American Ethnology, 1905-06. Washington: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Owsley, D. (1994). Skeletal biology in the Great Plains: Migration, warfare, health, and subsistence. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Van Gennep, A. (1960). The Rites of Passage. Death, Mourning, and Burial. Blackwell Publishing.

Weltfish, G. (1965). Lost Universe: With A Closing Chapter On “The Universe Regained.” New York: Basic Books. Retrieved from

Wishart, D. J. (1979). Dispossession Of The Pawnee. Annals Of The Association Of American Geographers, 69(3), 382–401. Retrieved from


Charles Marion Russell (Artist). When Blackfoot And Sioux Meet [Painting]. Retrieved March 24, 2015, from×768/When-Blackfoot-And-Sioux-Meet-1024×768.jpg

Karl Bodmer (Artist). Karl Bodmer Travels in America [Painting]. Retrieved March 24, 2015, from

Captain Samual Eastman (Artist). Medicine man administrating to a patient [Engraving]. Retrieved March 24, 2015, from


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