Columbus’ first voyage to America is attributed for the introduction of the smallpox virus to the New World. The disease reached America from the Caribbean somewhere between 1775 and 1782 to begin its slow and deadly migration west across the continent.
Smallpox and Gold
When the news of the 1858 Fraser River gold discoveries hit San Francisco, Fort Victoria’s population of 300 colonials witnessed some 5,000 rambunctious prospectors arriving in their harbour within a year. The migration continued as more BC gold fields were discovered. On March 18, 1862 the Daily British Colonist reported the colony’s first case of smallpox. Days later, on March 26th two more cases were reported, one having disembarked from the Oregon, the other from the Brother Jonathan, both steamers having just arrived from San Francisco.
Infection threatened to become an epidemic in the crowded colony. Fort Victoria’s Governor, James Douglas recommended “instant measures” be adopted. Inoculation of the European population curbed the epidemic within the European community. Another measure, the reinstatement to quarantine all ships visiting Fort Victoria’s harbour met with heavy resistance. Victoria’s elected assembly overruled the idea citing it would slow the flow of people into Victoria and have a negative impact on the colony’s booming gold rush service industry. To create alienation of Douglas from the community at large traders spread the rumour that he ordered the infection of aboriginals with distribution of smallpox virus ridden trade blankets. TThe First Nation’s Epidemic
When the peoples of the Pacific Coast First Nations proved particularly susceptible to smallpox Douglas met with 30 of their leaders to convince them of the epidemic’s threat to between 2000 and 2500 of their people living and camping along the harbour’s shore. The Songhees leaders allowed Dr. John Helmcken to inoculate 500 of their people then followed Douglas’ advice to vacate the harbour and move to their lands on Discovery Island. These measures resulted in the Songhees being relatively unscathed by the disease.
Northern First Nation traders were less fortunate. They had tenuous relations with the settlers and wholly rejected the concept of inoculation. As the smallpox spread the Reverend Alexander Garrett and his assistant were the only Europeans who ventured into their camps to provide medical aid.
One day, while Douglas was in New Westminster, capital of the nearby Colony of British Columbia, Victoria’s elected assembly took it upon itself to forcibly load the northern First Nation traders and their families into their canoes and had the police tow them out of the harbour with strict instructions not to return.
So it was that the smallpox virus began its devastating penetration into the heart of the great culture that had thrived along the northern coast for over a thousand years. Within a year the Tsimshian had lost half their people, the Kwakiutle two-thirds, and the Haida three-quarters.
It should be noted that in the Haida’s Raven’s Cry oral tradition credits Governor Douglas for his efforts to prevent infection. Further note that this article is focused on Victoria’s harbour’s role in the spread of smallpox and does not explore the widely held conjecture that smallpox had been introduced to the eastern regions of the continent in what is now Canada in the 1770’s.