SMALLPOX SERIES - Smallpox a bitter memory to Indians

Hundreds of thousands died in 18th century pandemic

By Jeff Hansel

Most Americans are concerned about the possibility bioterrorists might use smallpox.

But there is a segment of the American populace that has even more reason to be concerned. If smallpox spreads again, what effect will it have on American Indians, some three centuries after the virus was at full force, killing their ancestors?


"It's very much still a predicament for Native American peoples. It is still a wound that is remembered," said Mark Timbrook, an adjunct faculty member in the history division at North Dakota's Minot State University.

Between 20 million and 25 million people lived south of the Rio Grande River before Europeans arrived in the New World, Timbrook said. Within 20 years after the arrival of Columbus, there were only 1.5 million Indians surviving.

"Smallpox was the predominant killer," he said. The Pilgrims settled near a village that was "destroyed by smallpox."

"The Pilgrims walked and found the bones and skulls of people littered across the land. People died so quickly they couldn't bury their own dead," Timbrook said.

Indians may still be more susceptible to smallpox than people of European, Asian or African descent, whose ancestors experienced many generations of smallpox exposure and immunity building.

"I think smallpox, for reintroduction into American society, is going to be another (dilemma) for American tribes," Timbrook said. "I think it's probably a very scary thing for them."

It was particularly devastating to the Mandan people.

An outbreak that started in 1776 spread across the present-day United States, killing hundreds of thousands of Indians, as well as many soldiers and settlers. By 1780, the same outbreak that had begun in the colonies in the eastern U.S. reached Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana, Timbrook said.


Between 1780 and 1781, at least half of the Indians in the country died from smallpox, he said. Before 1780, there were 20,000 to 25,000 Mandan Indians living near present-day Mandan, N.D., along the Heart River. According to the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, they followed a sedentary agricultural lifestyle. This left them vulnerable to the spread of smallpox.

"They're all but culturally destroyed," Timbrook said.

By 1862, the remaining Mandan joined the Hidatsa and Arikara to form the Three Affiliated Tribes.

Today, the Mandan blood line lives on, but Timbrook said, "I don't know anyone that says they're full-blood Mandan."

BOX: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

The effect of smallpox on American Indians:,1413,36%257E6439%257E921039%257E,00.html.

Latest smallpox news:

Transmissibility of naturally occurring smallpox:


World Health Organization:

Innoculation, vaccination and eradication:

Mayo Clinic:

Medical treatment and response to suspected smallpox -- information for health-care providers:

Dr. Stanley Foster's information at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health: Click on diagnosis of smallpox.

The difference between chickenpox and smallpox, go to or

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