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Smallpox in North Dakota


The history of smallpox in North Dakota spans centuries. The terrible disease devastated the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people in 1781. Years later, in 1804 along the Missouri River near the mouth of the Heart River, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark saw earth lodge villages abandoned due to the duel threats of smallpox and Yanktonai raids.

In 1837, a steamboat stopping at Fort Clark near present-day Washburn, North Dakota, carried passengers infected with smallpox. The virus tore through the Native people living near the trading post. Ninety percent of the Mandans died, as well as half of the Hidatsas and Arikaras. Fort Clark’s manager documented the epidemic in his journal, writing “(Where) the disease will stop, I Know not.” He wrote that the mounting deaths also included suicides, and noted that the Native people blamed the whites for the epidemic. Smallpox all but destroyed the tribes.

The virus continued into the days of Dakota Territory and North Dakota’s early years. Cities established pest houses for quarantines. Grand Forks’ first physician, Dr. George Hacston, died in a smallpox epidemic in 1878.


Smallpox could strike anywhere, from threshing crews to barber shops to the state capitol. When smallpox scares occurred, local school and health officials often ordered vaccinations.


On this date in 1954, newspaper readers learned of a 23-year-old man in New England, North Dakota, who would become the state’s last smallpox patient. The case prompted health authorities to hold a vaccination clinic for anyone wishing to be immunized.

The last known smallpox death on earth has a connection to North Dakota. In 1978, a British medical photographer fell ill and died after being accidentally exposed to the virus in a university lab in Birmingham, England. Among her many close contacts was a 20-year-old British woman who had gone to Mapes, North Dakota, for a two-week vacation on a farm. State and federal health officials made sure she isolated in an upstairs bedroom until it had been 21 days since her last contact with the smallpox case. The seven people living in the farmhouse were immediately vaccinated. Health personnel visited the woman daily, and she returned to England “healthy and happy.” No one got sick.

The World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated from the world in 1980, after a global vaccination program.


Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Fox Lake Representative. 1878, December 6. Page 4
Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1902, November 20. Page 2
Bismarck Daily Tribune. 1903, February 4. Page 2
Bismarck Daily Tribune. 1903, February 22. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, February 1. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, February 8. Page 1
Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1919, February 13. Page 3
The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, March 3. Page 2
The Dickinson Press. 1954, April 8. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1954, April 8. Page 1
St. Cloud Times. 1954, April 8. Page 5
The Bismarck Tribune. 1978, September 21. Page 10
Chardon’s Journal at Fork Clark, 1834-1839 F.A. Chardon. Edited with historical introduction and notes by Annie Heloise Abel. Introduction to the Bison Books edition by William R. Swagerty. (1997 ed.). University of Nebraska Press
McDonough, S.L. (1989). The golden ounce: A century of public health in North Dakota. University Printing Center: Grand Forks, ND
State of North Dakota. (1979). State Department of Health: Forty-sixth report July 1, 1977-June 30, 1979. State of North Dakota: Bismarck, ND
Reid, R. (1988, 2nd ed.). Lewis and Clark in North Dakota. State Historical Society of North Dakota: Bismarck, ND
Fenn, E.A. (2001). Pox Americana: The great smallpox epidemic of 1775-82. Hill and Wang: New York, NY
Grand Forks Centennial Corporation. (1974). They came to stay: Grand Forks, North Dakota centennial 1874-1974. Jet Printing Inc.: Grand Forks, ND
Rhea v. Bd. of Educ. of Devils Lake Special Sch. Dist., 41 N.D. 449, 171 N.W. 103 (1919)
Cervinski, B. (1955, March). North Dakota Health News (Vol. 10, No. 1).

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