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George Catlin Blamed for Spreading Smallpox

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On this date in 1832, George Catlin wrote to the New York Commercial Advertiser from the mouth of the Yellowstone River, saying: “The health and amusements of this delightful country render it almost painful for me to leave it. The atmosphere is so light and pure that nothing like fevers and epidemics has ever been known to prevail here – indeed it is proverbial here that a man cannot die unless he is killed by the Indians. If the Cholera should ever cross the Atlantic, what a secure, and at the same time delightful refuge this country would be for those who would be able to reach it.”

George Catlin could not have been more wrong. Disease had made its way through the Upper Missouri River Valley before. It would do so again. The mouth of the Yellowstone River would become the epicenter of a massive smallpox epidemic only five years later, and George Catlin would get blamed for spreading smallpox to Mandans by painting their pictures.

Also on this date, but 19 years later in 1851, artist Rudolph Kurz documented how artists were feared as harbingers of pestilence, noting how Catlin, along with artist Karl Bodmer, had been blamed for spreading disease. He wrote that the Mandan and the Hidatsa “look with dread upon an artist as the forerunner of pestilence and death. They regard drawing and painting as 'bad medicine'.”

In 1858, painter and photographer Karl Wimar attempted to take pictures of Hidatsas with his ambrotype apparatus. He wrote, “so soon as I had planted the camera they became so incensed that they aimed their arrows at my person, which you may imagine caused me to immediately desist from further effort. I was informed afterwards that it was the belief of these Indians, that had I secured their portraits they would have perished with the small pox.”

There was a kernel of reasoning behind this falsehood.

In October 1832, Dr. Meredith Martin vaccinated Lakotas against smallpox. This was vaccine that Secretary of War Lewis Cass withheld from the Mandans. Meanwhile, George Catlin had been painting pictures of the Mandans for his salvage ethnography project. When an epidemic subsequently struck the tribe, the association with portraiture was all too easy to imagine.

Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel

View a full list of sources here.

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