1837 Smallpox Epidemic
Perhaps the disease outbreak in North Dakota’s history was the smallpox epidemic that all but destroyed the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara peoples. In June of 1837, infected passengers aboard a steamboat spread the deadly virus up and down the Missouri River.
Smallpox was a terrible disease that left those who survived it scarred and even blind. Francis Chardon, the manager of Fort Clark, kept a daily journal in which he recorded the tragic epidemic that struck the tribes following the steamboat’s stop.
Weeks after the boat left, Chardon wrote: “A young Mandan died today of the Small Pox – several others have caught it.”
Three days later, another case emerged. Soon, Chardon was recording as many as 12 to 15 new cases among men in a day. He didn’t track the deaths of women and children, and eventually the losses were so great he wrote it was “impossible” to keep up. Whole families perished. Some resorted to murder-suicide. One Mandan man lost all 14 members of his family to the virus. The virus also struck Fort Clark. Chardon’s two-year-old son was among the dead.
The Natives blamed the whites for the epidemic. Chardon reported threats, and efforts to kill whites. Mandan chief Mato-Tope was among the sick, and he died soon after giving a speech denouncing the whites as his “worst enemies.” He said: “Think of your wives, children, brothers, sisters, friends, and in fact all that you hold dear are all dead or dying, with their faces all rotten, caused by those dogs the whites. Think of all that, my friends, and rise all together and not leave one of them alive.”
On this date in 1837, Chardon wrote: “I was in hopes that the disease was almost at an end, but they are dying off 8 and 10 every day – and new cases of it daily – Where it will stop God only knows.”
The epidemic lingered into 1838, and when it finally waned, thousands of people had died. One village lost 800 people, with only 14 survivors. The epidemic killed 90 percent of the Mandans and half of the Hidatsas and Arikaras.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
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
Fenn, E.A. (2014). Encounters at the heart of the world: A history of the Mandan people. Hill and Wang: New York, NY