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Dr. Martin Vaccinates the Lakota

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On this date in 1832, Dr. Meredith Martin started on his way back to St. Louis after vaccinating Indians along the Upper Missouri River.

Secretary of War Lewis Cass had interpreted the Indian Vaccination Act of 1832 to mean that only Surgeons were allowed to vaccinate Indians. So, Lakota and Dakota Indians had been fortunate to have received the opportunity afforded by Dr. Martin's visit.

Dr. Martin's official report stated, “As near as I could ascertain, I vaccinated about one half of the number of Indians which I saw. The remainder were not vaccinated in consequence of their fears. The Traders always refuse to give a sick Indian medicine, for should he die after taking it from a trader or agent, the relatives of the deceased charge the person with the death of their friend. They had learned that their neighbors had caught the small pox from those people, and they expressed fears that I wished to give them the same disease. I presume when they see that no evil arises from vaccination, their prejudices will be removed, and should the Department wish me to return, I think from the knowledge which I have gained of their habits I would be able to render much greater service than I have done in this expedition. There are yet a great number of Indians not vaccinated within the limits which the Secretary of War authorized …”

Dr. Martin vaccinated about 2500 people, including Ioways, Omahas, Santee Sioux, Yanctons, and Tetons. The “limits” to which Dr. Martin referred did not include modern day North Dakota, which had been specifically excluded from vaccination by order of Secretary of War Lewis Cass on May 9, 1832. Cass had written, “Under any circumstances, no effort will be made to send a Surgeon higher up the Missouri than the Mandans, and I think not higher than the Aricaras.” The Indian Vaccination Act provided Lewis Cass considerable latitude for interpretation, and a loophole to institute selective vaccination.

Dr. Martin's official vaccination report is not only a major historical document on federal vaccination policy, but it is also an excellent genealogical resource for the people of the seven fires. It also shows that suspicion of vaccines is nothing new.

Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel

View a list of references here.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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