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Dr. Martin's Letter

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About this time in 1832, Dr. Meredith Martin mailed a letter to Secretary of War Lewis Cass, imploring him to permit vaccination of Upper Missouri River Indians in what is now North Dakota.

He wrote: “The mail which brings this note will probably bring my report also, as a Surgeon for vaccinating the Indians. You will see by the report that there remains many Indians, in the Section of country to which I was sent, not yet vaccinated, and who I could not see for want of time, my instructions requiring me to return in October. I should be pleased to return and complete the vaccination of those Indians, should it be the policy of the Department to send a Surgeon among them again. And I think from the knowledge which I have gained of the Country and habits of those Indians, I would be able to render far more service on a second visit to them. A Steam Boat will leave this for the mouth of the Yellow Stone, Upper Missouri, early in March, which would enable me to accompany [Major] Sanford, agent for the upper [Missouri] Indians, as high as it would be necessary to go and then visit the lower Indians as I descend the river. You will please inform me as early as convenient if I am to visit them again, that I may supply myself with a quantity of virus sufficient for the expedition, and being ready to start on said Steam Boat I would arrive among them much sooner than in any other mode of traveling. My success was much retarded in this trip from the fears of the Indians, but this I presume will be removed when they see that no evil consequences follow the process of vaccination.”

Commissioner of Indian Affairs Elbert Herring denied Dr. Martin's request on January 5, 1833.

The previous June, in 1832, Secretary of War Lewis Cass had prohibited vaccination of Indians by anyone other than a surgeon. On in May of that year he had even prohibited surgeons from vaccinating Indians in what is now North Dakota. Intentional or not, this policy of the Jackson Administration effectively created a vaccine frontier.

Historian J. Diane Pearson would later conclude that the effects of this vaccine embargo became all too evident during the smallpox epidemic of 1837-38, when tribal members died by the thousands.

Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel

View the references for this Dakota Datebook 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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