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Commissioner Harris's Angry Letter

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On this date in 1838, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Carey Allen Harris, sent an angry letter to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, William Clark.

He wrote, “I have seen in several news papers statements of extensive ravages of the small pox among the Mandans, carrying off great numbers of them. In the absence of any official [information] from the Sub-agent or yourself … I have distrusted the correctness of these accounts. But having been informed today, that the same intelligence has been received, in private letters, at New York, I have to call for your immediate attention to the matter. You will institute strict inquiries, to ascertain when, by what means, and thro' whose agency the disorder was introduced among them, and to what extent it has proved fatal. It is stated that it was known to be on board a steamboat that ascended the river last spring, on which Major Dougherty and many others were on board. You will direct your attention particularly to this point, and ascertain the correctness of the allegation. … Had the first appearance of the disease been notified to this office, means of alleviation and prevention would have been promptly furnished, and the duty of guardianship faithfully performed. It only remains now to make the necessary investigations to arrive at facts, and take such measures subsequently as they may require …”

This is a case study for what can happen when a government agency lacks an institutional memory. Commissioner Harris was apparently unaware that his predecessor, Commissioner Herring, had specifically excluded Mandans from receiving vaccines five years earlier. Given this federal policy of exclusion, the staff in the Office of Indian Affairs had no way of knowing that Commissioner Harris would be of another opinion.

Major John Dougherty, who Harris referenced in his letter, had accomplished more than anybody else at the Office of Indian Affairs to provide vaccinations for Indians, but his request to vaccinate Indians in what is now North Dakota had been denied in 1833. So, any attempt at the time to pin the blame on him would seem unfair.

Under the Doctrine of Discovery, the United States had a self-proclaimed duty of guardianship for the indigenous people, whom it had claimed as “children.” The vaccination policy of 1833 is another example of where the country fell short in that duty.

Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel

References:

“angry letter”

Carey Allen Harris (Commissioner of Indian Affairs) to General William Clark (Superintendent of Indian Affairs), 11 January 1838, “File Microcopies of Records in the National Archives, Records of the Office of Indian Affairs, Letters Sent”, number 21, roll 23, pages 173-174.

“excluded Mandans”

Commissioner of Indian Affairs Elbert Herring to Dr. Meredith Martin, 5 January 1833, “File Microcopies of Records in the National Archives, Records of the Office of Indian Affairs, Letters Sent”, number 21, roll 9 (Washington: National Archives, 1942), pages 463-464.

Commissioner of Indian Affairs Elbert Herring to Major John Dougherty, 5 January 1833, “File Microcopies of Records in the National Archives, Records of the Office of Indian Affairs, Letters Sent”, number 21, roll 9 (Washington: National Archives, 1942), page 464.

Secretary of War Lewis Cass to Major John Dougherty, 9 May 1832, “File Microcopies of Records in the National Archives, Records of the Office of Indian Affairs, Letters Sent”, number 21, roll 8 (Washington: National Archives, 1942), page 344.

“accomplished more”

William Clark to Lewis Cass, 30 August 1831, “Microcopy No. 234. Letters received by the Office of Indian Affairs 1824-81. Roll 883. Upper Missouri Agency, 1824-1835.” Montana Memory Project, pages 331-332.

https://www.mtmemory.org/nodes/view/25047

John Dougherty to William Clark, 9 August 1831, “Microcopy No. 234. Letters received by the Office of Indian Affairs 1824-81. Roll 883. Upper Missouri Agency, 1824-1835.” Montana Memory Project, pages 333-335.

“pin the blame”

Joshua Pilcher had already levied accusations of corruption in 1832 against John Dougherty with the purpose of getting him fired, at a time when John Dougherty had been planning vaccination expeditions up the Missouri River. So, there is good reason to think that the source of the later accusation was Joshua Pilcher.

Joshua Pilcher to General William Clark, no date [early 1832], “Microcopy No. 234. Letters received by the Office of Indian Affairs 1824-81. Roll 883. Upper Missouri Agency, 1824-1835.” Montana Memory Project, pages 453-463.

Elbert Herring to Major John Doughtery, 19 January 1832, “File Microcopies of Records in the National Archives, Records of the Office of Indian Affairs, Letters Sent”, number 21, roll 8 (Washington: National Archives, 1942), page 24.

Joshua Pilcher informed Superintendent William Clark about the smallpox pandemic on June 10, 1837 – after informing fur traders about it. Interestingly, the fur trader he informed about the coming smallpox epidemic would later become the main vector of infection at Fort Union.

Indian Agent Joshua Pilcher to General William Clark, 10 June 1837, from “Microcopy No. 234. Letters received by the Office of Indian Affairs 1824-81. Roll 884. Upper Missouri Agency, 1836-1851.” Montana Memory Project, pages 280-283.

www.mtmemory.org/nodes/view/25050

Major Joshua Pilcher to Jacob Halsey, 30 May 1837, “Papers of the St. Louis Fur Trade, Part I: The Chouteau Collection, 1752-1925”, roll 24 (Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America, 1991).

“duty of guardianship”

From the expedition of Lewis & Clark onward, federal agents routinely referred to Indians as “children”. This was an explicitly paternal relationship, which naturally expresses in political terms the responsibility of a parent toward his children. For example, General William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in St. Louis, addressed his letter to the Omaha tribe with “My Children”.

William Clark to the Omaha Tribe, 24 April 1830“Microcopy No. 234. Letters received by the Office of Indian Affairs 1824-81. Roll 749. St. Louis Superintendency, 1829-1831.” Montana Memory Project, pages 610-612.

François-Antoine Laroque (translated), 29 November 29, Missouri Journal (Winter 1804-1805); in W. Raymond Wood and Thomas D. Thiessen, “Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains: Canadian Traders Among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, 1738-1818” (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), page 138.

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