In the 1830s, Native Americans Learned That Vaccines Could Be Used as Both Weapons and Rewards

In our last blog post, we talked about how President Donald Trump is not the last Chief Executive of the United States of America to have to deal with a pathogen. We also mentioned in passing the article by Professor J. Diane Pearson where she talks about how the 1832 Indian Vaccination Act was used not to benefit Native Americans but to drive them out of their lands and into reservations by the Andrew Jackson administration. A further dive into the history of Native Americans and their interactions with the government of the United States — and how smallpox keeps popping up in their interactions — shows how vaccines can be used as both weapons and rewards when politics and racism are added to the equation.

The Indian Vaccination Act of 1832

The Indian Vaccination Act was passed by Congress at the request of Lewis Cass, the Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson. The act allocated about $17,000 (almost half a million dollars by today’s standards) for the vaccination of Native Americans living near white settlements. At the time, white settlers west of the Appalachians and deep into the American South brought smallpox with them, and the ensuing epidemics among the Native Americans were decimating them. Fearful of the Native American people being reservoirs of the disease and reintroducing it to the settlements, Congress agreed that the United States Army should reach out to the Native Americans living near white settlements and immunize them.

One thing that must be noted is that the smallpox vaccine at the time is only about 35 years old. Massachusetts made the vaccine mandatory in 1809, and it wouldn’t be until 1853 that Britain made the vaccine mandatory in all of its territories. Epidemics of the disease still made their way around the world with commerce, exploration and conquest. By the time the plan under the Indian Vaccination Act was put into place, many tribes had already suffered grave losses from the disease due to their interaction with white settlers.

Another fact that must be noted is that Congress passed the 1830 Indian Removal Act. Under that Act, Congress authorized President Andrew Jackson to offer land west of the Mississippi to Native American tribes living east of the river. After the Louisiana Purchase early in the century, there was newly acquired land to the west where the Native American tribes were expected to migrate to so that American settlers could take their lands east of the Mississippi. However, those lands were already occupied; the native peoples were not going to move into a vacuum. (Land even further west was still part of Mexico and would not become part of the United States until 1848, after the end of the Mexican-American War.)

According to Professor Pearson, the Indian Vaccination Act was executed with systematic discrimination leaving many tribes without vaccination, tribes that were deemed as problematic with the United States government because they opposed settlers on their lands or were not willing to relocate. Professor Pearson details the history of ensuing smallpox epidemics that decimated those unprotected tribes later in the 1830s while those who were vaccinated resisted the epidemics. By the time the forced removal of Native Americans from their lands through acts like those resulting in the Trail of Tears, smallpox had helped the process of forced removal by leaving an innumerable number of Native Americans dead or disabled.

Smallpox Blankets: The Fact Behind the Myth

You probably have heard of another act involving smallpox and Native American oppression. The story is that blankets with smallpox were given to Native Americans by European settlers. While some of that story has placed the blame on Andrew Jackson, the actual story involves the British Army and a Swiss mercenary in the service of the British. In the 1760s, Britain and France were fighting the French and Indian War, and each nation had hired Native tribes to their respective sides. The Swiss mercenary, a Captain Simeon Ecuyer, dreamed up the idea of giving blankets from people who had recently fallen ill with smallpox to the Native tribes in a sort of biological warfare act. By the time he put the plan into motion, smallpox was already epidemic in the area from the contact of the tribes with settlers and during other armed confrontations.

One of those epidemics was triggered in 1837 when a steamboat — the St. Peters — docked in Ft. Union (modern day North Dakota) with smallpox cases aboard. History tells of an attempt at inoculation (not vaccination) of the fort’s population that only ended up spreading the disease further. By the time it was over, smallpox had spread throughout the high plains:

“Joshua Pilcher, a 47-year-old Virginian, had just been appointed to take charge of the Sioux Agency at Fort Kiowa, north of today’s Chamberlain, South Dakota. Traveling to his new post on board the St. Petersduring its fateful trip, Pilcher had observed the disease spreading among passengers on the ship before he disembarked at his post, downriver from FortClark. Quickly realizing the nature of the unfolding calamity, Pilcher sent out messengers from FortKiowa to warn the nomadic Lakota and Nakota Sioux still hunting on the plains to stay away from the river in order to avoid contagion.

By the time he returned to St. Louis that winter, Pilcher had pieced together the first overall estimate of the extent of the tragedy. In just seven months since the first death, the Mandan had been reduced from 1,600 people “to thirty-one persons,” he wrote to Clark in February 1838. (Scholars now believe that there were 100 to 200 actual survivors.) Half of the Hidatsa had died, as had half of the Arikara. “The great band of [Assiniboine], say ten thousand strong, and the Crees numbering about three thousand have been almost annihilated. . . . The disease had reached the Blackfeet of the Rocky Mountains. . . . All the Indians on the Columbia River as far as the Pacific Ocean will share the fate of those before alluded to.” In short, Pilcher told Clark, the Great Plains were being “literally depopulated and converted into one great grave yard.””

Smithsonian Magazine

Professor Pearson closes her article with an epilogue detailing the efforts of the US government to use smallpox vaccination as a reward for tribes in the Pacific Northwest for collaborating with the expansion of settlers and staying in their reservations. She also writes about other efforts to incorporate Native American health into the structure of the federal government. That made the public health concerns of tribes not something for them to deal on their own — as so many current local governments do — but something they are dependent on the federal government to this day.

October 12th and Its Cautionary Tales

As we observe October 12, the date on which Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, we should look back at the meeting of different people and different cultures and the mixing of the pathogens that occurred then and is still occurring now. As the current coronavirus pandemic is teaching us, germs travel, and they do not care for political or ideological boundaries. People, on the other hand, do care very much for politics and ideologies, too many times to the detriment of others. Unfortunately, the experience of Native Americans and smallpox in the 1830s was not the last time vaccines were to be used as leverage, but that is for another post at a later time. There is a lot to be learned from all that history. For now, let us hope that vaccines are no longer used as weapons by being kept from detractors or rewards being given only to those who acquiesce to the demands of the vaccine makers.

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Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

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