The Mandan smallpox outbreak of 1837


posted to on February 10, 2005


After having had a chance to review all of the material cited by Ward Churchill in relation to the Mandan smallpox outbreak of 1837, I am now persuaded that none of it supports his allegation that the US military conspired to infect them. In other words, the model of Lord Amherst, who did use smallpox blankets as a military weapon against American Indians in 1763, does not apply.


My interest in this is not as somebody trying to defend the integrity of the Ivory Tower, since Churchill's sins pale in comparison to what I have seen around me since my undergraduate days. I am far more concerned about the impact this has on American Indian activism, because it is essential that movements for social change be beyond reproach when it comes to such matters. Our exemplar should be somebody like Howard Zinn, who despite being criticized often for matters of interpretation (see Michael Kazin's assault in the Spring 2004 Dissent), has never been challenged when it comes to matters of fact.


It would appear to me that Churchill was driven to invent a conspiracy where none existed because it served his overall interpretation of the American Holocaust, to use David Stannard's term. Since he has so much invested in a comparison between Nazi Germany and the USA, he was tempted to posit the sort of conscious and deliberate extermination that took place at Auschwitz on American soil. In this scenario, smallpox blankets occupy the same place as Zyklon B. A genocide did take place, but it did not follow the same pattern as in Nazi Germany.


But before I go into this, I want to turn my attention first to an article by Thomas Brown, a Lamar University sociology professor, whose debunking of Churchill on the Mandan epidemic has been circulated widely on the Internet by individuals who want to see him fired. Some of these individuals also seek to see him prosecuted for treason, which carries the death penalty. Although it is unfortunate that Thomas Brown (who would seem to be satisfied with Churchill only being prosecuted for perjury--a mere slap on the wrist by comparison) has seen fit to publish his findings during such a hysterical atmosphere, it is incumbent on the left to address these questions right now.


One thing that Brown shares with Churchill is the framing of the question. For both professors, genocide involves deliberation. It would also seem to involve motive, since economic motives surely drove openly genocidal attacks on Indians in the past. When Andrew Jackson coveted land in Georgia and adjoining states for cotton production, he expelled the Cherokees in what can only be described as a genocidal attack. But for Brown, no such parallel obtained in the Dakotas in the 1830s:


"What if the U.S. Army had been active in the region? Given the opportunity, would Army officers have had any motive to use biological warfare against the Mandans? Five years earlier, in 1832, Congress passed an act and appropriated funds to establish a program for vaccinating Indians on the Missouri River. Given this Congressional mandate to protect Indians from smallpox, given the lack of hostilities between the U.S. military and the Mandans or any other Plains Indians at that time, and given the militaryís lack of presence in the area of the Mandans at the time, Churchillís version of events does not seem at all plausible, even in the context of counterfactual speculation."


While it is true that there was a "lack of hostilities" in the sense of Little Big Horn, etc., there were inexorable economic processes taking place that were destroying the way of life of the Plains Indians. If today we can hold capitalist corporations responsible for threatening Indians in the Amazon Rain Forest with genocide through mere profit-making, then there should be no problem looking back at the 1837 period from the same perspective. Sometimes you can kill people with Zyklon B, but you can kill just as easily by forcing them to adopt a mode of production that is inimical to their existence.


"The High Plains Smallpox Epidemic of 1837-38" was written by Clyde D. Dollar for The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jan., 1977). I doubt if anything more probing has been written elsewhere. Dollar rejects conspiracies and instead describes the outbreak as an epidemic that was waiting to happen.


Drawing upon the journals of Francis A. Chardon, who ran the trading post at Fort Clark, Dollar describes a pathetic scene of rat infestation and hunger. In the month of May 1837, Chardon killed 108! This suggests that trading post living engendered an accumulation of trash and filth that was one of Western Civilization's dubious benefits, along with Rattus norvegicus, which came off the boat with other Europeans in 1755. The Mandan villages were also gripped by near-famine conditions, which Dollar attributes to "prolonged and promiscuous hunting of Buffalo, and other game." In other words, it should come as big as a surprise that such villages suffer from a smallpox (or cholera, etc.) outbreak as in any other country that suffers from economic dislocation and poverty.


Although it would be another 30 years before the openly genocidal attacks on the Plains Indians, the 1830s were marked by the growing dependency on such peoples for goods at outposts like Fort Clark that were traded for hides. Rudolf Kurz, an employee at nearby Fort Union in the 1830s, wrote: "Now that he is acquainted with articles made of steel, such as knives, axes, rifles, etc., with tinder boxes, blankets, all sorts of materials for clothing and ornamentation, and with the taste of coffee, sugar, etc., he regards these things as indispensable to his needs; he is no longer content with his former implements, but regards ours as incomparably more comfortable to him."


With the introduction of horses, the slaughter of Bison accelerated. With the sale of hides in exchange for such goods, you saw an upward spiral of hunting for trade rather than for sustenance. It also led to stepped up hostilities between different Indian groups. All this for coffee and sugar.


In other words, the same exact threat that exists today with respect to people like the Yanomami existed back in the 1830s. Today, we have both the benefit of hindsight and the organized presence of groups dedicated to indigenous rights. Back in the 1830s, we had neither. We had instead a frontier capitalism that would go to any lengths to produce profits.


In a December 6, 1813 letter to Alexander von Humboldt, Thomas Jefferson concluded that Indian support for Great Britain would "oblige us now to pursue them to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach." Andrew Jackson made good on that promise.


The American genocide combined open and deliberate attacks of the sort Jefferson was alluding to, as well as the kind of indirect onslaught that accompanied the accumulation of capital. If we look solely for confirmation of a genocide in the first case and deny the reality of the latter, we will be no better than the David Irvings of the world. Whatever Ward Churchill's sins as a scholar, he can not be accused of this. It would be most unfortunate in the backlash attending his remarks on 9/11 that elements in the academy opportunistically seek to advance their own "revisionism" on American history.