Great Plains: Impact of Disease in the 18th Century

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Over the course of the 18th century, colonists had established trade networks across the Native North. And, reverberations of this were felt far beyond the immediate sites of contact. Everything, from metal tools and woven cloth to alcohol and captives, traveled along these very old trade networks. One such element that had a transformative impact on the Natives of Great Plains was disease.

Vintage photo of Native Americans riding horses.
Mobility increased with the introduction of horses, but so did the spread of disease. (Image: chippix/Shutterstock)

If horses, guns, other trade items, and peoples were moving through the Plains at accelerated rates, so, too, were unseen travelers. Unseen, at least, until it was too late.

Increased Mobility also Increased Risk of Disease

Waves of diseases, including smallpox, cholera, and measles, repeatedly crashed through tribal nations on the Plains during the late 18th and 19th centuries. Why? Well, the horses that allowed people to travel on and expand preexisting trade networks with greater speed—over greater distances—were among the engines propelling diseases.

So, too, were the development of new trade routes, increased commercial exchange, more frequent raiding, and intensifying warfare, combined with the accelerated movement of peoples and competition over resources.

How did American Indians make sense of this transformative period on the Plains? To answer that question, let’s turn to the historical narratives Indians constructed in the context of interviews, oral traditions, and winter counts.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North AmericaWatch it now, Wondrium.

A Story of Disease from the Great Plains

First, consider this story dictated by a Cree elder and smallpox survivor named Saukamappee. During the early 18th century, the Shoshone, who originated in the Great Basin area of present-day Nevada, acquired horses and continued their northward migration. This time, it carried them into the lands of the Piegan or Pikuni and the Assiniboine.

Saukamappee’s narrative recounts an event that probably took place around 1781, as the Pikuni sought to rebuff the Shoshone. Here is what Saukamappee recounted:

Our scouts were out for our security, when some returned and informed us of a considerable Shoshone camp, which was  too large to attack and something very suspicious about it; from a high knoll they had a good view of the camp, but saw none of the men hunting, or going about; there were a few horses, but no one came to them, and a herd of bison were feeding close to the camp with other herds near.

After additional reconnaissance, the Pikuni decided to act,

Next morning at the dawn of day, we attacked the tents, and with our sharp flat daggers and knives, cut through the tents and entered for the fight; but our war whoop instantly stopped, our eyes were appalled with terror; there was no one to fight with but the dead and the dying, each a mass of corruption.

Although it is conceivable the attacking Pikuni had already inhaled the deadly virus, they made additional mistakes, taking back to their camps the tents and personal possessions of their enemies. Saukamappee and the other men unwittingly spread the smallpox virus among their own people.

Learn more about the discovery of the West by Lewis and Clark.

Disease in Southern Plains

Engraving from 1706 shows various Native American cures for the sick.
Diseases raced through the Plains throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Consider, too, the following 20th-century apocryphal story told by Frank Givens, a Kiowa, that reveals how the Kiowa made sense of the diseases that raced through the Southern Plains between 1779 and 1781 and again, in a succession of waves, during the first half of the 19th century.

The story is told through Saynday—the Kiowa trickster hero—who spies a dark spot coming from the East. Saynday confronts this man on a horse and can see that his face was pitted with terrible scars. “Who are you,” he asks, to which the rider responds, “I’m Smallpox… I come from far away, across the Eastern Ocean,” Smallpox explains.

“I am one with the white men—they are my people as the Kiowa are yours. Sometimes I travel ahead of them, and sometimes I lurk behind. But I am always their companion, and you will find me in their camps and in their houses… I bring death.”

Sensing the danger, Saynday explains that the Kiowa are too small in number to be of any concern to Smallpox. He would find the Pawnees far more interesting. Smallpox replies, “I like that. I can do my best work when people are crowded together.”

Learn more about the Cherokee nation and the Trail of Tears.

Winter Counts of the Great Plains

Winter counts are history books. They feature glyphs, or pictures, that mark a significant event in the life of a community during each year, measured from the first snowfall to the next year’s first snowfall.

As the end of a year approached, the community’s elders met to discuss what had happened since the first snowfall. One event was chosen as a means of remembering the entire year, and the year was given that name.

Lone Dog Winter Count

The Lone Dog winter count records 70 years of Yanktonai Nakota history. One of its glyph features the basic contours of a person’s head and upper body. It is covered with red dots. The narrative associated with it tells of many Dakotas dying of smallpox.

Moving through the winter count, one encounters still other glyphs that represent, whooping cough, measles, the coming of white soldiers, warfare, and the forging of peace with other tribal nations as well as with American settlers.

Great Plains before the Lewis-Clark Discovery

According to Historian Colin Calloway, when Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lieut. William Clark crossed the continent, they met Indian people who wore woolen blankets, were accomplished traders, knew how to swear in French and English, drank alcohol, bore the marks of smallpox, and competed to secure or monopolize access to goods and guns.

Lewis and Clark may not have been capable of understanding what they were seeing as they headed into the West, but their way of seeing would still have very real consequences.

Common Questions about the Impact of Disease in the Great Plains

Q: What could be a reason for the spread of diseases in the Great Plains?

The horses that allowed people to travel on and expand preexisting trade networks with greater speed—over greater distances— were among the engines propelling diseases in the Great Plains.

Q: What is a winter count?

Winter counts were history books used by the Natives of the Great Plains. They featured glyphs, or pictures, that marked a significant event in the life of a community during each year, measured from the first snowfall to the next year’s first snowfall.

Q: What was the Lone Dog winter count?

The Lone Dog winter count records 70 years of history of the Yanktonai Nakota community of the Great Plains.

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