2012 is the 150th anniversary of the smallpox epidemics that ended political control by the indigenous regimes of British Columbia. This sudden traumatic depopulation allowed for the subsequent unconstitutional imposition of British institutions and for resettlement by Europeans with comparatively little reactive native violence.
In 1862, natives in British Columbia “universally believed” that these epidemics were part of a deliberate ‘war’ of extermination, ethnic cleansing, genocide or however one wishes to describe the mass killing of innocents. This history is still taught this way by native elders across diverse First Nations throughout British Columbia. Moreover, objectively considered, the written record confirms the native tradition.
Colonial apologists, on the other hand, teach that these smallpox epidemics were only a natural disaster. Among the many facts inconsistent with any theory of a natural disaster, is the course of the disease’s progression from one native nation to another. Unaccountably, as a natural disaster, the disease occurred last of all among the St’at’imc. Yet the St’at’imc are centrally located and the main route followed by miners to the goldfields in 1862 ran though the heart of St’at’imc territory.
Not only did miners pass through St’at’imc territory in droves, in June, the disease appeared among the Tsilhqot’in to the north, among the Southern Secwepemc and in the Fraser Canyon to the east, along the coast to the west and in New Westminster to the south. It had surrounded them for months.
Beginning in October, the disease swept east to west from the Cariboo Mountains, along the Blackwater Valley to Klus Kus and Ulgatcho back to Bella Coola. Tradition has the death toll at 3000 with only 50 survivors. It swept a second time through the Tsilhqot’in and down along the proposed Cariboo wagon road to kill the Northern Secwepemc by the thousands. Travelers reported bodies littering the ground everywhere as food for the wild animals, too many for their relatives to bury or burn.
Yet the St’at’imc remained disease free still, until December. Indeed, the disease did not arrive at Port Douglas on the south end of the Douglas road at Harrison Lake until January.
Then two merchants travelling down the Cariboo Wagon Road brought the disease to Lillooet. Tradition has it that the disease arrived in blankets that had been infected with smallpox and then repackaged as new for trade. As in other documented cases, such as that of John McLain who admitted taking smallpox-infected blankets to Tatla, those traders were also disease carriers. We show in “Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific” how an illegal medical procedure was used to infect individual carriers to render them capable of passing on the disease to devastating effect.
Along with the smallpox blankets and the infected carriers, having waited through all the surrounding danger, the colonial government agent at Lillooet finally sprang into action with a vaccination program. Yet, as was the case in all other such government programs, rather than impeding the disease, the incidence then exploded. The evidence is consistent with colonial doctors having substituted smallpox for vaccine in these programs. On the coast, the Oweekeno said, “…the medicine they sold us started the disease.”
Decent settlers at Lillooet spontaneously offered some food and nursing but natives were not admitted to colonial hospitals. It was explicitly anticipated that natives would not be admitted to a new hospital at Port Douglas. Implementing the same policy as in Victoria, the government agent expelled natives from Lillooet, except those who were certified to have employment. Natives from the village at Port Douglas were also driven from their homes.
Finally, with the St’at’imc dying everywhere, sick and healthy were forced to mix again as settlers cleared diseased natives away from the road in anticipation of miners returning for the spring 1863 season. This preventative action would decrease the chance of any Europeans coming down with the disease. A new wave of disease then swept the St’at’imc. In all, 75 to 90 percent of the whole population may have died between December 1862 and April 1863.
As elsewhere, the traumatic stress suffered by survivors and intergenerationally transmitted to their descendants cannot even be imagined.