The virus entered the town on March 12th. Unseen, unfelt. Silent circulation within the community was later to send public health officials into dramatic action with dire consequences. Six days later, on March 18th, the news reported the first confirmed case. Two days later another one. The outbreak had begun in the Pacific Northwest bringing widespread panic.
But this isn’t current day nor is this the Covid 19 virus. This was a known entity and a vaccine had been developed. Quarantine protocols were known to all. This is a true story that took place 158 years ago.
1862. Victoria in what later was to be come British Columbia. Four years since the gold rush on the Fraser River, Fort Victoria was on the verge of becoming a ‘city’. A mixture of wild west with a British heritage, Victoria growing and on the move. Later that same year the ‘Female Emigration Society in London’ was successful in bringing 62 marriageable young women to the predominantly male society aboard the SS Tynemouth. That year also marked the first gas lights on the streets of Victoria as well as first public baths.
Enlightenment and egalitarianism were not hallmarks of 1862. Civil war was raging in the US and the prevailing opinion on natives was certainly not one of openness and acceptance. Wealth created by growth and opportunity in this still young town becoming a city spread unevenly with English bred Caucasians enjoying the center of it while Natives in various encampments around the outskirts of Victoria getting the scraps. Natives from various tribes and villages up the coast to Juneau had temporary camps around the more prosperous center of town.
The arrival of the steamer ‘Brother Jonathon’ from San Francisco started the outbreak. Built in 1851, the 220 foot paddle wheel steamer had been owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, and was presently owned by the California Steam Navigation Company when it steamed into Victoria on March 12, 1862. This was the same ship that 3 years earlier delivered the news to Portland that President Buchanan had signed the bill officially recognizing Oregon statehood. But on this day the ship arrived with about 350 passengers, mostly seeking a recently announced gold strike along the Salmon river, along with an invisible, yet far more sinister, cargo.
Smallpox, like the Covid 19 virus, is highly contagious prior to presentation of symptoms. Completely unaware, a person can go about their normal activities unknowingly infecting their associates, their family and strangers through moisture droplets of breath. Once the incubation period for smallpox is over, the symptoms arrive suddenly. Severe chills, high fever, loss of appetite followed by the characteristic lesions which eventually kill the skin. If the person survives the initial symptoms, they may succumb later to secondary infections. The fatality rate is between 30 and 75%, depending on the strain of the virus and the one introduced into Victoria in 1862 was particularly virulent.
Smallpox was with us as humans for at least the last 2,000 years. It was a well-known and feared disease. Between 1796 and the mid 1800’s progress on vaccinations and regulations surrounding their use were steadily advancing. Between 1843 and 1855 Massachusetts then three other states mandated smallpox vaccination. While only recently eradicated, the human experience with the virus was well documented by the mid 1800’s.
By 1862, the medical professionals in Victoria knew how to deal with smallpox through vaccination, inoculation or isolation to prevent spread. Isolation can come in two forms. Either bring the infected persons together in a state of quarantine and insulate them from the outside population or sequester the healthy population together and expel the infected persons to outlying areas. Or combinations of those three general techniques. Which brings us back to what the government faced in 1862.
Predictably fear and panic spread. Just as now, rumors and misinformation mixed with substantive fact. The danger was real and newspaper articles of the day fanned the flames of public opinion. There was some vaccine available, but not at times not enough, so inoculation, the less safe practice of taking virus from a diseased person and injecting it into the superficial layers of the skin of a healthy person, was more generally used. Both methods were not 100% effective, and both had risks.
On March 26, just 2 weeks after the arrival of the steamer, the Daily British Colonist advocated for the removal of all natives to protect the health of the colonists and warned of great danger amidst government inaction. Attitudes along these lines had been prevalent well prior to the arrival of the virus, but the arrival of the virus gave new push to old sentiments.
For the next two weeks, the citizens of Victoria were urged to get vaccinated and by April 1st, roughly half of the residents of Victoria were either vaccinated or inoculated per the Daily British Colonist.
Throughout April of that year, the smallpox virus spread quietly through the Native population around Victoria. Unseen at first, the toll worsened each week as the government wrestled with what to do, with English whites getting the benefit of vaccination and medical care. By the end of April, a strident press increased their demands for government action to remove the increasingly sickly and decimated native encampments.
Throughout this the tribes local to Victoria and the Puget Sound area appeared to receive vaccinations. The tribes from the north camped around Victoria did not. Encampments from at least 5 Northern tribes were suffering horribly at the end of April and the government actions lead to the inescapable conclusion there was far more concern with the risk to the white population and little if any regard for the welfare of the natives.
With Natives dying at an accelerating rate, authorities began expelling Natives, first with demands, then finally, on June 11th, at gunpoint. The gunboat ‘Forward’ took a 15 day trip up to Fort Rupert with 26 canoes in two from various tribes. What was left of the native population was expelled north. Along with the smallpox virus. The suffering and devastation that followed was horrific.
Robert T Boyd, in his work