The year 1862 was a catastrophic year for the Secwépemc people and other Indigenous peoples of the southern Interior of B.C.
A smallpox epidemic ravaged their populations. It is believed that smallpox arrived with a miner who arrived in March 1862 to Victoria by ship from San Francisco with scores of others en route to the Cariboo goldfields.
It was not, however, the earliest occurrence of smallpox in the Interior.
An epidemic swept the coast in 1782, recounted by navigator George Vancouver.
Smallpox scars on individuals had been observed by Simon Fraser on his exploration down the river in 1808 which may be linked to that earlier epidemic.
In 1781 another epidemic crossed the Great Plains, and again in 1837, travelling up the Missouri River and northward beyond Fort Edmonton. That epidemic prompted the Hudson’s Bay Company to disseminate vaccines to its fur trade posts and ensure its personnel were trained to use the vaccine, most commonly in scab form.
The HBC vaccination efforts were focused on Indigenous groups who traded furs with the company. But the HBC was reactive rather than proactive in vaccinating the Indigenous population.
John Tod, chief trader at Fort Kamloops, in 1846 averted an attack on his men on a trading expedition for salmon at the Fraser River near Pavilion by using a ruse that smallpox was approaching Kamloops. (There was a measles outbreak among the Walla Walla people at the time).
At a camp of 1,500 people, Tod claimed to have vaccinated seventy of the warrior individuals with a vaccine, preventing them from using their weapons.
Indigenous peoples were aware of the European diseases that had spread among them before, including smallpox, measles, influenza, and whooping cough.
Smallpox spread to the Interior by settlers via two routes from Victoria in 1862 — one route up the coast to Bentinck Arm, through the Chilcotin to Alexandria, and along the brigade trail to the North Thompson River at Little Fort, from there south to Kamloops, the other route up the Fraser and Thompson rivers to Kamloops.
The first mention of the 1862 smallpox epidemic in the Kamloops area is found in the Thompson Rivers Post journal kept by William Manson, chief clerk from 1858 to 1863. He recorded in June 1862, that Indigenous people came to the fort, demanding to be vaccinated.
On June 24, Manson writes: “Vaccinated a large number of Indians today.” On June 26, “South Branch Indians. Vaccinated a good many.”
The disease spreading along the South Thompson River, east of Kamloops, was likely introduced by miners and packers driving cattle through the Okanagan from the U.S.
This would suggest that smallpox was also arriving by a third route, the old HBC brigade trail from Washington Territory.
On July 12,1862, Manson writes, “Small pox commencing among Indians of the N [North] River.”
On July 25, Manson writes that “Sill-pah-han and some of his band have died of small pox -- he is a loss to us as a hunter…” On July 28 “Lamprant came down and camped on opposite side – his family have the smallpox.”
On Aug. 2, he notes “Indians up the North River dying with smallpox.” And for several days in a row, Manson vaccinated many Secwépemc.
On Sept. 24, Manson notes, “Supplied some medicines to Indians who are now constantly applying for same” and on Sept. 28, “Smallpox still raging amongst the Indians.”
The journal entries about smallpox appear to end here although in late October 1862 an eye-witness writing for the Colonist newspaper in Victoria said of Fort Kamloops, “…The Indians have been early exterminated at that place by smallpox: only sixteen have escaped out of a large settlement. Their bodies are strewing the ground in all directions.”
In August 1863, Viscount Milton and Walter Cheadle, on their “pleasure” expedition across Canada, travelling down the North Thompson Valley came across a village of Secwépemc who had perished, recording, “…we made out from our Shushwap [sic] friends that there had been a fearful mortality amongst the Indians, owing, as we subsequently learnt, to the ravages of small-pox.”
Of an estimated population of 7,200 in 1850, possibly two-thirds of the entire Secwépemc Nation died of the smallpox epidemic of 1862-1863.
This smallpox epidemic was not the first to rage across the region after European contact, but it was the first in the colonial era.
The decline of the Secwépemc people in this period paved the way for colonists to take over their traditional land.
Ken Favrholdt is a freelance writer, historical geographer and former curator/archivist of the Kamloops Museum and Archives.