Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Smallpox Bay

The native people of the Pacific Northwest were unique among cultures in that they developed a complex stratified society without ever developing agriculture. They built their wealth on the bounty of nature that surrounded them. They supported a noble class, sophisticated arts, theatre, and system of cosmology on an economy based on salmon, shellfish, cedar, camas root and berries. The inland seaways were their highways and through trade added obsidian, jet & shell beads and amber to their wealth.

The misnomer that there was not much going on here before Europeans arrived is not due simply to arrogance. To say that we were a plague upon their houses is the literal truth. It is estimated that as many as 90% of the native population was decimated by disease before settlers even began to arrive. Smallpox was the worst of these diseases. What European settlers found here were the remains of a society that had just collapsed. Smallpox Bay on San Juan Island is named for Native Americans who contracted smallpox and immersed themselves in the seawater to cool their fever. They died of hypothermia, drowning or the disease itself.

“In our different excursions, particularly those in the neighborhood of port Discovery, the skulls, limbs, ribs, and backbones, or some other vestiges of the human body, were found in many places promiscuously scattered about the beach, in great numbers. Similar relics were also frequently met with during our survey in the boats; and I was informed by the officers, that in their several perambulations, the like appearances had presented themselves so repeatedly, and in such abundance, as to produce an idea that the environs of port Discovery were a general cemetery for the whole of the surrounding country. Notwithstanding, these circumstances do not amount to a direct proof of the extensive population they indicate, yet, when combined with other appearances, they warranted an opinion, that at no very remote period this country had been far more populous than at present.”

From the Journal of Captain George Vancouver - 1793

1 comment: