Smagnis says: Is the attempt here to disavow the fact that the land was not surrendered and there are no treaties because there were basically few people. I hope not!! As Julian Brace NoiseCat says in a previous posting, “But despite all the forces brought crashing down upon indigenous people, we are still here. They came for our land. They came for our resources. They came for our children. They came to destroy us, our communities, our territories, our families, our bodies, our languages, our cultures, our knowledge, our love. But yet we remain”.
The ruins of the Haida village of Ninstints, abandoned after a smallpox epidemic in the 1880s. When George Vancouver first came to the Strait of Georgia, a 1782 smallpox epidemic had littered the area with abandoned, overgrown villages.
Everywhere they looked, there were corpses. Abandoned, overgrown villages were littered with skulls; whole sections of coastline strewn with bleached, decayed bodies.
“The skull, 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,” wrote explorer George Vancouver in what is now Port Discovery, Wash.
It was May 1792. The lush environs of the Georgia Strait had once been among the most densely populated corners of the land that is now Canada, with humming villages, harbours swarming with canoes and valleys so packed with cookfires that they had smog.
But the Vancouver Expedition experienced only eerie quiet.
They kept seeing rotting houses and massive clearings cut out of the Pacific forest — evidence that whoever lived here had been able to muster armies of labourers.
And yet the only locals the sailors encountered were small groups of desperately poor people, many of them horribly scarred and missing an eye.
“There are reasons to believe that (this land) has been infinitely more populous,” wrote Vancouver in an account of the voyage published after his death.
But the 40-year-old Englishman seemed to have gone to his grave never grasping the full gravity of what he witnessed in British Columbia: The “docile” and “cordial” people he met were the shattered survivors of an apocalypse.
“News reached them from the east that a great sickness was travelling over the land, a sickness that no medicine could cure, and no person escape,” said a man identified as Old Pierre, a member of what is now the Katzie First Nation in Pitt Meadows, B.C.
After an emergency meeting, the doomed forebears of the Katzie decided to face the coming catastrophe with as much grace as they could muster: Every adult returned to the home of their parents to wait for the end.
“Then the wind carried the smallpox sickness among them. Some crawled away into the woods to die; many died in their homes,” Old Pierre told the anthropologist Diamond Jenness in 1936.
The tragedy played out very near to what is now the site of Golden Ears Provincial Park. And it all happened so quickly that when Old Pierre’s great-grandfather returned to the village from the bush, he found nothing but houses stacked with corpses.
“Only in one house did there survive a baby boy, who was vainly sucking at its dead mother’s breast,” he told Jenness.
The people of the Pacific Northwest had just been hit with the tail end of one of the most devastating plagues in human history.
Just as the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, smallpox began sweeping through Patriot strongholds and encampments.
An American attempt to invade Quebec broke apart largely because the colonist soldiers were too ridden with smallpox to continue the attack.
The epidemic soon broke out of the war-torn coastal areas and began penetrating inland, surging across indigenous trading networks and passing between warring enemies.
Before the Revolutionary War was over, its epidemiological offshoot had surged as far as Mexico and was scything its way through the Canadian Prairies.
“Boy and Girl arrived from the Swampy River, having left one man behind, these is all that is alive out (of) 10 tents,” reads the journals of Hudson’s Bay Company traders in what is now Cumberland House, Sask.
For months, the largely Scottish-born traders were visited by wave after wave of doomed refugees bearing reports of whole villages wiped off the map.
The natives “chiefly Die within the third or fourth Night, and those that survive after that time are left to be devoured by the wild beasts,” they wrote.
In 1782, smallpox finally surged into the region surrounding what is now Vancouver Island.
When the explorer David Thompson travelled overland to the West Coast in the early 19th century, he traversed whole regions ravaged by the 1782 epidemic. He met locals who had seen their villages die around them, and now lived in whatever post-apocalyptic societal structure survivors had been able to cobble together.
“Is it true that the white men … have brought with them the Small Pox to destroy us?” Thompson was asked near the modern site of Spokane, Wash.
In the 1890s, Vancouver woman Ellen Webber found a massive midden in what is now Maple Ridge.
She asked an elder from what is now the Kwantlen First Nation what it was. Identified only as “an old Indian,” the woman told Webber of a thriving, well-fortified village of fishermen, tanners, potters, canoe-makers, tailors and toy-makers.
That is, until a dragon “awoke and breathed upon the children.”
“Where his breath touched them sores broke out and they burned with heat and they died to feed this monster,” she said. “And so the village was deserted and never again would the Indians live on that spot.”
When George Vancouver saw beaches strewn with bones, he was looking at a pattern of mass-death similar to what had struck thousands of European villages during the Black Death of the Middle Ages.
As the epidemic begins, communities hastily rush through back-to-back funerals. As the bodies pile up, communities start improvising mass graves. Finally, as society completely breaks down, the dead are left where they lie.
For generations afterwards, sites of mass death became taboo places for Indigenous people. As Old Pierre said in 1936, digging into the ground of any abandoned village would turn up the “countless” bones of past smallpox victims.
His great-grandfather, after saving the sole infant survivor of the epidemic, burned the whole village down and never looked back.
“How is it that the smallpox epidemic of 1782 is not part of the lore of modern British Columbia?” wrote the geographer Cole Harris in Voices of Disaster, a 1994 history of the disaster from which most of the information in this article is sourced.
The epidemic that burned itself out in the forests of British Columbia was the most significant event in North American history. Just as a settlement-minded people set up shop on the East Coast, a biological terror was depopulating far-away lands they could not even imagine.
From the Grand Canyon to the forests of northern Canada, thousands upon thousands died in the delirious throes of a European disease without ever having seen a European.
It’s arguably why the continent is dominated by two giant, English-speaking countries whose western halves are divided by a horizontal line.
Europeans had colonized Asia and Africa, but only here and in the islands of Oceania did they have such ease in demographically supplanting the indigenous inhabitants.
It’s possible that smallpox killed as many as 95 per cent of the population of the Georgia Strait. Given that estimate, as many as 100,000 people may have lived in the area at a time when the entire state of New York counted barely 200,000.
In British Columbia, as with depopulated regions across the continent, Europeans were literally stepping over the bones of the dead to find vast landscapes populated by small bands of traumatized survivors.
“Here was an almost empty land, so it seemed, for the taking,” wrote Cole Harris.
As George Vancouver steered HMS Discovery north from the the Strait of Georgia in the spring of 1792, his eyes glimmered with what could be done with the seemingly empty forests surrounding him.
“The innumerable pleasing landscapes … require only to be enriched by the industry of man with villages, mansions, cottages and other buildings, to render it the most lovely country that can be imagined,” he wrote.
And indeed, that’s exactly what happened.
The peoples of the West Coast were well-versed in war: Accustomed to raiding and invasion, they maintained Viking-like fleets of war canoes, lived in fortified cities and went to battle in terrifying suits of armour complemented with trade metals from Russian Alaska.
Against a well-prepared and well-coordinated native population, any invaders could have expected epic battles followed by years of guerrilla warfare. Before smallpox, West Coast oral history contained accounts of rivers being made “black” by the canoes of invaders.
Instead, as wave after wave of epidemic hit the area, the emptied landscape became one of the easiest conquests in British history.
In 1862, just as the colony of British Columbia was getting its footing, the indigenous descendants of the 1782 survivors were hit again. Another smallpox epidemic once again killed more than half of B.C.’s native population and peppered the landscape with mass graves and abandoned settlements.
George Vancouver’s name got appended to a metropolis, an island larger than Wales, and his life-sized, gold-plated likeness was bolted to the top of a Westminster-style parliament in Victoria. “Mansions, cottages and other buildings” were not only built, but they are now counted among the most valuable in the world.
Rather than “Most Lovely Country That Can Be Imagined,” however, the carriers of Vancouver’s vision ultimately went with the slogan “Best Place on Earth.”