Native elders in many B.C. First Nations have always alleged that the sudden, catastrophic depopulation of B.C. by smallpox in 1862/63 was an instance of ethnic cleansing. Discover the evidence for yourself.
This is an exhaustively researched study of the 1862/63 B.C. smallpox epidemics. It integrates the archival evidence into the framework of the oral tradition.
In 1862/63, what is now British Columbia was massively depopulated by a series of catastrophic smallpox epidemics. In one year or less, several native Peoples suffered a sudden catastrophic decline that amounted to as much as 70 percent of their whole number.
Native Elders and community leaders always have alleged that the settler community artificially created these epidemics as an aid to the subjugation of natives so that they could be dispossessed and their land redistributed to settlers.
Beginning with the Tsilhqot’in struggle against smallpox spreaders leading to the Chilcotin War, this study examines evidence from the written record to discover how and whether it corroborates native traditions.
It then analyzes the behaviour of colonial officials in Victoria, the main settler population centre of the time, as they repeatedly forced healthy and sick natives to mix while expelling all natives from the town at police gunpoint.
Finally, it tracks the distribution of the disease from Victoria throughout the Pacific shelf, showing the agency of settlers throughout.
Typical estimated population decline, 1862-64.
- Nanaimo (where missionaries vaccinated in good faith)18%
The Settler’s Insurrection on the Pacific
The Judicial System as Diplomacy or “War” by Other Means
The Cause of The Chilcotin War
The Smallpox Trail
How and Where did the Whites begin The Chilcotin War?
The Pacific Coast “War” Against the Indigenous People
A Genocidal Plague Spreading from Victoria
Genocide to the North Coast
Genocide in the Interior
Completing the Circle
Includes over 25 maps, timelines and diagrams.
84. “War” against the Tsimshian. The first strike.
In effect, by the late 1850s, the many northern natives continuously visiting Lekwungen territory for trade constituted a second immigrant colony. This loosely defined second social entity operated under native rather than European rules. Derivative of the H.B.C.’s Victoria presence, most Northern nations had established an outpost here of some nature by 1862. These footholds seem established under the usual native rules for sharing a resource as guests; as, for example, the Tsilhqot’in once visited Bella Coola or Campbell River in great numbers before Europeans even arrived.
In April 1859, an observer counted some 2,235 Northerners at Victoria. Over 1500 of these occupied 111 established dwelling places, an average of 14 people in each. This seems more or less the average throughout B.C., excepting lodges and longhouses. This density explains the rapid spread of any epidemic disease once it had gained access to a house. The Tsimshian, from the Skeena and area on the north Pacific coast, typically were the largest resident northern contingent at Victoria. In 1859, of the visiting natives occupying structures other than tents, almost 700 were Tsimshian. Adding those in tents, this implies a population well over 1000 at Victoria. They were there to do business with the H.B.C., with the growing influx of miners and with other native nations. For example, in April 1862 Tsimshian entrepreneurs brought down several canoes and soon sold out. Tsimshian canoe making resembled a small vehicle manufacturing industry. Even after smallpox, a few came down again in 1863.
In 1859, confirming his true attitude to natives as “savages” and “barbarians,” Douglas wrote to Lord Lytton,
According to Douglas, then, there were just too many natives for anything but a nuisance; yet, today, apologists for genocide and lawyers for the crown, explicitly and implicitly, suppose there were hardly any Indians at all in British Columbia and vacant space everywhere. On Douglas’ clearly expressed view, these “savages” and “barbarians” might have some residual use if their numbers could be reduced. One supposes that, if these same sentiments had been expressed, say in Rwanda, Canadian historians might then accurately identify in them an incipient genocide friendly sentiment if, afterward, tens of thousands suddenly died.
We have no reason to suppose the Northerners’ population or its Tsimshian component in 1862 was any less than in 1859. Nor any reason to suppose Douglas had changed his sentiment toward the too- numerous “savages” and “barbarian” Calibans. Indeed, the 1862 population was probably larger. One party alone of 1000 Tsimshian and Heiltsuk arrived in March.510 One observer said, on the Reserve area itself (without counting the Northerners’ village north of town or other camps,) there had been 2000 Northerners in 300 huts, tents and lodges. Lodges were artifacts of permanent settlements, rather than mere transitory camps. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, lodged on the outskirts and in town. The Fort Simpson H.B.C. manager specifically noted more Tsimshian females than usual leaving his locality in spring 1862 “…to prostitute themselves in Victoria.” An impartial observer nearby provided this gloss on the practice of native prostitution, “These women are never known to seek such degrading intercourse” but they would “permit it” for gain if trained to it by European men. Tsimshian women had many talents, according to Dr. Helmcken, and were prized for their industry. These women undoubtedly brought goods to undercut H.B.C. prices. Without smallpox, persecution, racial prejudice, economic discrimination and residential schools, British Columbia today would feature a large, vibrant, well-capitalized and well- accepted indigenous business community.
In sum, the 1862 Northerners at Victoria may have numbered 3000, compared to perhaps 5000 resident Europeans. The Northerners population probably peaked, as a rule, in late April. The mining population then presented the maximum number of customers. Douglas had no means of governing these separate native communities, except so far as they would tolerate European wishes and be persuaded to some end. It was a population too large to be forced into any behavior pattern against its interests, without violence. It presented a challenge, then, to Douglas’ authority and to the European vision right at Victoria. If one wanted to suppress this competing social entity by killing the Northerners, then April or May was the best time for it.
The Reserve area Tsimshian community where the disease first spread contained about 300 people. Sunday April 20, Rev. Garrett found them gathered by a smallpox infected European body on a nearby beach. On a subsequent tour of their camp, Garrett then discovered some 20 he described as dead or in the throes of dying. This was the third week of April, about 40 days or six weeks after the disease arrived in March. This shows the disease advancing slowly and typically under normal conditions. Unaided, after 40 days, less than 10 percent of a village with 300 people could be described as dead or dying; in fact, that is, hardly one percent of all the Northerners in the Reserve precinct. Contrast this to Bella Coola where 75 percent of 2000 were said dead or dying in only 30 days. Both may have been genocide but what we observed at Bella Coola was the result of methodical disease introduction, a biological weapons attack.
Garrett asked the Police Commissioner, under his authority as a guardian of public health, for help to bury the dead.
Next day, advancing the proposition that the whole Reserve should be evacuated to ensure Europeans could go about their business without being inconvenienced by dying natives, a journalist received this clarification,
The Commissioner claimed he could not bury bodies on the Reserve because he lacked jurisdiction. Apparently no one could authorize it in Douglas’ absence; not even the attorney-general who was in town. Yet, surely, all that was needed for this common sense prevention measure was Songhees’ permission. Unless, that is, the Governor had instructed the Commissioner not to interfere in anything which might spread the disease. For that matter, long after the Governor returned, diseased bodies still lay unattended even in the town, let alone on the Reserve. As late as May 24, “The bodies of three Indians were reported festering in the sun…behind the government buildings.” Though, to be fair, the Commissioner regarded and treated animals with a respect equal to that shown natives: “May 6. The Police shot a dozen goats yesterday on Douglas Street. The dead bodies were left lying where they fell.” That this disgusting Regime should have thought itself the example of some superior political aesthetic was a remarkable delusion; that some Canadian historians still celebrate it is an equally remarkable testament to a failure of judgment.
This episode alerts us to two critically important facts. Both need to be understood before one can form an adequate narrative. First, Governor Douglas personally supervised all the relevant police actions at Victoria, genocidal actions which contributed to a massacre of Northerners in the hundreds at Victoria and tens of thousands more along the coast and in the home territories.
Second, the Police Commissioner already had specific orders for what should happen April 28 to May 1. We know this because someone with sufficient authority had ordered a gunboat for the harbor from April 28, though Douglas had left Victoria in the afternoon of April 24. This did exceed the Commissioner’s authority. Moreover, for May 1, someone also had ordered the Royal Navy Frigate H.M.S. Topaze to accompany natives “afflicted with smallpox” as far as Alaska. Only the Governor had authority to make such a request. Shortly, we will see the Commissioner overcome his jurisdictional reticence to expel natives and burn dwellings on the Reserve. On the Commissioner’s own account, this required the Governor’s explicit authority. In sum, no explanation accounts for the Police Commissioner’s behavior here except that the Governor’s office choreographed his every move.
This also means that, during this first critical escalation of “war,” Governor Douglas deliberately chose to be away from Victoria. This would be the most dramatic transition of all. On account of Douglas’ strategic absence, apologists, naïve scholars and historians little knowledgeable about politics have supposed the Police Commissioner, by instituting a radical program on which the whole next stage of this genocide could be blamed, had acted, “…without the permission of Governor Douglas.” More astute students of political behavior recognize instead that, in a tried and true way, the Governor was protecting his reputation. Something ugly was certain to happen as a result of his order. By being absent, he preserved the option of sacrificing the Commissioner, if things went wrong. One can find this very stratagem outlined in both Machiavelli and Shakespeare; as an avid theatre goer, it was a certainty Douglas knew of it from Measure for Measure, even if he might have been familiar with Machiavelli only through political intuition. Maintaining deniability in the face of immoral or illegal official actions is a political art which any political historian must be able to identify and then understand its implications. Rather than excusing Douglas, his strategic absence here cements the absolute certainty of his cunning and personal responsibility.
The Colonist understood the situation just as we suggest: the Commissioner had instructions from the Governor not to interfere in anything facilitating the disease, “Were it likely that the disease would only spread among the Indians, there might be those…, like our authorities, who would rest undisturbed, contented…”
This expulsion order affected all natives, smallpox infected or not. Instead of working with community leaders to quarantine the sick and vaccinate the rest, Colonial officials would now keep natives moving, sick or healthy. Unbelievably and unaccountably, for his apologists who fantasize good faith, Douglas now would use the police to compel infected people to circulate again and again among an unprotected population. No other action could have been so well designed to spread a contagious disease. Not only might “the whole epidemic have been avoided as the Whites well-knew,” nothing could have been so calculated to kill. This plan, like every action undertaken by the Douglas Regime authorities, unmistakably revealed genocidal intentions.
As the diseased first advanced, some Tsimshian had fled from outside camps to dwellings within the town limits. Others left the Northerners’ villages on the Reserve and took up residence in town. This noticeable migration apparently came from a belief that natives might escape the disease by willingly putting themselves under European jurisdiction to benefit from the same spiritual or material protection. Yet they could not escape being native.
Notice where the police told natives to go: not to some disease- free place but to the disease hotspot. The full awful significance of this will emerge shortly. Natives hiding among friends or returning to Humboldt Street would be turned out again and again. Some dwellings were destroyed to prevent reoccupation. Vaccinating healthy natives and quarantining the sick would have shown good faith. Yet any such measures would have implied an acceptance of native survival.
Those who went to Haro Strait took the disease with them. The Tsimshian camp with “numerous” dwellings burned on April 30 was within the Northerners’ village near Rock Bay. It was not the Tsimshian settlement behind the Reserve. That camp was the place to which the police sent those who did not leave.
Notice that, on May 1, the police did not compel the Haida who lived in the Northerners’ village at Rock Bay to leave, although some did go voluntarily. Only the Tsimshian were compelled. The strategic significance of this will be clear shortly. The Tsimshian who left May 1 straggled into Ft. Simpson May 17. As Douglas can only have expected, without vaccination or quarantine, they carried the disease with them. We will rejoin that trail later. By October, the Tsimshian regime would be humiliated, some leaders used as hostages, the British navy would commit war crimes, martyrs would be booked for show trials, and the settlers’ insurrection would sweep through Tsimshian territory.
Our objective witness said that officials seemingly “played with the disease.” In fact, Douglas increased the covert war’s impact by using expert knowledge about smallpox. How do we know this?