Via The Tyee, a report from The Canadian Press: B.C. First Nations mourn small pox epidemic that devastated colony a century ago. Excerpt:
It was Tuesday, March 18, 1862, that the British Colonist newspaper in Victoria confirmed rumours circulating for days that small pox had made its way north from San Francisco to the colony.
"The case is not considered a dangerous one by the attending physicians, although a consultation was held yesterday to determine its character," said the report on page 3.
In the coming weeks and months, the reports would become more and more frequent, and more and more horrific.
A few were reported dead. Then a dozen. Then hundreds and thousands — all but a few of them First Nations. There are estimates that more than 30,000 of the approximately 50,000 people living in B.C. at the time died. First Nations believe there were many more, and the death toll much higher.
The racist overtones of the debate make it difficult to believe the authorities of the day were terribly concerned.
"Were it likely that the disease would only spread among the Indians, there might be those among us like our authorities who would rest undisturbed, content that the small pox is a fit successor to the moral ulcer that has festered at our doors throughout the last four years," noted the British Colonist newspaper in April.
But fearful that the epidemic would spread to the white population — where it originated — and fuelled by the frenzy of the non-aboriginal public, the authorities evicted the First Nations. Able to stand or not, they were forced into canoes within the sights of a gunboat, and sent back to every corner of the province.
At the same time, the lust for gold was not the only cause of fever among the waves of miners now making their way to the Cariboo Gold Rush, in the province's nearly untouched Interior. Along with their gold pans and big plans, they carried with them the seeds of a man-made disaster.
"The California gold rush is winding down and something like 99 per cent of the people who didn't make any money on it are hearing about a gold rush taking place in B.C. and up in Alaska, and so they're leaving out of San Francisco in any shape or form of boat they can get on," said Bill McLennan, a historian at the UBC Museum of Anthropology.
"In that time in San Francisco, small pox is rampant so it doesn't take very long before one of the boats arrives in Victoria (with pox)."
There was a vaccine, but only the Songhees would agree to be vaccinated, McLennan said, and the disease spread rapidfire through the native encampments.
"People are dying left and right. It's just devastating so what they do, they've got apparently one gun boat so they bring that out in the harbour and tell all the First Nations encamped there that they've got one day or two days to pack up everything in their canoes and get out and then they're going to burn everything that's left," said McLennan, who studied accounts published in the British Colonist in Victoria at the time.
"People left and they burned everything, but of course they're already infected.
"There are references from other people at that point of seeing canoes full of dead people. There's nobody alive in the canoes any more, and these people are starting to head north."
The dying First Nations are not the only carriers bringing death and devastation to the rest of the colony.
"The disease is also spreading into the miners, and the miners are looking for every route they can possibly take to get to the Interior... to get up into the Cariboo Gold Rush," McLennan said.
They went north to Bella Coola and then inland along the Oolichan Trail; they went up the Fraser River and then over land. And everywhere they went, they left death in their wake.