Samuel Hancock witnesses smallpox among the Makah, 1852-53

Front page of Samuel Hancock's memoirs.

Samuel Hancock’s reminiscences were published in 1927 as a very small print run, and contain one of very few contemporary eyewitness accounts of the effects of smallpox on a Northwest Coast people, in this case the Makah Tribe of the Olympic Peninsula. So far as I know, these memoirs are not available anywhere online and are hard to find in libraries.  My brother Al Mackie (I told you only my family reads this thing) sent me a scan of parts of Hancock’s narrative relating to the smallpox epidemic, and so this is in essence his guest contribution.

The  excerpt  is a powerful and distressing account that hints at the social and cultural turmoil which arises from catastrophic depopulation and the witnessing of mass death, as noted elsewhere:

A smallpox epidemic in 1852 decimated the Makah population and caused one of the five ancient villages, Biheda, to be abandoned. This loss was not the only problem. The extreme number of fatalities further disrupted the line of authority in most families. In addition, knowledge of the critical components of some ceremonies and rituals were suddenly lost. People also died without transmitting ceremonial rights or privileges through a potlatch. The complicated social and ritual life that had existed for thousands of years began to fall apart.

The part of Hancock’s book quoted below is on pages 181-183 (PDF).  Such stories must have been passed down in Makah circles as well, much like the smallpox account of Skidegate Haida elder Solomon Wilson.  More detail on the author and source is given below the excerpt.

“Soon after this, a brig commanded by Capt. Fouber arrived here from San Francisco, having on board two natives who lived here, and also a white man with smallpox; the two natives left the brig, and went on shore among their friends, but in a few days were prostrate with the same disease, contracted on the vessel; one soon died and the other recovered, but the disease spread among the natives, proving very disastrous, for in a majority of instances it was fatal. After resorting to every means in their power to arrest its progress and fatality in vain, for their friends were dying in vast numbers daily, those who had escaped became almost frantic with grief and fear, and conceived the idea of crossing the Strait and going to the Nitanat tribe living on Vancouver’s Island. They crossed over to this place, carrying the infection with them, and soon nearly all those who fled from Neaah Bay, besides a great many of the native tribe, became victims to the epidemic.

“It was truly shocking to witness the ravages of this disease here at Neaah Bay. The natives after a time became so much alarmed that when any of their friends were attacked, all of the other occupants who lived in the house would at once leave it and the sick person with a piece of dried salmon and some water, laying all their personal effects by the sick persons, not intending to ever approach them again; sometimes the retreating ones would lie down anywhere on the beach till they died. I have, in walking along, encountered them lying in this situation when they would beg in the most supplicating manner for medicine or something to relieve them, promising to serve me as slaves all their lives should they recover, if I would contribute in some way to their recovery, while I did not have it in my power to do anything to ameliorate the sufferings of the poor creatures other than by furnishing them food or water if needed.

“In a few weeks from the introduction of the disease, hundreds of the natives became victims to it, the beach for a distance of eight miles was literally strewn with the dead bodies of these people, presenting a most disgusting spectacle. Eventually they abandoned the idea of remaining away from this dreadful enemy and in their distress concluded I might afford them some relief, and as soon as they would feel the symptoms of the disease, they would come about my house and lie down in the yard to die. They continued this until the dead were so numerous I could scarcely walk about around my house, and was obliged to have holes dug where I deposited fifteen or twenty bodies in each. Still they continued to come about me to die, in such numbers that I finally hauled them down to the beach at a time of low tide, so they would drift away, and even the dogs, during the prevalence of this pestilence, became fat on the bodies of their deceased masters.

“After the disease had raged here in its most violent form for about six weeks, it began to abate and :finally subsided, when it was really distressing to look at those who had survived this sad occasion, some of whom had lost all their near and dearest friends, and whose countenances showed their distress more plainly than words could have told; all seemed to realize their forlorn situation; and be ignorant what to do with themselves. Not far from my house my attention was attracted to an old Indian, who, during the prevalence of the smallpox, had become frightened, or determined not to lie down on the ground and die like the others, and had taken refuge up some distance from the ground in a hollow tree, where in all probability he repaired in good health but was subsequently taken sick and died; my opinion is, that when I first noticed him, he was alive. There he sat wrapped in his blanket with his hat on his head, and months afterward, he remained there, in the same position.

“The remaining Indians, after reflecting and mourning over this visitation, concluded that my presence here had occasioned all this calamity, as they had never experienced anything like it before; it was with great difficulty I could disabuse their minds of this superstition, but, after a great deal of argument and, persuasion on my part, they concluded they might be wrong in this impression, but being determined to have satisfaction from some quarter for the loss of so many of their people, apprehended the Indian who contracted the disease on the schooner, but recovered. As punishment he was taken out in the middle of the Strait of Fuca and placed in a small canoe, barely large enough to hold him, and set adrift, without a paddle or anything else. They thought he would drift out to sea and perish, but the night was calm and favorable and paddling with his hands he succeeded in reaching by morning Neaah Island, where he was discovered by the natives who went after him, and shot him with their muskets.”

Hancock’s book appears to be based on a manuscript written in 1860, which is now in the University of Washington library archives. The manuscript was actually written by Hancock’s brother-in-law, Samuel D. Crocket.  The manuscript was used by H.H. Bancroft in his History of Oregon published in 1886 and his History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana of 1890. Bancroft names the smallpox brig in the story as the Cynosure under Captain Fowler and the year as 1852 (though possibly early 1853), while Hancock refers to the year as 1853. There is a well documented smallpox epidemic in British Columbia in 1853 so it is possible that this account documents the beginning of that epidemic on the northwest coast. Hancock’s book details his travel to the west coast via the Oregon Trail and various activities in California, Oregon, Washington and along the west coast of Vancouver Island. It ends in 1860 with his marriage to Susan Crocket and settling on Whidbey Island. He is buried in the Sunnyside Cemetery in Coupeville, Washington.

The (smallpox) brig Cynosure, bound for Valparaiso.

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8 responses to “Samuel Hancock witnesses smallpox among the Makah, 1852-53

  1. There is written evidence of an earlier smallpox outbreak in the Northwest.

    According to Simon Fraser’s journal of his 1807 perilous journey to the sea, he encountered a small village in the area of Lytton (I think) that had recently been ravaged by the disease.

    Much like the Makah, the afflicted were left behind while survivors moved across the river.

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  2. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for the reference to Simon Fraser. Additionally, there is quite a bit of evidence that Smallpox arrived in the Gulf of Georgia and up to the middle Fraser before the arrival of Europeans, namely it is thought in the winter of 1781-82. A UBC historical geographer named Cole Harris has made a compelling case for a massive epidemic spreading up through the Puget Lowlands in that winter, 10 years before the arrival of Capt. Vancouver. The article is not available online, but a response to it by the noted historical epidemiologist Robert Boyd is available: http://bit.ly/baINq2 (PDF)

    The Cole Harris citation is:
    Voices of Disaster: Smallpox around the Strait of Georgia in 1782, in the journal Ethnohistory 41(4), 1994 . Email me for a copy if you like.

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  3. Interesting articles with modern Haida perspective of smallpox and other epidemics:

    http://www.haidanation.ca/Pages/Haida_Laas/PDF/Journals/Smallpox_Journal.72.pdf

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  4. I just went through the link to Swan’s diaries that Quentin posted in a March blog. Hancock is only mentioned twice:

    http://content.lib.washington.edu/u?/pioneerlife,4606
    Dec 29th, 1863. “A little half breed boy called by the Indians Hancock said to be the child of a person by that name who was a settler in this bay for a short time some years since died today from bowel complaint.”
    http://content.lib.washington.edu/u?/pioneerlife,4740

    Feb 8th 1865. “Kichusam came in this morning and had a long talk. …. Kichusam told about having the smallpox and nearly dying with it but by the attention of Mr. Hancock who lived in the bay he recovered.”

    Also of interest, in light of the account of the devastation of the smallpox is an estimate of the population given to Swan by a Makah named Swell/Wha-lalthl 7 years after the epidemic. This implies a very large population of Makah in the earlier 1800’s:

    http://content.lib.washington.edu/u?/pioneerlife,4493
    1859 Nov 1 – Swell says Macah number 220 men, 300 women, 200 children, 100 slaves, total 820 [paraphrased]

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  5. Ironically, it seems that when Swan moved to Neah Bay in 1859 he was on board a vessel either skippered by, or at least in the company of, Capt. Fowler.
    http://content.lib.washington.edu/u?/pioneerlife,4473

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  6. An utterly tragic history.

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  7. Pingback: Makah Encounters with Europeans – Makah Tribe

  8. really people the story was not even written by Hancock but by his brother in law Samuel D. Crocket. But was an enjoyable read similar to Kill a mocking Bird. Bravo!

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