Smallpox: The American Fur Company Pox Outbreak of 1837-1838


  • Michael J. Ables Wichita State University


small pox virus, fur trade, United States government, American Fur Company, criminal negligence, Native Americans


Smallpox is a virus that raged its war upon the people of this world for millennia. Striking the Native American population in the late sixteenth century with the landing of Cortez, smallpox emerged again in the eighteenth century during the American Revolution. During the summer of 1837, smallpox struck the upper Missouri River region. The epidemic caused the near elimination of tribes such as the Assinneboins, Crees and Mandans. The events generated headlines for some major newspapers like The Connecticut Courant, The Pennsylvania Freeman and The Waldo Patriot. Newspapers printed a segment of the events that were occurring in the upper Missouri River region; however a record found in the journal of a clerk at Fort Clark named Francis Chardon, titled "the American Fur Company responsible for the smallpox devastation," brought the Company's responsibility to light. Fur trading companies were based on goods and services provided by fur exports. The American Fur Company accomplished such goals by navigating the Missouri River with steamboats like the St. Peter's, which enabled them to provide such services at a greater speed. Through this rapid way of transportation, the American Fur Company became partly responsible for the alarming rate of Native American deaths due to smallpox, by spreading this disease throughout the upper Missouri River region.