Measles in the Columbia district, summer to fall 1847

Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River

Fort Vancouver and its gardens. The Columbia River is behind the fort.

With a little luck and a lot of hard work, my book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and the Perilous Journeys of the fur Trade, will be published by Ronsdale Press in May, 2024. You may order or pre-order the book here: 

In my first book, The Pathfinder, I wrote a little of the measles epidemic in the Columbia district, that finally reached Fort Alexandria [in central British Columbia] in January 1848.  It killed some Native women inside the fort and quite a few of the home-guard Natives [those who lived immediately around the post]. But Alexander Caulfield Anderson had no idea how serious this infestation was. I wrote:

Anderson believed those reports [of deaths at Fort Colvile and Kamloops] were exaggerated. They were not. The measles epidemic had begun months earlier in the Columbia district, and the results had severe implications for all the posts west of the mountains.

The story of the measles infestation in the Columbia began with Peu-Peu-Mox-Mox’s trading expedition to Sutter’s Fort, on the Sacramento River.  Peu-Peu-Mox-Mox was a Walla Walla Native chief — a man who was friendly with the American Presbyterian missionaries at nearby Waiilatpu Mission. His important history in the area (as far as the HBC traders are concerned) begins with the measles infestation of 1847. The story of his life after 1847, and his brutal death, is told here:

In 1846 and 1847, measles was epidemic in Europe, and in much of North America where it traveled generally from east to west. Measles was reported in the Red River district in June 1846, and from there spread north and south-west. By 1847 it was killing the Shoshone Indians of present day Wyoming. Its first appearance west of the Rocky Mountains was in California Territory, where by June 1847 it was epidemic around Sutter’s Fort. This was also the same time period when American emigrants were traveling west via the Oregon Trail, and of course they were blamed for bringing the infestation into Oregon Territory. But they probably did not. From Robert Boyd’s book, The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectious Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774-1874, [UBC Press and University of Washington Press, 1999]: 

As one of the overland emigrants of 1847 noted: “Measles was general that year on the Plains.” Though most of the Oregon Trail migrants passed through areas where measles was epidemic, there are no reports in diaries of measles cases or fatalities among the overland migrants as they crossed the Rockies or before their arrival at Waiilatpu Mission, near Walla Walla. Given the short incubation and duration of the disease and the length of time required to make the overland journey, it appears unlikely that the emigrants carried measles overland. Instead, measles was already present in Oregon by August 1847.

So, how did the measles reach the Columbia District around Fort Nez Perces [Walla Walla], at that early date?

In January 1846, Peu-Peu-Mox-Mox and a party of his men, 200 strong, left their home territory on the Palouse River, and rode south to Sutter’s Fort on the Sacramento River. These Native men had made this journey before, and on both journeys they traveled to California to trade for Spanish cattle, which they valued. How measles arrived at Sutter’s Fort is unknown, but in June 1847, August Sutter wrote in his diary that an unidentified sickness was epidemic in the Indian tribes that surrounded that place. The diary also mentioned that the Walla Walla Indians were in the vicinity of Sutter’s Fort in May and June of 1847.

Once again, from Robert Boyd’s book, The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence:

The return of the California party to Fort Nez Perce [Walla Walla] on 23 July 1847 was recorded in a poignant passage in the journal of artist and explorer Paul Kane:

“A boy, one of the sons of Peo Peo mox mox, the chief of the Walla Wallas, arrived at the camp close to the fort [in advance of the party of 200] bringing the most disastrous tidings, not only of the total failure of the expedition, but also of their suffering and detention by sickness… After describing the progress of the journey up to the time of the disease (the measles) making its appearance, during which he was listened to in breathless silence, he began to name its victims one after another. On the first name being mentioned, a terrific howl ensued, the women loosening their hair and gesticulating in a most violent manner. When this had subsided, he, after much persuasion, named a second and a third, until he had named upwards of thirty. The same signs of intense grief followed the mention of each name… The Indian’s statement occupied nearly three hours…

From the Indian camp outside Fort Nez Perces Native men rode in every direction, bringing the news of the deaths to all their neighbours. They must have carried the measles virus with them, and it spread rapidly through all the Indian tribes who lived in the Columbia district. Then the Americans coming over the Oregon Trail arrived at Fort Nez Perces. They carried Dysentery and Typhus fever, and picking up the measles virus carried it west to Fort Vancouver. Dysentery, at least, was passed to the Natives in the territory around Fort Nez Perces, and by September 1847 many Natives were dying of a combination of measles and dysentery.

The measles hit especially hard among the Cayuse people who lived near the Waiilatpu Mission house, which Dr. Marcus Whitman had occupied for the past eleven years. Unfortunately, Whitman was unpopular among some of the Cayuse chiefs, and that put him and his people in danger. He ignored the danger, though it was very real.

In 1847, when clerk Thomas Lowe came down the Columbia River with his incoming York Factory Express in November, he wrote of the many Indian deaths in the Columbia district around Fort Nez Perces. Of course he could not see the immediate future — nor did any of the traders at Fort Vancouver understand what could happen. For more information on the story, as told in Thomas Lowe’s York Factory Express journals, go to:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.