Measles and Dysentery

Fort Nisqually and Puget Sound
This drawing of Fort Nisqually was done by Steve A. Anderson and is used with his kind permission. Fort Nisqually [Tacoma] was a small post, and so it may have resembled the first Fort Selkirk, which was also a fairly small post.

I wrote about the 1847-1848 measles epidemic in my first book, The Pathfinder, in which I said:

Measles began to sicken a few Dakelh around the fort [Fort Alexandria, Fraser River], and Anderson took the precaution of teaching the chiefs how to treat the illness. In January 1848, a few women and children inside the fort took to their beds, and two weeks later the houses were crowded with the sick. By the end of the month, everyone at Fort Alexandria had recovered, but all around the fort the Dakelh succumbed to the virulent epidemic that spread rapidly.

In mid-February, Anderson learned that every man at Kamloops had been laid low by the measles, and 35 Natives [First Nations] had died. At Fort Colvile, 100 Natives were dead, but Anderson believed those reports 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 Rocky Mountains.

Nancy Marguerite Anderson, The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s journeys in the West, published in 2011.

The measles epidemic had arrived at Sutter’s Post, on the Sacramento River, in spring 1847. It was brought north to the Columbia District by Walla Walla chief Peu-peu-mox-mox and his men, who had spent the winter on a horse-trading expedition at or near the above-mentioned Sutter’s Post.

Once it reached the Columbia district, however, the measles combined with dysentery, which had come west with the Americans who travelled west over the Oregon Trail. Many of the immigrants passed through the Waillatpu Mission near Fort Nez Percés [Walla Walla], and it was here that the two serious illnesses merged and began to spread rapidly among the First Nations people who lived here. The end result of the measles epidemic was, of course, the Cayuse War, which, in early 1848, turned the entire Columbia basin into a war zone.

So of course I write about the measles/dysentery epidemic in The York Factory Express, as it appeared to Thomas Lowe in 1847 when he brought the incoming express down to Fort Vancouver. In late October, at Fort Nez Percés, he wrote: “We found the Measles very prevalent, the Indians were dying in great numbers.” A few days later, at the Chutes, the incoming express-men “succeeded in getting the boats and pieces across with our eight men & only about a dozen Indians, most of them being sick.” There was no measles at Fort Vancouver when they arrived there, but it is possible that some of the men brought it in with them, as it appeared only a short time later.

Measles destroys the immune system for the year that followed the illness (in the same way that Covid-19 does, it seems). In January, Joe Tayentas, who had led out the York Factory Express from Fort Vancouver for the past eight years, died of tuberculosis, likely after suffering from the measles. Almost everyone at Fort Vancouver was sickened but the people who died were the Kanakas [Hawaiians], and Métis. The First Nations peoples, having no immunity to measles, died by the thousands.

Lowe took out the 1848 York Factory Express and did make it safely to Fort Colvile. By the time he returned to the Columbia district in October, the Cayuse War had settled down and it was safe to travel the river. In the book that follows The York Factory Express, tentatively titled “The Brigades,” this story is told once again — to the point that everyone is going to get sick of hearing about this measles and dysentery infection. But it is impossible to ignore this outbreak if you are writing the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company west of the Rocky Mountains before 1858. And although I wander outside of the area on occasion, that is the history I write.

But the story does not end there. The measles and dysentery travelled up the north west coast and entered New Caledonia by the First Nations grease trails. I write about Montrose McGillivray dying of complication of measles in 1850 (that story is told here: and if that doesn’t work (tho’ it did for me), try http://nancymargueriteanderson/fabulous-montrose/ )

And now I am finding disease on the Yukon River in 1850 — dysentery at least, and possibly measles. This is the Yukon timeline I am interested in:

June 1848. Robert Campbell built Fort Selkirk at the junction of the Pelly and Yukon Rivers. The Tlingit Chilkats arrived at the fort’s location soon after, creating havoc by exploring every part of the fort. Though there were Chilkats who lived in the Yukon, these Chilkats came from Lynn Canal via Chilkat (not Chilkoot) Pass every year, trading with the Northern Tutchone and other tribes who lived on the Yukon River.

In July 1849, the Tlingit Chilkats arrived at Fort Selkirk again, and Campbell had little trouble with them. They returned in August and “were not in the best of cheer,” according to Campbell. Later Chilkats arrived with tons of furs which they would backpack over Chilkat Pass, to trade with the HBC ship, the Beaver, which visited Lynn Canal. (It is to be noted, however, that the Beaver did not arrive on Lynn Canal that year. That may make a difference to the story).

In May 1850 the first Chilkats arrived at Fort Selkirk (these may have been Chilkats that lived in the Yukon district and were on their way to Lynn Canal). Other than that, there was a complete absence of Tlingit Chilkats on the Yukon River in 1850. Why? What happened on Lynn Canal? What kept them at home?

It is possible that the Chilkats would not have come over the pass to trade because they would not have had the trading goods they needed, as the Beaver had not arrived in Lynn Canal that year. But, as I wrote, tentatively, having done some research on this in another resource:

It is possible that the measles was the reason for this marked change in their habits…Aboard the steamer Beaver one crew member suffered from the measles, and wherever the Beaver traded, measles appeared in those communities. The measles struck hard at the northwest coast post of Fort Simpson in January 1848, and 250 First Nations people died. In winter 1849-50 the measles moved north to Fort Stikine (established 1840) where it caused great devastation. The Tlingit Chilkats lived some distance up the coast from Fort Stikine, and so it is highly likely that the arrival of the measles on the Lynn Canal was the reason why the Chilkats did not trade on the Yukon River in Summer 1850.

I got most of the above information from Fort Victoria Letters, 1846-1851, edited by Hartwell Bowsfield [Winnipeg, HBRS, 1979]. In 1851, Robert Campbell would see would see evidence of great death all along the Yukon River among the First Nations, although he thought it was the mumps. But how would he confuse mumps with measles? The illnesses present in different ways: and by 1850 one did not normally confuse one with the other.

But it also appears that in 1851, it is late for the illness to be part of the measles epidemic, which you will see below reached the coastal area in 1848, and Fort Stikine in winter 1849-50. So I am taking a look to see if Robert Campbell say about illness on the Yukon River in 1850. Here is what I have learned from reading the “Journal of Occurrences at the Forks of the Lewes and Pelly Rivers,” or Fort Selkirk:

Firstly, I discovered the Steamer Beaver did not visit Lynn Canal in 1849. That might make a difference to the story. On August 25 1850, Campbell learned that “there is some internal war among the Natives on the Coast,” which is why the Chilkats did not appear on the Yukon River in Summer 1850. Was the internal war the Measles epidemic? The year seems wrong.

There is no mention of illness among the First Nations on the Yukon River in 1850. The Chilkats arrived at Fort Selkirk in May 1851, having been absent for the entire year of 1850. On May 20, 1851, Forcier’s wife (who of course lives at Fort Selkirk) has the mumps and is very sick. Mumps? Also, on May 24 Campbell writes that “A kind of diarrhea is amongst our Indians & it is a source of much annoyance.” Dysentery, perchance?

On May 28 he wrote: “Gauche’s daughter very ill indeed & probably is dead by this time. Providence have mercy upon us & preserve us from this epidemic.” The footnote to this says: “Epidemic diseases unknown to the aboriginal people would have entered the Fort Selkirk area easily with the annual trade fairs of the Interior Indians with the coastal Chilcat traders. The coast people were highly vulnerable to both European and Asian disease because of the nature of the trade there. There was a devastating small pox epidemic that swept Alaska circa 1835-40… At the time of Fort Selkirk, influenza, whooping cough, pneumonia and diptheria all seem to have attained epidemic proportions along the southeast coast of Alaska. Mumps occurred there in 1844 and measles in 1848…. For a complete discussion on health and disease in the Northwest see Robert Fortune, Chills and Fever, Health and Disease in the Early History of Alaska, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, 1992, esp. pp. 199-227.

So, more research needed, I see. Another expert in this field is, of course, Robert Boyd, who wrote The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectious Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774-1874 [Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999]. I don’t own the book but I copied a lot of information from it, so let’s see if I have information relevant to the Yukon!

Here is the timeline: The measles was an epidemic around Sutter’s Fort, California, in June 1847, and Boyd does not know how it arrived there. Artist Paul Kane reported that the measles/dysentery epidemic reached the Waiilatpu Mission with Chief Peu-peu-mox-mox’s men in July 1847. It arrived in the area around Spokane House in November, and Fort Colvile in December. Early in 1848 it was at Kamloops, and A.C. Anderson records it arriving at Fort Alexandria on January 8, 1848. On January 12 he says, “The houses are now crowded with sick. The disease begins to manifest itself among the Indians.”

The measles also travelled west to Fort Vancouver, of course, arriving there in December 1847 and remaining until February 1848. It hit Fort Victoria and Fort Langley in March 1848, and lingered until May. The disease was at Fort Simpson, on the Nass River, in January-March 1848, and in Spring 1848 at Sitka.

But here is a letter of interest to me, from James Douglas. He is speaking of the spread of the epidemic during spring 1848 among the Tlingit people of Fort Stikine and “the District wherein the Steam vessel carried on trade.” Seix, or “Shakes” — the Tlingit chief who had so intimidated the HBC men at the mouth of the Stikine River in 1843 died of a mystery illness (likely measles or dysentery) in 1848, as did many other Tlingit men — see this post if you want to know who I am speaking of —

But I am interested in the arrival of the measles among the Tlingit Chilkats who lived along Lynn Canal, and the answer does not seem to be here. As you know, many of my blogposts are me trying to figure out something I don’t know the answer to. All I have learned here is that I can’t say for certain that it was this infection of measles and dysentery that hit the Yukon River, but it could be. More research needed, I guess! But, as always, I have plenty of resources to dig through before I must give the best explanation as I see it. Mostly, I am interested to find that the measles and dysentery epidemic, that began in the Columbia district in 1847, appears ready to form a small section in every single one of my books thus far! When will it end?

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “Measles and Dysentery

  1. Glen Campbell

    I always enjoy your blog posts, especially when my great great grandfather, Robert Campbell is mentioned in your stories.

    In your research have you ever come across anything about Robert Campbell having a ‘Country Wife?’ As far as I know he never publicly acknowledged having relationships with First Nations or Metis women. He didn’t get married to my great great grandmother, Elleonora Stirling until he was in his 50s and he had been in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company for over 30 years by then. I think it is extremely likely he had relationships with First Nation women and had children from those relationships. Though Robert was devoutly religious, I doubt he remained celibate during his time in the North. There is certainly evidence he didn’t .

    The HBC archives show him having a daughter named Mary at Fort Selkirk. I have been in contact with at least 2 people who claim to be descendants of Robert’s daughter, Mary. One told me her grandmother told her, Robert Campbell had as many as 6 children during his time in Northern B.C., and the Yukon. Contradicting public statements where he spoke disparagingly about Traders who had Country Wives.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Hi, Glen. Yes, it is said he did have a country wife, a Northern Tutchone woman from Beloved’s village (but it wasn’t Beloved herself). The story is told by Yukon First Nations people, and is in a thesis that is on the internet. But of course I can’t find it in my messy office. Let me tidy up and I will gat back to you on this. 😉

      1. Glen Campbell

        That is interesting. I had always assumed it was the person he referred to as ‘Beloved.’
        My great-grandmother was Ojibway/Cree, a daughter of Chief Keeseekoowenin. I must have over 100 DNA matches on that side of my family. I haven’t found a DNA match to anyone I can verify of Northern Tutchone descent yet. Since I don’t have Tutchone ancestry, our common ancestor would almost certainly be Robert Campbell.

        1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

          Beloved was a woman, but she had a husband or husbands. But if what the Northern Tutchone say is true, his wife lived in that village and so must have been Northern Tutchone. There weere women in Fort Selkirk, but no sign that any were connected with Campbell — but of course no one knows for sure. Didn’t Governor Simpson warn him to not get married?
          I haven’t located the mss. I told you about yet, will do so today. Its not lost; it’s just temporarily lost. 😉

  2. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    Located the mss — University of Alberta Thesis, Spring 2012, “Fort Selkirk; Early Contact Period Interaction Between the Northern Tutchone and the Hudson’s Bay Company in Yukon,” by Victoria Elena Castillo. From a quick look I didn’t find any mention of Campbell’s wife but it was not Beloved, I would say, though it could certainly have been Beloved’s daughter.

  3. Glen Campbell

    Yes, Governor Simpson did warn Robert Campbell about having relationships with indigenous women. Possibly part of the reason he kept those relationships secret. Somewhat hypocritical coming from a man who had several relationships with first nation and metis women.
    I recently self published a book about my Campbell ancestors including a chapter on Robert Campbell. The book is centered around the life of my great grandfather, Glen(lyon) Campbell. He was a rancher, adventurer, politician, soldier, and most importantly a life-long advocate for Canada’s indigenous people. Glen led the majority indigenous, 107th battalion in WWI.
    For the time being the book is only available to family and friends.

  4. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    From the book “The great Migration: the Atlantic Crossing by Sailing Ship, 1770-1860” by Edwin C. Guillet, I learned that the worst plague years were in 1846-47, when “a particularly virulent form of dysentery, together with smallpox, measles, and “ship fever” [typhus]… broke out on most of these vessels” that were coming from Ireland to Montreal and New York. Hmmm. I wonder if measles and dysentery, that crossed the Atlantic in these immigrant ships in early 1846, crossed the continent to infect the First Nations in California and elsewhere, summer 1847.

  5. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    I have also learned that measles was already on the Canadian Prairies in 1846. In his book, “Wanderings of an Artist,” Paul Kane tells us that “The man whom I had brought with me as a guide was also suffering much from an attack of the measles.” This was while he was on the buffalo hunt before he joined the incoming express at Norway House.