There is plenty of evidence that trade occurred between the tribes of the Pacific Northwest and the native cultures of the American Southwest. These groups were not unaware of each other, and their jostling was often felt in adjacent neighboring systems. The introduction of the horse to the plains Indians had the effect of extending their range and adding surprise to their arsenal. But the horse also brought contact with the remnants of Cortez’s heritage in Mexico – the pandemic of European diseases that wiped out most of the indigenous population.
Early epidemics in the 18th century:
The epidemic that swept through the Pacific Northwest in the 1770’s began over two hundred years earlier as soon as the first Europeans stepped off their boats in Hispaniola. In 1520 Cortez attacked the Aztecs and his Lieutenant Panfilo de Narvaez landed near the contemporary city of Vera Cruz. Among his troops was an African slave named Francisco Eguia, who had smallpox. The disease became a pandemic and quickly spread to the native population and swept through the Aztecs capital, Tenochtitlan.
In the 1770′s, the pandemic swept north from Guatemala. Soon it reached the Navaho pueblos in New Mexico and from there it moved onto the Comanche who traded with their linguistic cousins the Shoshones and Crows. The Shoshones’ traditional territory bridged the Rockies where they traded both with the Blackfeet on the Plains and with the Kootenai and Piegan Indians on the western slopes of the Rockies. Following that vector it moved through the Salish Indians in Idaho and Montana, to the Nez Perce and on down the Columbia to the Chinook and coastal tribes. By the late 1770’s the Pacific Northwest was engulfed in one of the most calamitous pandemics ever know to man.
What’s significant about this new information is that the major destruction of the native populations occurred before the arrival of Europeans in the Pacific Northwest. Even before Gray crossed the Columbia bar the region had already been devastated by at least two smallpox scourges that killed almost 20% of the population. Lewis and Clark also noted evidence that an epidemic had passed through the area about 30 years before their arrival. But from 1825 until the time the first wagon trains arrived in 1843, over 90% of the Indians living in the Willamette Valley perished as a result of successive waves of disease sweeping though the Northwest.
Later epidemics in the 19th century:
The contemporary accounts by fur trappers during the periodic outbreaks of contagion are absolutely haunting as they soon found themselves traveling through a landscape of death. As they made their rounds and collected packets of pelts from local Indian trappers, fewer and fewer Indians turned up with pelts to trade. Soon the fur traders began to venture up into the mountains to see what had happened – only to find whole encampments filled with the dead or dying. Indians lay in their lodges too weak to fend for themselves. All around lay the corpses of those that had already perished. In one haunting incident, a fur trader asked about a village he had visited during his previous travels. He was told that not only had the entire village perished, but everyone who had known of the place had also died. Pausing, his local guide then quietly reflected saying, “of them remained not even a name”!
It is in this context of turmoil and catastrophe that the initial contact with European took place. Waterborne contact by Gray in 1792 followed hard on the heals of contagion that had hit the area in the 1770’s and 1780’s. Another epidemic hit in 1801, just before Lewis and Clark arrived. Ongoing contacts with European “coasters” brought repeated contact with small pox, malaria and diphtheria. By the time that settlers began to arrive in this area the tribes had been decimated. Many of the bands fell apart leaving their ancestral lands, sometimes moving in with the remnants of other tattered tribes. Trade and transportation routes collapsed. Local languages began to disappear as Chinook trade jargon and English began to replace the older languages. The renowned scholar, Henry Dobyens, that has done the greatest amount of work on establishing the actual population levels prior to contact, has estimated that in the first 130 years after contact more than 95% of the native peoples in the Americas perished.
The Multnomah Indians:
Perhaps the most tragic of the local Indians were the Multnomahs that lived in numerous villages on Sauvie Island and along the banks of the lower Willamette River. They lived in large sturdy lodges colorfully decorated with carved totemic images and painted upright roof posts. The south shore of Sauvie Island was a busy place. Rows of brightly colored canoes with carved figures on the prow lined the channel. On the shore women worked on curing the meat and fish over fires, or weaving garments from rushes and cedar bark. The very old and young bustled along the shores tending to the fish traps, while the men of the village set the salmon nets in the river. Life was good for the Multnomahs, blessed as they were with a plethora of trout, salmon, sturgeon, elk, deer, wapato plant, camas lilies, salal berries, and even local tobacco.
But with the arrival of the white man on the Columbia all that came to a sudden and tragic end. Early settlers recall the Multnomahs in the thousands, but the introduction of the measles in 1829 and later the arrival of malaria quickly decimated the tribe.
Due to their proximity to Fort Vancouver the Multnomahs were frequent visitors at the fort, but one day they ceased coming. When people were sent to investigate they found the villages littered with hundreds of dead bodies. Only one woman was still alive and she told of a great sickness that had literally extinguished the Multnomahs. She too died hours later. It is thought that a recently arrived ship had introduced clouds of malarial mosquitos that had swarmed out of the ship’s bilge and infected the Indians as they watched the vessel sail upriver to the fort.
In their legends the Multnomahs had told of a great canoe with white wings that would ascend the Columbia. When it came to rest in the evening it issued forth a great roar and a cloud that struck terror into the heart of all that heard and saw it. From the sides of the vessel came black clouds and wherever these noxious fumes alighted they brought utter death and destruction. And so it occurred.
Additional sources: David Thomson book pg. 39-41
Ken Ames book