History of Medicine

How Smallpox Impacted the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia from 1800-1867

“…We were strong but you were stronger, and we were conquered. …Before you came we had no sickness…now small pox, measles and fevers destroy our tribe…The whole of our people in Nova Scotia is about 1500. Of that number 106 died in 1846, and the number of deaths in 1848 was, we believe, 94. We have never been in a worse condition than now…Where shall we go, what shall we do? Our nation is like a withering leaf in a summer’s sun.”

When Europeans first arrived in Nova Scotia in the 17th century, they brought with them various European diseases which they introduced to the Mi’kmaq, the Indigenous people of the region. Among these was smallpox, a disease that ravaged Mi’kmaw communities in a series of 18th and 19th century epidemics. With my Hannah Studentship, funded by AMS, I was provided an opportunity to gain research experience while exploring how smallpox shaped the lives of Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia from 1800-1867. This research reveals how complicated the impact was of this dreadful disease. In addition to taking a toll on the Mi’kmaw population, (to the extent that Europeans described the Mi’kmaq as a “dying race”), the disease somewhat less predictably also shaped Mi’kmaw land use and the ways in which the Mi’kmaq interacted with European newcomers. It also compelled the Mi’kmaq to realign their own healing practices – shoring up traditional treatments and adopting new ones.

The Mi’kmaq quickly learned the danger of smallpox, and situated themselves in a bid to avoid the disease. Halifax harbour, laden with smallpox carrying European vessels, posed a special threat. Aware of the danger, colonial officials insisted that to avoid contagion, ships were to stop at George’s Island, a small island in Halifax harbour, to be inspected for the disease before being allowed to dock on the mainland. This order, though, was routinely ignored and smallpox tainted ships continued to land in various places along Nova Scotia.  Well aware of the dangers of the disease, Mi’kmaq avoided coastal landing sites of ships. When for example, Scottish immigrants landed at Pictou in 1801, the Mi’kmaq moved to the head of Guysborough River.  So eager were the Mi’kmaq to avoid the disease, they chose to avoid contagion even if it meant turning down access to much-needed relief, such as food and blankets. This was the case in 1801 when Mi’kmaq from Pictou refused to go to Halifax to collect relief.

The presence of smallpox also shaped and sharpened Mi’kmaw medical knowledge, prompting them to look to both traditional Mi’kmaw and “white” medicine as treatments and preventative measures. The Mi’kmaq had traditional ways of treating sicknesses and developed treatment for smallpox, described by Dr. Frederick W. Morris and Englishman, John Thomas Lane (known as ‘Paddy’ Lane) as the “Indian Remedy,” which is from a plant “Indian-cup” or “Pitcher-Plant,” known as the “Paddy Lane Small-pox cure.” Although its effectiveness against the awful disease is questionable, the Mi’kmaq used their knowledge of disease and treatments to effect a remedy. The Mi’kmaq were far less willing to accept European treatments of inoculation and vaccines. Inoculation, used prior to vaccination, is the insertion of a small amount of fluid from the pustules of a smallpox patient into the skin of a healthy person, does not insure immunity and the recipient may become infected and spread the disease. Dr. Edward Jenner, in 1796 invented vaccination, which uses pustules from an infected cow with cowpox, which is similar to smallpox, rather than the smallpox virus. It insures immunity and the recipient will not become infected. Dubious of British designs in Nova Scotia, inoculation and vaccines were widely heralded by the Mi’kmaq as a potential British effort to poison the Mi’kmaq with whom they had long waged war. They also were hesitant to accept it, as Mi’kmaq were unable to differentiate between inoculation and vaccination. The smallpox vaccination appeared in Halifax during the nineteenth-century and was available sporadically. Only over time in the early 19th century as vaccines’ efficacy was proven, did the Mi’kmaq begin to accept and seek out vaccination, melding their own curative practices with new ones.


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