Villages of the Dead


Historian Richard White told a remarkable story about John Work of the Hudson’s Bay Company and how he led a group of trappers into California in the summer of 1833. He described the villages of the Central Valley now one of the greatest agricultural areas in the world, as “populous and swarming with inhabitants.” But when he returned in the winter, only 5 months later, he described the villages as “almost deserted and having a desolate appearance. He called them “villages of the dead.” He found the “few wretched Indians who remain…are living apparently unable to move.” Without knowing it, Work and his men had brought malaria with them to the Central Valley They did not do it deliberately, but that illness had devastating effects on the inhabitants.

After that Work and his men continued on to Oregon. And of course malaria came with them again. Malaria virtually depopulated the Willamette and lower Columbia regions. As Professor White said, “Twenty thousand or more people died in California, untold thousands more in Oregon. It is almost unimaginable to consider what life in these villages that were turned into mausoleums must have been like. At the same time it is equally difficult to comprehend the indifference shown by some Europeans or Americans encountering these astonishing scenes of devastation.”

Historian Richard White described a scene at a trading post this way: “In 1837 Francis Chardon, in command of the American Fur Company post on the Missouri, witnessed the outbreak of smallpox among the Mandans. On a warm summer day in July a young Mandan died. And with that death, the journal that Chardon kept became one of the most chilling chronicles in American history because he watched so closely and cared so little. He tallied dead Indians: he tallied rats his men killed in the fort. For him they seemed part of the same equation.” Of rats and men I guess you might say. What’s the difference?

The Indians, as the Americans called them, were not so indifferent. They knew the whites had brought these diseases to their country and they blamed them for it. Sort of like Americans now blaming the Chinese and the Chinese returning the favour. But, as White said, “By August Indians were dying so fast Chardon stopped counting.” There was nothing they could do.

A Mandan Chief, Four Bears, who had long been a friend of the whites gave one last speech before he died in which he told how his trust in whites had been misplaced. The whites, he said, “I always considered as brothers, turned out to be my worst enemies.”

After this the suicides began. One Mandan woman killed her two children and then hung herself. Many others did the same. The Mandans of one region were ravaged. According to Chardon more than 800 died and only 42 were left. In total, of about 8,000 Mandans only 250 were left. Of course, after that, their culture was wiped out too.

The story of European settlement of the west was not entirely heroic.

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