- "A Very Remarkable Sickness": Epidemics in the Petit Nord, 1670 to 1846
This is a remarkable book. Although it deals with the history of infectious disease during a limited period in a particular area of Canada, the author's treatment transcends his boundaries in both space and time. The Petit Nord, or "Little North," was the name given by French fur traders to the land east of Lake Winnipeg, lying between Lake Superior to the south, James Bay to the east, and Hudson's Bay to the north. The Petit Nord was small only in relation to the Grand Nord, or "Great North," which extended from Lake Winnipeg westward to the Rocky Mountains and north to the Arctic Ocean. The Petit Nord, now part of the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario, measured more than seven hundred miles from east to west and almost the same distance from north to south.
In 1670 the newly chartered Hudson's Bay Company began to trade for furs with the Indians along the coast of Hudson's Bay. In response, French fur traders from Quebec established trading posts on the upper reaches of some of the rivers of the Petit Nord and on Lake Superior. Thus from 1670 onward, the Indians of the Petit Nord were in regular contact with Europeans and exposed to their diseases. Using the journals of Jesuit missionaries, French fur traders, and members of the Hudson's Bay and North West Companies, Paul Hackett traces the history of infectious diseases in the Petit Nord from 1670 to 1846. In addition to published works, he has made extensive use of archival sources in Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Saint Paul, Minnesota. The most destructive disease was smallpox, with measles a close second. The region also suffered epidemics of dysentery, influenza, scarlet fever, and whooping cough. Most epidemics came from the south. In 1797, smallpox spread northward from Mexico City to San Antonio (Texas) and Santa Fe (New Mexico); Indian horse traders then carried it north to the tribes of the Great Plains. By 1781, smallpox had reached Lake Winnipeg, whence it spread along the canoe routes into the Petit Nord. It created appalling devastation: so many Indians died that in some places no one remained to bury them. When the epidemic ended in 1783, many localities were almost depopulated, especially those along the Boundary Waters canoe route from Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods.
After 1784, the Hudson's Bay Company began to establish posts inland along the rivers draining into Hudson's and James Bays. They were in growing competition with the North West Company, operating out of Montreal, with an annual rendezvous with their agents from the Grand Nord, as far away as the Athabaska country, at Grand Portage on Lake Superior. Greater contact with fur traders might have been expected to increase disease among the Indians—and possibly it did, but for many years the Petit Nord was spared epidemics of the more dangerous infectious diseases. Then in 1819 American fur traders on the upper Missouri River transmitted both measles and whooping cough to the Mandan [End Page 582] Indians; the Mandans in turn communicated the diseases to a group of Ojibway who came to trade with them, and the Ojibway carried measles and whooping cough north to the Red River Settlement, where they caused many deaths. In 1819 measles also invaded the Petit Nord from Fort William on Lake Superior, traveling along the canoe routes. At Lac Seul, Hackett estimates that measles killed two thirds of the Indians.
After the merger of the North West Company with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821 the number of white men traveling or living in the Petit Nord increased greatly, and with them came more frequent epidemics. In addition to measles and smallpox, there were outbreaks of chickenpox, influenza, and mumps. Hackett uses well-drawn maps to portray clearly both...