Stepping Bacik

The Spirit of Pestilence

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A Haida Indian term, the spirit of pestilence referred to the tides of smallpox, measles, influenza, and malaria that swept native villages and camps on the Northwest Coast during the late 1700s through 1874. On Puget Sound, an especially virulent measles epidemic between 1847 and 1848 occurred first at Fort Nisqually in what is now Dupont, and was followed by the latest of four waves of smallpox in 1853. 

As in our own pandemic, native people had no immunity to what was coming. Very little is known about the native village on Filucy Bay, which disappeared in the mid-1850s, but it was likely wiped out by two terrible diseases within 10 years. The village was called tsba’kəb and the people of this village were the tsba’kəbabc, the suffix -abc meaning “people of.”

The people of tsba’kəb were allied in language and culture with the villages north of them on Carr Inlet at Minter Bay, Glencove and the head of Burley Lagoon. They had strong family connections with the Minter Bay village cemented through generations of intermarriage. Families left tsba’kəb in the spring and summer on expeditions to join families from other villages to fish, dig roots, pick and dry berries, dig and dry clams, to collect medicinal plants, and cattails and tules for making baskets and mats.

The headman of the Filucy Bay village was to’lskid, who taught the children of Michael Simmons the native language. Simmons, one of the earliest settlers on Puget Sound, staked his claim at Deschutes Falls in Tumwater in 1845, and was later an Indian agent and interpreter at the Medicine Creek Treaty negotiations. By 1855, to’lskid had died, and we hear no more of the village on Filucy Bay, though the clam drying camps continued on a seasonal basis.

Between 1845, when to’lskid met Michael Simmons and 1855, the outside date of to’lskid’s death, the native people of Southern Puget Sound were hit with two epidemics. The measles epidemic from December 1847 through June 1848 was brought to Fort Nisqually by Hudson Bay Company employees. Treatment advised by Indian doctors consisting of a hard sweat in a sweathouse followed by a plunge into the waters of Puget Sound only increased the mortality rates. Still more lives were lost through dysentery and pneumonia after measles had run its course.

The smallpox epidemic, a mere six years later, also struck Fort Nisqually, where Dr. Tolmie tried to vaccinate as many people as he could with cowpox. But mortality rates were high among those who had not experienced the earlier waves of smallpox — the babies and the children. As a headman, to’lskid would have visited Fort Nisqually with his party of friends and relatives to trade and visit with the tribesmen who came from around the Puget Sound region — the same tribesmen who in turn carried first measles and then smallpox back to their villages and the camps they visited on the way.

Not only could to’lskid and his party have brought measles and smallpox to his winter home on Filucy Bay, but the natural resources there were a magnet for other native groups that came in the summer and fall to camp and visit. We don’t know how to’lskid died, but it is certain that the networks of native culture, involving travel and socializing and working with various other groups every year, as is the case for contemporary American society, operated against them in a time of pestilence.

Seventy to 80 percent of the indigenous population of Puget Sound died from introduced diseases. Entire villages were lost; sometimes not one person remained to bury the dead. 

Pestilence changed all facets of native culture: subsistence systems, trade networks and fertility rates. Infants and older children died, leaving a nearly childless generation; fertility was depressed in adults, and holes gaped in leadership lineages. Health and religion, inextricably intertwined, were disrupted. Indian doctors were killed for their inability to cure, and the door opened to Christian missionaries. Settlers established homestead claims on abandoned village sites. 

For the native people of Puget Sound and Filucy Bay, the spirit of pestilence brought a time of terrible suffering and unimaginable cultural change. We have no idea what the ramifications are for our own pandemic, but surely we, and our cultural systems, will be profoundly altered.

Lynn Larson is an archaeologist and anthropologist who lives on Filucy Bay.