How the Hudson Bay Company Tried to Prevent the Spread of Small Pox

Great Plains Art

In 1780, a smallpox outbreak that ravaged much of the Western North America arrived on the Northern Great Plains. According to historian Scott Berthelette, the disease spread from Mexico through “Indegenous horse-borne trading and warfare” and claimed tens of thousand lives. The responsibility for dealing with the outbreak fell on the members of the Hudson Bay Company (HBC), the joint-stock company that controlled the area. Writing at the blog Borealia, Berthelette describes how the HBC tried to protect the local Indigenous people (with whom they traded) from the disease. Here is a taste of his post:

Because eighteenth-century European notions of cleanliness prioritized freshly laundered garments over soaked and scrubbed hands and bodies, Cocking placed far more importance on sanitizing and disinfecting clothing. Nevertheless, it was sound epidemiologic advice because the smallpox virus could survive for extended periods of time on clothing and blankets. Similarly, William Tomison at Cumberland House along the Saskatchewan River ordered his men to fumigate the furs that they collected “with the Flour of Sulphur” as a disinfectant to prevent the spread of the disease. By all accounts, this policy of quarantine and frequent laundering of clothes and furs was successful with one HBC trader even optimistically writing that “by this prudent precaution the homeguards here are preserved.”

Read the entire piece here.