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.

The Author’s Corner with Cameron Strang

StrangCameron B. Strang is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nevada-Reno.  This interview is based on his recently released book Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500-1850 (Omohundro Institute/University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Frontiers of Science?

CS: Serendipity? Or, more precisely, I set out to write a dissertation on how Spanish precedents affected the ways science and expansion overlapped in the early United States. What I found in the archives, though, were a bunch of fascinating stories about how diverse Native, Spanish, French, African, Creole, and Anglo intellectuals throughout the Gulf South produced and shared knowledge. The book developed out of my growing conviction that such stories were neither aberrant nor insignificant but, in fact, were typical of the pursuit of natural knowledge in early America on the whole.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Frontiers of Science?

CS: Frontiers of Science argues that encounters inspired by imperialism shaped the production, circulation, and application of natural knowledge among the diverse peoples of America from the 1500s through the 1800s. U.S. expansion ensured that imperialism remained central to American intellectual life well after U.S. independence.

JF: Why do we need to read Frontiers of Science?

CS: Because I believe it ought to change how we think about intellectual and cultural life in the early United States. For a long time now, we have studied intellectual history and the history of science in the early republic with the idea that a post-independence context of liberty and democracy fully recalibrated how American men and women studied nature. But this perspective depends on a very narrow view of America and Americans, one that looks only at the eastern seaboard and free citizens. When we turn instead to the nation’s borderlands and the continental interior—vast and incredibly diverse parts of the nation—it becomes apparent that the pursuit of knowledge in the United States did not cohere around democratic politics or the influence of liberty. It was, as in other empires, divided by multiple loyalties and identities, organized through contested hierarchies of ethnicity and place, and reliant on violence. It is this thoroughly imperial context that, I suggest, ought to frame how we think about the intellectual and cultural history of the early United States.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CSI was a history major in college, but I didn’t take a single U.S. history course as an undergrad (I was much more interested in imperial China). I went to graduate school at the University of New Hampshire with the idea of doing an MA in museum studies, but I took an early America seminar with W. Jeffrey Bolster during my first semester and I was hooked. I was particularly taken with the history of borderlands and the Atlantic because, well, these fields seemed to have the most surprising stories. After finishing at UNH, I moved to the University of Texas to get a PhD. In short, I have never been all that interested in the big traditional narrative of U.S. history, but what excites me about the field is that there always seem to be unexpected and fascinating stories just waiting to be discovered that have the potential to change how we think about the big picture. Finding and telling those stories is what I love about this job.

JF: What is your next project?

CSI’m writing a history of Native American explorers, particularly Indians from the eastern United States who explored the West in the 1700s and 1800s.

JF: Thanks, Cameron!

The National Endowment for the Humanities Funded a Summer Seminar for Teachers on the History of the Hoover Dam


Donald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities.  This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund programs like this:

Last summer 6-12 grade teachers gathered in Boulder City, Nevada for a week-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar titled “Hoover Dam and the Shaping of the American West.”

Here is what they experienced:

At Hoover Dam and the Shaping of the American West we will explore the societal consequences (positive and negative) of Hoover Dam’s construction. Throughout the program, leading scholars will guide us in a variety of sessions that center on three central questions: 1) What was the role of Hoover Dam in the development of the American southwest? 2) How does Hoover Dam’s construction reflect broader issues of early 20th century American society? 3) What will the legacy of Hoover Dam be for future generations?

We will examine archival materials such as letters, photographs, and oral histories. We will get the opportunity to explore the damsite itself, as well as Boulder City, Lake Mead, the Boulder City Museum, the Nevada State Museum, and the special collections archives at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. We will learn about the challenges and triumphs of the construction process, as well as the physical workings of the dam and its distinctive architectural design. We will engage such topics as politics, economics, labor history, civil rights, westward migration, and the environmental legacy of US water policy, all through the lens of Hoover Dam. These topics will serve to show that the story of Hoover Dam can be instructional of a variety of humanities-oriented themes that reach well beyond its celebrated feats of engineering.

Learn more here.  This is just one of many programs that the National Endowment for the Humanities provides for school teachers.  Let’s keep the funding coming.  Call your representative in Washington today.

For other posts in this series click here.

The Author’s Corner with Thomas Carter

Tom Carter is Professor of Architectural History at the University of Utah. This interview is based on his new book, Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement (University of Minnesota Press, March 2015).

JF: What led you to write Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement?

TC: It began back in the 1970s. I was finishing up at Indiana University’s Folklore Institute and needed a dissertation topic. Mormon folk housing seemed a likely target—no serious study existed and it seemed like a wide open field even for a Presbyterian. At first, especially since I was living in Indiana, I thought to work on Nauvoo. The more I looked into it, however, it became apparent that nothing had been done in Utah either. I chose the Sanpete Valley to study because of its abundant number of old houses, and luckily was to get a survey job with the Utah State Historical Society as a way of funding much of the early fieldwork. After the dissertation, I realized that what I needed to do was to include the whole of the Sanpete built environment in the study, since leaving the temple out of any kind of Mormon architecture study was preposterous. It took a long time to figure it all out, but the book is both handsome and provocation; it should make folks rethink the way they have view early Mormon history and culture. At least, that is my intention, and hope.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Building Zion?

TC: The book’s central thesis is that during the years before 1890 the Saints slowly and probably unselfconsciously retooled their material world from a radical apocalyptic to a more normative republican one. Two dates are pivotal in this transformation, 1841, when the Law of Consecration and Stewardship was abandoned in favor of the “lesser” law of tithing, and 1871, when the site for the St.George Temple was shifted from the central square to a location outside town, a move followed in all subsequent temples and one which effectively created both sacred (temple) and secular (town) zones.

JF: Why do we need to read Building Zion​​​​?

TC: Because it’s funny? Well no, not really, though I do think it’s very readable. Everyone should read it because it’s the first systematic study of the Mormon City of Zion, and it argues for a fundamental rethinking of the whole history of the church in the years before 1890.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

TC: I probably became a historian back in 1960. I was 11 and asthmatic and it was the centennial of the Civil War. There were all these histories coming out, many very accessible to youngsters like me, and my mother got me into reading them. I was hooked on history, and also became a devoted pacifist. Who could read these stuff and not be horrified. Such stupidity.

JF: What is your next project?

TC: I am finishing a detail history of the architecture of early cattle ranching in northeastern Elko County, Nevada. This area is home to the region’s oldest ranches, and also where my family is from. It’s called Sagebrush Cities: The Cultural Landscape of …. I hope to have it done by this time next year. Now that I’m retired, it’s easier to find time to write.

JF: Sounds exciting, thanks Tom!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Virginia Scharff

Virginia Scharff is Distinguished Professor of History at The University of New Mexico. This interview is based on her new book, Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West (University of California Press, April 2015).

JF: What led you to write Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West?

VS: Since 2003, I’ve held the position of Women of the West Chair at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles (though my day job is as Distinguished Prof. of History and Associate Provost for Faculty Development at the University of New Mexico). At the Autry, I’ve worked on programs, publications, and exhibitions, including Home Lands: How Women Made the West (2010). I’m co-curator of a new exhibition, Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West, due to open April 25, and this edited volume is one of two which will be companions to that exhibition. I asked ten wonderful historians of the U.S. to contribute essays inspired by objects in the exhibition, written for general, rather than scholarly readers. I think the contributors did a wonderful job, and I also wrote the introduction, edited their essays, and contributed a piece of my own.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West?

VS: The history of American expansion westward and the history of the struggle over slavery have been told as two separate stories. But we believe they are intertwined strands of a single story.

JF: Why do we need to read Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West?

VS: Readers will find here a whole lot of “Aha!” moments that will make them see American history differently. Did you know, for example, that the last Confederate general to surrender was a Cherokee leader? Did you realize that what became the West was home to unfree labor of various types, both centuries before the Civil War, and long after emancipation? Did you know that the first law giving American women the vote was passed in Wyoming Territory in 1869? John, you probably did, but a lot of people will find a lot to ponder here.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

VS: I have always been fascinated with our history, and have been particularly interested in women’s and environmental history, though I write all kinds of things. I am committed to the idea that we will be a better country if we know our history, warts and all.

JF: What is your next project?

VS: I’m working on a historical novel set in nineteenth-century America.

JF: Thanks Virginia!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Todd M. Kerstetter

Todd M. Kerstetter is Associate Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at Texas Christian University. This interview is based on his new book Inspiration and Innovation: Religion in the American West (Wiley-Blackwell, January 2015).

JF: What led you to write Inspiration and Innovation?

TK: The immediate trigger dates to Carol Higham and Will Katerberg inviting me to write a book on the history of religion for their Western History series. Their book, Conquests and Consequences: The American West from Frontier to Region, anchors the series, which includes books on related themes. In addition to my book on religion, the series contains books on women in the West and African Americans in the West.

More generally, I’ve been studying the roles religion has played in the American West’s history for almost twenty years. My first book, God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West used case studies of Mormons, Lakota Ghost Dancers, and Branch Davidians and their conflicts with the federal government to explore the myth of the West and the boundaries of religious tolerance in the United States. That book led Carol and Will to invite me to write for their series.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inspiration and Innovation?

TK: Religion has played an important and often unappreciated role in inspiring the lives of people and the course of history in what we know as the American West since the dawn of history, maybe earlier. The region we know as the American West has influenced important innovations in American religious history.
JF: Why do we need to read Inspiration and Innovation​?

TK: Readers interested in the American West will gain a new appreciation of the depth, breadth, and continuity of religious influences on the region’s history. The book aims primarily to tell a history of the American West with religion occupying center stage. Readers interested in American religious history will gain a new appreciation of the West’s influence in the field. In reading American religious history surveys I was surprised to discover a nearly total void with respect to the West. Most include passing mention of Spanish missions, Mormons, and, maybe, American Indian religions. Very few of them brought discussion of even those themes past the late 1800s. That’s fairly typical for US history textbooks, too. Once the “frontier” closes in 1890, that’s it for the West. Inspiration and Innovation carries those narratives into the twentieth century and, in a case or two into the twenty-first century. For example, issues related to Mormonism and plural marriage didn’t end in 1890 when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavowed the practice in the face of withering pressure from the US government as it conquered the West. Polygamist sects set up communities in the remote West and experienced law enforcement raids in the 1950s and again in west Texas just a few years ago. Those conflicts demonstrate the lingering “legacy of conquest,” to use Patricia Limerick’s terminology. For another example, the Native American Church grew out of uniquely western circumstances. Over the course of the twentieth century its members deployed a variety of creative and savvy strategies to secure legal protection for their sacramental use of peyote. Finally, I worked hard to find interesting stories to illustrate the book’s themes. I think my journalism background gave me a good eye for a story and the ability to write engagingly about “Texas theology,” megachurches, Mormons, and more.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

TK: I decided to become an American historian in 1989. I blame my parents, who were both teachers, and especially my dad, who taught US history and AP US history. They exposed me to the wonders of learning and took our family to a lot of museums and historical sites that infected me with a love of history. In 1976 and 1980 we traveled through the West. The landscapes of the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Coast awed me and those trips made me fall in love with the West and its history. Of all the places we visited, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Yellowstone National Park, and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center did the most to hook me. Even though I loved history, it took me a while to settle on it as a career. For several years after college I experimented with different jobs, none of which satisfied me and none of which had a schedule anywhere near as flexible as teaching. When I took a job writing press releases at a university I realized how much I loved the campus atmosphere and I decided to take a crack at becoming a professor. I also wanted to see if I had what it took to get a PHD.

JF: What is your next project?

TK: My next two projects will be books about the only thing as important as religion: water. One is about flooding on the Great Plains and the other is an environmental history of north Texas focused on water as a critical natural resource.
JF: Sounds interesting, thanks Todd!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Gustav Niebuhr on the Biggest Execution in American History

You may recall that last week we did an Author’s Corner interview with Gustav Niebuhr, author of Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, A Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors.

Over at Newsweek’s On Faith blog, Niebuhr tells the story of how Abraham Lincoln and an Episcopalian bishop named Henry Whipple responded to the 1862 execution of Dakota Indians in December 1862.  Here is a taste to whet your appetite:

Death row in Arkansas holds 38 inmates, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit that keeps track of such facts. Now, what if that state were to execute them all at the same time? By hanging — and did so publicly?
An unhappy precedent exists for just such an action — 38 hanged at one time and place. It took place a century and a half ago, on a single gallows built for that purpose in a small Minnesota city called Mankato. Every one of the condemned was a Dakota Indian; the federal government hired the hangmen. Hundreds of people turned out to watch.
The biggest execution on American soil, it could nonetheless have been much, much larger (and therefore that much more shameful) but for the involvement of two men. One everyone has known of since childhood: Abraham Lincoln. The other, these days, is far less recognized: Bishop Henry B. Whipple. Together, they offer an enduring lesson in reason and mercy in the face of great anger and violence.
The mass hanging directly followed the Dakota War, a fierce, five-week-long conflict that swept southern Minnesota in August and September, 1862, when some Dakotas — who had sold off their vast domain to the federal government and felt badly cheated of their compensation — turned violently against a growing population of white settlers. Hundreds died.
How many Indians would be executed as a result lay ultimately with Lincoln. He and Whipple had a crucial conversation about federal Indian policy first.
Here’s the essential chronology, starting with the bishop, among whose papers I’ve spent much time the past three years.
Read the rest here.