Smallpox epidemic 1876-77

by Bruce Cherney (part 4 of 4)

In an April 12, 1877, report, Dr. James Lynch wrote that on November 25 the previous year he had visited Icelandic River First Nations communities accompanied by Métis guide and interpreter Joseph Monkman, a resident of St. Peter’s.

“Upon visiting the Indian houses (at Sandy Bar), we found them all deserted. Following a trail which led from the houses to the Icelandic Settlement about three miles distant, on the White Mud River (today’s Icelandic River), we found the Indians — the few that were left of them, encamped in Birch Bark tents on the south side of the River — a band of fifty or sixty reduced to seventeen.

“We were the first friends they had seen since the beginning of their great calamity. Their simple story, and its ghastly incidents, with the evidence of its reality, in the new made graves around their tents, and the scarred and distorted faces of the living, was very pathetic, but very terrible ...”

With the first appearance of the disease, the doctor said a small group numbering 15, “becoming frightened, fled to the East side of the Lake, carrying with them the disease among other bands. Every one of these fugitives died. They, in their turn, were deserted by those they had joined, and thus the disease was spread, until the alarm became so great, that uninfected settlements protected themselves against the contagion, by isolation and refusing to receive deserters, or what also happened — some small infected Bands were entirely destroyed.”

The true extent of the disease among First Nations people on both sides of Lake Winnipeg will never be known as no official records were taken, although some estimates claim at least 500 died of the disease.

On Dr. William Baldwin’s second trip to Big Black Island (Hecla Island), he encountered an Icelandic mother who had just recovered from a bout of smallpox. “Her infant at her breast dying, and they had nothing to cover the poor creature ... They had no flour, in fact nothing but fish. I left what medicine and nourishment I had brought for the sick, and to see their eyes brighten in hopes that it came in time to save their little one can never be forgotten. But alas! the little thing, only nine months old, died next day, and they had to put it on top of the house (a practice followed to prevent the corpses from being devoured by wolves) till they could get some boards to make a box for it. I had a pretty hard time myself, but when I looked at the poor Icelanders, I felt I fared like a king, though I had to sleep on a bed made of hay.”

According to a list compiled by Sigtyggur Jonasson, the federal government’s assistant Icelandic agent, who became known as the “Father of New Iceland,” only 25 Icelanders who died were over 12 years of age — the smallpox epidemic’s primary victims were the youngest members of the colony, such as the nine-month-old child, since they were the unvaccinated and the most vulnerable due to still-forming immune systems. They lacked an adult’s mature immune system which had a greater ability to fight off the disease.

An immigration report, dated April 30, 1877, indicated that the number of Icelanders who immigrated in 1876 totaled 1,156, “in addition to 268 who went to Gimli the previous fall. The success of this colony is at present not assured, the small-pox causing a very large proportionate destruction of life, the deaths being 189 out of a population of 1,441. Deaths under 12 years, 136; over 12 years, 53.”

Accepted today as the official total, there were 102 deaths among the Icelanders, with about one in three of the total population of New Iceland contracting the disease. It should also be noted that another 35, mostly young children and the elderly, died during the first winter of the settlement, primarily from scurvy and starvation. A total of 137 deaths during two successive winters was hardly an auspicious beginning for a new colony.

Due to the deaths of adults in 1876-77, the Icelanders in the New World would later blame authorities in Iceland for not vaccinating all the island’s residents in a timely fashion. It was noted among the survivors that those who had received an effective cow pox vaccine (English physician Edward Jenner discovered that a vaccine using the cow pox virus provided protection against smallpox) in Iceland did not contract the disease.

Besides the quarantine line at Netley Creek, measures taken by government authorities to stem the tide of the disease included disinfecting the homes and possessions of the colonists. At Netley Creek, mail heading to Manitoba was dipped in carbolic acid and mail heading to the colony was simply tossed across the quarantine line until someone happened to came along and pick the letters up. Meat and necessary supplies suffered the same fate — thrown across the quarantine line. In some instances, beef that was essential to the survival and health of the colonists was devoured by stray dogs while laying in the snow, since no one in New Iceland was informed that the supply of meat had been delivered.

For the First Nations residents, the disinfection was more severe and involved the wholesale destruction of bodies, houses and possessions at Sandy Bar, Sandy River, Black River, Bad Throat River (Manigotogan) and Punk Island (Oldstone).

“The survivors who witnessed this activity sometimes allowed it, at other times resisted fiercely,” wrote Ryan C. Eyford (Quarantined Within a New Colonial Order: The 1876-1877 Lake Winnipeg Smallpox Epidemic, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 2006). “William Drever, one of the doctors’ assistants, travelled to Bad Throat River on the east side of the lake to burn or bury the bodies of several members of the Big Island Band. He was permitted to bury the body of the chief, Kat-te-pe-mais, but when Drever attempted to burn two others he was chased away.

“John Ramsay, one of the few survivors of the Sandy Bar band, Dr. Baldwin and Magnus Stefansson burned the Indian village of Sandy River on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. However Ramsay deeply resented the burning of his own village at Sandy Bar, conducted on the orders of Dr. Lynch. With most of the band members dead, this act had the effect of erasing an important physical vestige of the Sandy Bar band’s presence in the Icelandic Reserve.”

The burning of the village cleared the way for surveying the area which was completed at the end of 1876, as well as the virtually unopposed settlement of the area by Icelanders.

Apparently, Dr. Lynch felt some remorse for this act and asked the government to compensate the surviving members of the band, but this didn’t happen.

Ramsay travelled to Winnipeg in June 1877 to express his displeasure to District of Keewatin and Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris, but was not given any guarantees. Instead, Morris told Ramsay and other survivors to relocate to the Fisher River Reserve.

Ramsay didn’t relocate and made his home among the Icelanders until his death. He continued to protest the seizure of his land up to at least 1880, according to correspondence that was sent back and forth between federal government officials, some of whom supported his claim under the law existing at the time. Even those who ruled against Ramsay acknowledged his right to the land in private, but failed to uphold his claim in public. A mistake had been made that had to be hushed up (Icelandic Immigrants and First Nations People in Canada, masters thesis by Sigrún Bryndís Gunnarsdóttir, September 2010).

Prior to the quarantine being lifted, it was decided to completely disinfect the colony. The disinfection took place between June 8 and 30, with Dr. Beddome supervising and Jonasson overseeing the actual cleansing.

Dr. Beddome sent the four districts of New Iceland the following instructions: “The cleansing should be conducted by removing every article from every house. Wash all clothing and bedding in boiling, soapy water and dry it. Scrub every house and its furnishings with boiling, soapy water, and whitewash the houses inside and out. Remove the down from all quilts and pillows. Dry it in the wire baskets intended for the purpose, and place it above fires of smoking sulphur sticks.”

Burning sulphur produces sulphur dioxide which was commonly used as fumigate during the era to prevent the spread of smallpox and other infectious diseases. But in reality, such a treatment rid the colony’s log cabins and tents of insects rather than the smallpox virus.

Quilt covers and pillowcases were also to be washed in hot, soapy water or burned if in poor condition.

Thoroughly washing cloths as well as walls in hot and soapy water would have had more of an effect on removing the smallpox virus than fumigation with sulphur dioxide.

People were told to segregate by sexes with men in one tent and women in another and then discard the clothes they were wearing during the clean-up and have them washed by others.

“They should then scrub themselves thoroughly, and dress themselves in fresh clothing which has been washed and smoked in sulphur. Lastly, sulphur should be burned in the houses when everything has been moved back inside.”

Some members of the Sandy Bar Band and 20 Icelandic River immigrants who died from smallpox during the winter of 1876-77 were buried in shallow graves at Graftarnes, meaning Grave Point, or Nes for short, along the shore of the river just north of Riverton (originally called Lundi by the settlers). All the names of the Icelanders who perished are known. They included 15 children 13 and under and two adult men and three women. On the other hand, no one knows the names of the First Nations people buried at Nes Cemetery Historic Site.

But the grave site at Sandy Bar of Betsey Ramsay has a headstone (purchased at  Lower Fort Garry by her husband, John, in 1880) and is surrounded by a white picket fence. In 1998, a headstone commemorating John Ramsay  was added to the grave site. John Ramsay died on Matheson Island, where he is buried, many years after Betsey’s death.

At Gimli Pioneer Cemetery, a plaque was erected as a memorial to the 102 colonists who died of smallpox in New Iceland.

“The smallpox epidemic and its consequences paralyzed New Iceland,” wrote Gu∂jón Arngrimsson. “Due to the long isolation (10 months) it brought, the colonists were forced to eke out a meagre existence on government loan supplies and any fish they could catch. Physically, its effects would remain etched on the faces of many Icelanders in the form of pock marks they took with them to their graves, but the mental scars were probably much deeper.”

Nelson Gerrard wrote that the smallpox epidemic “constituted a severe blow to the struggling colony. Not only was there widespread suffering and death, there was a critical delay in building and clearing operations, and spring found most unprepared to take advantage of the coming summer season during which much-needed gardens and crops could have been grown.”

He said that the quarantine “severely impeded communications and the transport of both supplies and seeds to the settlement, and still worse it prevented settlers from seeking badly-needed employment ‘up in Manitoba’ — even for several months after the smallpox had been eradicated. Most importantly, though, this ordeal had sown the seeds of discontent and disillusionment which would eventually take root and all but destroy New Iceland.”