I live in British Columbia and it is well known that, in the late 19th century, there was a massive crash of the native population. Up to 90% in some particularly unfortunate areas (Haida Gwaii, for example). A lot of this was due to smallpox.

I'm aware of the timeline of early Western medicine, around Pasteur and Koch, so I always assumed that, whatever the intentions were on the US, British and Canadian side, there wasn't much that they could have done about it, had they chosen to help.

However, on visiting Maui, I was extremely surprised to see that some of the missionaries there, around 1865, were trying to vaccinate the Hawaiians against smallpox. Looking it up https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smallpox_vaccine, it turns out that smallpox was atypical as it was known, even with limitations of Western medicine at the time, that you could take steps to protect populations at risk.

Hawaii aside, when did large-scale effort start, in either the US or in Canada, past the 1850s or so, to inoculate native New Worlders using what was then known about smallpox vaccination?

Just to be clear, this is not a question about intentional contamination, such as blankets issued for that purpose. Or even an episode such as www.macleans.ca.how-a-smallpox-epidemic-forged-modern-british-columbia/ , where it might (or not) have suited the authorities to have an epidemic.

3 Answers 3


In 1803 the Balmis Expedition set sail from Spain to perform a vaccination campaign in Spanish America and China.

Its final report did claim that in its three years it vaccinated about 100,000 people. It did also provide translations of Jacques-Louis Moreau de la Sarthe's book Traité historique et pratique de la vaccine and helped establish local structures to keep ongoing vaccination programs.

While the wikipedia does not give details about vaccination to natives, several other sources (in Spanish) explain that the aim was universal; this one explains that

Las autoridades civiles y religiosas de los dominios españoles recibieron órdenes de prestar apoyo logístico y predisponer a la población indígena a la campaña de vacunación.


Civil and religious authorities at the Spanish domains were ordered to supply logistic support and predispose the indigenous population towards the vaccination campaign.

The fact that the aim was that of universal vaccination is underscored by the fact that, after covering South America and Philippines, the expedition went on to continue vaccination in China (which had no sizeable Spanish population).

Additionally, given that at the time many indigenous populations were closely integrated in the Spanish colonies1, any disposition forbidding them to vaccinate would have been noticeable yet I cannot find any reference to them.

More information in English: https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/41/9/1285/278013

Another resource in English: Milton W. Taylor: "Viruses and Man: A History of Interactions", 2014

This one explicitly states that the Indians were to be vaccinated, yet I am a little skeptical about the quality of the source because it says that the goal was to bring the vaccine to the New World and the American Indian population, yet it is clear that the vaccination of the European population was part of the goal, too.

1Of course, that does not mean that they had the same social status than people with European ascendency.

  • 1
    Oh, and the pages also mention that by the time Balmis arrived at Puerto Rico, the local population had already been vaccinated from the Danish colony in Saint Thomas, so there is a possibility of an answer covering those Danish efforts.
    – SJuan76
    Oct 24, 2018 at 10:14
  • 4
    Note that vaccinating the indigenous population is a very good way of protecting the Spanish inhabitants - by reducing the prevalence of the disease. You don't have to be a bleeding heart liberal who believes in the equality of man in order to do it. Oct 24, 2018 at 15:53
  • 2
    @MartinBonner: While we understand herd immunity very well today, a reference that the concept was understood 200 years ago would be useful. Oct 24, 2018 at 17:00
  • 1
    @MartinBonner and in any case the indigenous population was part of the country economy, so it was in Spain's own best interest to keep them healthy. In any case the sources almost unanimously mention that the fact that the King of Spain at the time (Charles IV) had lost a daughter to smallpox was an important factor in ensuring the government support for the expedition.
    – SJuan76
    Oct 24, 2018 at 17:36

James O. Pattie reported in his 1831 narrative having in 1828 vaccinated 22,000 people, principally California natives at the Franciscan missions, against smallpox. He supposedly cut a deal with Governor Echeandía to release him from prison in exchange for performing the inoculations.


There was a big Smallpox epidemic in the Great Plains of the USA and Canada from 1836 to 1840. The American Fur Company, the federal government of the USA, and the Hudson's Bay Company made attempts to vaccinate many Indians against smallpox.

The were three major vaccination attempts to stop the spread of smallpox at the onset of the epidemic. The first by the American Fur Company was largely unsuccessful. Many traders tried to obtain vaccines but the AFC was unwilling to heed their requests.[7] The second was by the American government. Here efforts were made under the Indian Vaccination Act of 1832. Some areas did receive vaccines for smallpox, typically ones that were in contact with Americans, usually in the southern United States. Still the Office of Indian Affairs did not have the network or information needed to vaccinate the plains people quickly, nor did they try establish the needed network.[7] While the damage of the epidemic could have been reduced if preemptive measures had been take, the HBC still had the best response of the three actors. Rumours of the disease spreading prompted traders to act quickly as a reduction in the indigenous population meant a reduction in profit from the furs they brought in. A good information network, a supply of vaccines at posts, and a willingness among all for vaccination resulted in efforts being much more successful than those by their American counterparts.[6] Vaccination performed by HBC workers and trained Indigenous people were critical to limiting the spread of smallpox in Canada.[7] After the epidemic the HBC implemented a territory wide vaccination program which further reduced smallpox deaths. Unfortunately, as people entered communities with the intention of vaccinating against smallpox, they brought with them additional diseases that worked to keep mortality rates high.[3]


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.