Vantage Points Flashback - Smallpox!

Please scroll to the bottom of this page to listen to the audio by local historian, David Neufeld.

Welcome to Vantage Points Flashback. We focus on local stories, and on how these stories are connected to stories far away. Thank-you municipal councils for your support. 


There's a burial site on Turtle Mountain, just up from where Wassawa School used to be. Bill Moncur, local historian, identified the site on his early settlement map as “Indian Cemetery”. There're no markings. But some locals know to protect the site from disturbance. The people buried were Nakota/Assiniboine Nationals. They died of smallpox, as the epidemic raged across the Great Plains in the 1770s and 80s. 

By that time, La Verendrye had been here, and trading posts were being established. Beaver pelts were the rising, big business. The Nakota were known to be particularly trade savvy. Keen to engage with explorers and traders from both Upper and Lower Canada. Little did they know of the European diseases that would devastate their communities and drive survivors away from home, into the Northwest. 

Smallpox came out of close contact with domestic animals. Over time the disease became endemic on the Euro-Asian and African continents. Residents carried the disease but were immune to its effects. As the Spanish, Portuguese, French and British built naval fleets and traveled the seas for trade and plunder, they carried diseases with them.

On Turtle Island, First Nations had few animals to domesticate. The dog and the llama were the two usable pack animals. They therefore had little or no experience with diseases that came from close animal contact. Their immune systems were unprepared for the onslaught that befell, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. 

In his ground-breaking book, “1491”, Charles C. Mann researches life on Turtle Island before Columbus arrived in 1492.

Mann explains, that what he was taught in school about pre-contact America, was not accurate or adequate. His teachers knew literally nothing about this hemisphere pre-Columbus. He set out to learn. 

It's estimated there were 90 million people in the Americas in 1491. Because of well-established trade routes between Nations across Turtle Island and because of unwitting explorers moving across its expanse, diseases like smallpox and measles spread quickly. As many as 60 million, 2/3 of the people, died in what Mann calls “the greatest population calamity in human history”. The First Nation societies, early settlers encountered, were fundamentally altered by European diseases. Smallpox literally handed control over the Americas to the Spanish, French and British. 

There are reports of unscrupulous colonialists using disease infected blankets to further the devastation. As troubling as this is, there are also records of compassion. William Tomison, in charge of the Hudson's Bay Company's Cumberland House, practiced isolation and compassion. He and his men gave infected neighbors quarters...  and provided food and 24-hour care. 

Those of us from settler stock are served well to look into history, as Charles Mann has done, to understand, not only the devastation, but also the resistance that continues to unfold against colonialism. To care for a grave site is the least we can do. 


Smallpox is based on a story in Vantage Points 5. Vantage points is a 5-book series about the layers of history in South West Manitoba. All the stories in this radio series can be found at or CLICK HERE!

*Please note: 'Turtle Island' refers to the continent of North America, originating from various indigenous oral histories that shares of a turtle that holds the world on its back.

Please learn about Turtle Mountain – Souris Plains Heritage Association, and talk with us. Our website is


See you later! 

David Neufeld

Turtle Mountain – Souris Plains Heritage Association