How Smallpox Was Sent Among the Odawa

Posted on August 20, 2011


This excerpt from the book History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan, (1887) by Chief Mack-e-te-be-nessy (Andrew J. Blackbird) relates a story from Ottawa oral history about an incident of germ warfare which happened during the French-Indian Wars, probably sometime around 1757.

However it was a notable fact that by this time [1763] the Ottawa were greatly reduced in numbers from what they were in former times, on account of the small-pox which they brought from Montreal during the French war with Great Britain.

This small pox was sold to them shut up in a tin box, with the strict injunction not to open the box on their way homeward, but only when they should reach their country; and that this box contained something that would do them great good, and their people! The foolish people believed really there was something in the box supernatural, that would do them great good.

Accordingly, after they reached home they opened the box; but behold there was another tin box inside, smaller. They took it cut and opened the second box, and behold, still there was another box inside of the second box, smaller yet. So they kept on this way till they came to a very small box, which was not more than an inch long; and when they opened the last one they found nothing but mouldy particles in this last little box!

They wondered very much what it was, and a great many closely inspected to try to find out what it meant. But alas, alas! pretty soon burst out a terrible sickness among them. The great Indian doctors themselves were taken sick and died.

The tradition says it was indeed awful and terrible. Every one taken with it was sure to die. Lodge after lodge was totally vacated–nothing but the dead bodies lying here and there in their lodges–entire families being swept off with the ravages of this terrible disease.

The whole coast of Arbor Croche, or Waw-gaw-naw- ke-zee, where their principal village was situated, on the west shore of the peninsula near the Straits, which is said to have been a continuous village some fifteen or sixteen miles long and extending from what is now called Cross Village to Seven-Mile Point (that is, seven miles from Little Traverse, now Harbor Springs), was entirely depopulated and laid waste.

It is generally believed among the Indians of Arbor Croche that this wholesale murder of the Ottawa by this terrible disease sent by the British people, was actuated through hatred, and expressly to kill off the Ottawa and Chippewa because they were friends of the French Government or French King, whom they called “Their Great Father.”

The reason that to-day we see no full- grown trees standing along the coast of Arbor Croche, a mile or more in width along the shore, is because the trees were entirely cleared away for this famous long village, which existed before the small-pox raged among the Ottawa.