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The American Fur Company's steamboat. Trapper, brought smallpox up the river in 1837. This devastating scourge swept through the tribes of the Northwestern plains like a poisoned gale. Nobody knows how many Indians perished, estimates ranging from 60,000 to 200,000 men, women, and children. Perhaps the least of these figures is high. Nevertheless the Mandans alone lost 6000 members, so that when the plague had spent itself the tribe had but 32 warriors left alive. Reaching Fort McKenzie the disease first attacked the inmates, deaths occurring so rapidly that burial was impossible. The dead bodies were thrown into the Missouri river. Within the fort there were 29 deaths, 26 of them being Pecunnie women who had been attached to the fort's engagees. Upon the arrival of the disease-laden boat there had been 500 lodges of Blackfeet camped at Fort McKenzie. Now they were gone. During all the time that the smallpox had scourged the fort's company not an Indian appeared on the plains.
In October Alexander Culbertson, the American Fur Company's manager at McKenzie, set out to learn what might have happened to his patrons. He did not have to travel far before reaching a village of 60 Pecunnie lodges standing among the dead bodies of hundreds of men, women and children, and even of horses and dogs. Here, in these horrid surroundings, Culbertson found two old women, too feeble to travel, chanting their death-songs among the putrid dead. And here, having seen enough, Alexander Culbertson, the trader, turned back to his fort.
In November straggling groups of Blackfeet came to Fort McKenzie to tell their awful story. The disease had not made its appearance among them until the tenth day after leaving the post. Then its ravaging became so terrible that in the ensuing panic young warriors who fell ill stabbed themselves to death rather than have their fine bodies wasted and scarred by the loathsome disease. More than 6000 Blackfeet had perished, they said, more than half their nation. Many other tribes suffered as severely, the Assiniboins losing more than three-quarters of their warriors.
Nevertheless the trade in buffalo robes was that fall and winter greater than ever before at Forts McKenzie and Union, since dead Indians needed no robes. Stripped by thousands from their bodies by surviving tribesmen these death-robes were traded in at the Company's forts; and then, without the least attempt at disinfection, they were shipped to "the states" where, providentially, no epidemic of smallpox ensued. But the weakened tribes never again regained their numbers.
During all this time the heavy toll upon the immense herds of buffalo in the Northwest was scarcely noticeable; and now there was an exodus of traders. Having stripped the section of its beaver and land-fur, these avaricious white men began to abandon their trading-posts on the river, and to leave the country to the Indians and hungry wolves.
The Blackfeet, weakened in numbers, and tortured with bitter recollections, had scarcely settled down to their old life when the Seventies brought the professional skin-hunters to the plains. And now, for from 50 cents to $1.50 per head, these white men shot down the buffalo for their robes alone, leaving countless thousands of tons of fat meat to rot where it fell. By the middle Eighties the skin-hunters had finished. The buffalo were gone forever. The wide grass-lands, which for centuries had been so bountiful, were bleak, inhospitable, and bare. Even the elk and antelope had been wiped away. The Blackfeet, and all the Indians of the plains, were hungry now; and even while the Pecunnies searched in vain for the vanished herds, which the old warriors believed had hidden away, more than one-quarter of the tribe starved to death.
Dazed, unable to comprehend the terrible calamity which had overtaken them, clinging doggedly to their belief that the buffalo had hidden, and would soon return to their loved grass-lands, the Pecunnies were slow to rally. If the tardy Government of the United States had not acted the Pecunnies would have perished to a man.
But the Government did act at last; and the work of making wild hunters into gentle farmers in a single generation began. And this work is succeeding. The Pecunnies, and all the Blackfeet, are rapidly becoming self-supporting by raising cattle and crops on the old buffalo range.