This post is the last in a series on the effects of the “Spanish Flu” pandemic in 1918 and 1919. In light of the recent situation with COVID-19, SCARC archivists Anna Dvorak and Larry Landis explore how past epidemics and pandemics have impacted the Oregon State and Corvallis communities.
The 1918-19 influenza pandemic was well documented, in part because of broad newspaper coverage, photography, and advances in medical science. Despite the pandemic’s detrimental effect in Oregon, where tens of thousands of people became ill and more than 3,600 succumbed, earlier disease outbreaks and pandemics proportionally had a greater impact, especially among Native communities. Most major diseases ravaged Oregon and the Pacific Northwest at one time or another in the late 18th and 19th centuries, including smallpox, malaria, measles, influenza, cholera and typhoid fever. Some of the diseases recurred periodically, sometimes on an annual basis.
Although disease was common among the mostly white emigrants on the Oregon Trail, historian William Lang has concluded that most outbreaks occurred prior to their arrival at Ft. Laramie in Wyoming. Many of the disease outbreaks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries transformed into epidemics that decimated the region’s Native populations, due to their lack of immunity because of no prior exposure. It is estimated that between about 1780 and 1850, 97 percent of Oregon’s Native population perished due to introduced diseases. Anthropologist Robert T. Boyd estimated that the population of two western Oregon Native groups, the Chinookan and the Kalapuyan peoples, declined from a pre-contact population of 32,000 to approximately 2,100 by the late 1830s. By the 1850s, disease outbreaks and epidemics had reduced Native populations to a fraction of their pre-contact numbers. However, many chronic diseases, such as tuberculosis, continued to affect the survivors in those communities.
According to Boyd’s Oregon Encyclopedia essay on disease in Native communities, a smallpox epidemic around 1781 was the first documented in Oregon. The documentation included oral tradition from the Clatsop Tribe on Oregon’s north coast and entries in the journals of Lewis and Clark noting pockmarked people in various Native communities. It is likely that this smallpox epidemic spread among many indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest.
Subsequent smallpox epidemics occurred almost each decade through 1870. A smallpox epidemic in 1853 struck the lower Columbia River region, wiping out as much as half the Native population in some communities. It was the last major epidemic among Native communities, as those populations had already suffered enormous population decline over the previous seventy years. Among non-Native communities, a smallpox epidemic in 1862 was particularly hard on the Aurora Colony. Jacksonville experienced a significant smallpox outbreak in 1868-69, and in 1870 western Oregon experienced a smallpox epidemic.
Outbreaks and epidemics of malaria, called “fever and ague,” in the early 1830s may have been even more virulent and destructive to Native communities than smallpox. It also greatly affected the Anglo population in the area; at one point in 1830, seventy-five people at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver were ill with the disease, though proportionately far fewer died than among the Native population in the region. In 1832 a malaria outbreak at the fort affected an estimated 137 out of 140 people, though few apparently died. Malaria also affected the Willamette Mission near Salem, established in the mid-1830s. Boyd speculates that the malaria epidemics of the 1830s may have been accompanied by influenza, possibly accounting for the high mortality rate since pneumonia is a complication of both diseases. An influenza epidemic in 1836 on the central Oregon coast and an 1844 outbreak of dysentery on the Lower Columbia also took many lives in Native communities.
A major measles epidemic in the Pacific Northwest in 1847-48 ravaged the Cayuse Tribe in the mid-Columbia River region, especially its children. This epidemic had a connection to the Whitman Massacre at Waiilatpu in the Walla Walla Valley in 1847, as it is thought that Marcus Whitman was killed by a band of Cayuse because of his inability to cure tribal members of the disease. The epidemic affected Native communities as far north as Sitka, in present-day Alaska, and south into the Willamette Valley. This was the first recorded measles epidemic in the Pacific Northwest, though the disease may have been present in the region as early as 1812.
The last major pandemic of the 19th century was an influenza pandemic in 1889-90. It was commonly called “La grippe” and later known as the “Russian influenza.” An estimated 1 million people succumbed to it worldwide, 13,000 in the U.S. It appeared in Oregon in December 1889, with initial newspaper reports of outbreaks in Astoria, Portland, Pendleton and Albany. Statistics for Oregon on the extent of the disease, the number of people affected, or the number of deaths are not known. The 1889-90 pandemic was a foreshadowing of what was to come less than twenty years later.
For additional reading on epidemics in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest among Native communities, see Boyd’s Oregon Encyclopedia essay, “Disease Epidemics among Indians, 1770s-1850s” and his Oregon Historical Quarterly article, “The Pacific Northwest Measles Epidemic of 1847-1848” (Vol. 95, no. 1, Spring 1994).
This post was contributed by Larry Landis, Director of Special Collections and Archives. Larry Landis is the director of OSU’s Special Collections and Archives Research Center, and has worked as an archivist at OSU since 1991. He is the author of A School for the People: A Photographic History of Oregon State University. Larry is retiring from OSU on July 1.