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A look back on the 19th-century smallpox epidemic in the North Bay

In March of 1828, three years after leaving Missouri, mountain man James Pattie found himself locked in a Mexican prison cell in San Diego. He and his father were charged with being illegal immigrants. As the months ticked by, Alta California’s first smallpox epidemic began sweeping through the territory. Pattie’s father also died that year while incarcerated, though of other causes. To his son’s good fortune, he left behind a valuable inheritance - a vial of smallpox vaccine.

Learning that Pattie knew how to administer the serum, California Gov. Echeandia offered to release him on condition that he vaccinate the inhabitants of California. Accepting the offer, Pattie began traveling from mission to mission, treating thousands of Hispanic settlers and indigenous people on the way. His original supply was augmented by vaccine the Mexicans acquired from Russian ships calling at San Diego and Monterey. From San Francisco he made his way across the bay and overland to the Russian settlement at Fort Ross, where he also administered the vaccine. On his return to San Francisco, Pattie was officially freed. There is no mention in his firsthand account of visiting either the San Rafael or Sonoma missions.

Up until Pattie’s time, California had escaped serious epidemics. This was partly due to its remoteness. The onset of human pandemics has been attributed to the shift from hunting and gathering societies to more settled agricultural communities and cities. Living in closer quarters set the stage for outbreaks of tuberculosis, influenza, measles and other infectious diseases, which over the course of human history have killed as many as a billion people. Like the coronavirus, smallpox is an airborne disease that spreads quickly. Coughing, sneezing and sharing clothing can all lead to infection. In the Old World, smallpox killed 3 out of 10 people it infected and left the rest scarred and sometimes blind.

As Europeans settled the New World, their diseases readily infected the native people, who had no previous exposure or immunity. Over 50 million perished of smallpox and other diseases after European contact; about 90% of the original population of the Americas. In the 1790s, back in England, British doctor Edward Jenner tested the idea that milkmaids infected with cowpox, a milder disease, were immune to smallpox. He proved it by inoculating a 9-year-old boy with cowpox and then exposing him to smallpox with no ill effect.

Although the Spanish did their best to screen those they sent to settle California, international travel remained a primary avenue for the spread of disease. The smallpox outbreak of 1828 was introduced by a foreign vessel that docked in San Francisco. Seven years later, smallpox appeared in Sitka, Alaska, the capital of Russian America, likely arriving on a ship from across the Pacific. What followed fits a pattern that has been noted since Roman times - epidemics begin in ports of entry and spread from there. Within a year, it had reached hundreds of miles north over much of modern-day Alaska and south into British territory around Puget Sound. The British managed to vaccinate people ahead of the outbreak and stalled the spread of the virus in the summer of 1837. Whatever efforts the Russians made, on the other hand, were not successful in containing it.

Smallpox soon arrived by Russian ship at Fort Ross. By then, California missions had been disbanded by the Mexican government. General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo had taken possession of the Sonoma mission property and established a military presence. In late 1837, before the virus was detected, he sent a cavalry unit led by corporal Ignacio Miramontes and accompanied by Indian auxiliaries, to Fort Ross to bring back supplies for the troops at Sonoma.

By the time he returned, Miramontes was already showing symptoms, as were his men. Having been vaccinated, Miramontes recovered in two months. But the disease was already spreading rapidly. Though Vallejo practiced “social distancing” by relocating his native laborers to a place a mile and a half away, they still perished “by the hundreds.” From there, smallpox cut a wide swath through the North Bay to Clear Lake and beyond. It was a terrifying time - hoping for a cure, many natives entered their sweathouses and then plunged into cold water. But it was no use.

Whole villages were struck down without a single survivor. Platon Vallejo, the general’s son and a doctor, described how: “long trenches were dug, none too deep; great numbers of bodies were hastily thrown in and the earth, with equal haste, replaced.” In other cases the dead were cremated. Sometimes the toll was beyond the abilities of the living to handle at all. For years after, the bones of thousands “often left unburied, bleached the hills” of Sonoma and Napa counties. Chief Solano, Vallejo’s friend, estimated that his tribe, which had numbered in many thousands, was reduced to just 200 survivors. The death toll may have exceeded 90%, on par with other places in the Americas.

The epidemic in the North Bay continued into 1839. Pattie’s efforts 10 years earlier seem to have given some protection to those tribes to the south. According to Platon, most Mexicans were vaccinated and did not suffer the same fate as the indigenous people. Chief Solano, one of the few natives vaccinated by Vallejo, survived. No one knows why Vallejo never vaccinated his native laborers or native soldiers. Was it racism or a lack of vaccine or expertise? As with the coronavirus, an inability to grasp the severity of the situation before it was too late may also have played a role.

Today, we’re all hoping for a modern James Pattie to deliver a vaccine for the current pandemic. After hearing stories from New York and Italy, we can appreciate the terror of those earlier times. Pestilence no longer sounds like an old-fashioned word.

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