Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History.
Near the end of the summer of 1782, Hudson’s Bay Company chief factor of York Factory, Matthew Cocking lamented: “Never has a Letter in Hudson’s Bay conveyed more doleful Tidings than this… Much the greatest part of the Indians whose furs have been formerly and hitherto brought to this Place, are now no more having been carried off by that cruel disorder the Small Pox.” Although localized outbreaks of a host of deadly epidemics – such as measles, influenza, mumps, typhus, cholera, plague, scarlet fever, and whooping cough – were becoming increasingly commonplace in North America, this smallpox (Variola) eruption developed into a truly cataclysmic epidemic. Between 1779 and 1783, a smallpox outbreak originating in Mexico City devastated Western North America. Smallpox is a serious and often deadly infectious disease that causes headache, backache, fever, vomiting, fatigue, malaise, and eventually leads to the telltale skin rash, lesions, pustules, and scabs. The virulent epidemic reached the Northern Great Plains in 1780 – via expansive Indigenous horse-borne trading and warfare – and its impact was devastating. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was a joint-stock company with a presumptive monopoly over the region drained by all rivers and streams flowing into Hudson Bay – an area known as “Rupert’s Land” – and was the primary chronicler of the diffusion of the smallpox epidemic throughout the Northwest.
William Tomison, an HBC trader operating at Cumberland House, described the devastation that the smallpox epidemic had inflicted upon several Nêhiyawak (Western Woodland Cree) and Nakoda (Assiniboine) bands who resided along the Saskatchewan River. Tomison grimly reported that “not one in fifty have survived.” Another HBC trader, William Falconer, likewise confirmed that “the Small Pox having been communicated to the Natives about Cumberland House and the Upper Settlement have almost entirely rooted [routed] them, and the Bungees [Ojibwe] having also caught the infection… are either dying or dead.” At Gloucester House, HBC trader John Kipling received a group of Ojibwes from Rainy Lake, who reported that “there is a great mortality among the Indians and that most of the Indians in and near the raney [Rainy] Lake is dead, and that the assineybols [Nakoda] country is depopulated.” At Severn House, two families of Ojibwes reported that they had “seen but one Indian during the winter, that they are all dead inland.” Indeed, between 1779 and 1783, this smallpox epidemic claimed tens of thousands of lives in Western North America.
While no one had yet viewed a virus under a microscope, many of the HBC’s experienced fur traders understood the communicable nature of smallpox and other acute infectious diseases. Because smallpox was endemic to larger European urban centres, like London, or at the very least recurred in five-year cycles in smaller rural communities, most HBC traders had already developed an immunity to the disease. The HBC’s more prevailing concern was to protect their Indigenous neighbours with whom they traded. Witnessing the destruction that smallpox wrought on Indigenous peoples at other factories (trading posts), Matthew Cocking endeavoured to prevent the disease from spreading to the Homeguard Cree at his post of York Factory. The Homeguard Cree were local Omushkegowak (Swampy Crees) who lived year-round in the Hayes River tidewater area that surrounded York Factory. The Homeguard Cree were vital to supplying York Factory’s complement of labourers with victuals including game, fish, and wildfowl (mostly Canada geese). Their survival was paramount to the continuation of Company operations.
Matthew Cocking took several precautionary measures to protect the Homeguard population. For example, on August 6, 1782, Cocking detained a brigade of Ojibwes, who were “ill of the Small Pox” at a nearby creek rather than allowing them to come directly to the fort. He dispatched York Factory’s surgeon and some men with medicine to assist them, wanting to shield the Homeguard who remained healthy at the fort from any viruses that may have travelled with the sick Ojibwe brigade. Around the same time, Cocking decided not to send Homeguards with letters to Prince of Wales Fort (Churchill), as was usually custom, fearing that “the Small Pox has certainly reached that place” and concluding that “it would be imprudent to send [them] at this time.” Omushkego oral tradition also recalls the HBC’s efforts to quarantine their communities: “Trading Post officials sent out messengers to the native summer camps, instructing them not to come to the settlement.” This policy of quarantine was outlined in a letter from York Factory to Severn House:
… Keep a strict look out, that none of the Homeguards come to the factory but keep them at a proper distance so that none of the Bungees [Ojibwes] that come for debt may have any Communication with them. Should you find the disorder has attacked any of them, do all in your power for their preservation. If the Englishmen have been handling any person that may have had the small Pox, you must be careful that they shift, wash and air their Cloaths as well as themselves ere they go near one of the homeguards.” 
Because eighteenth-century European notions of cleanliness prioritized freshly laundered garments over soaked and scrubbed hands and bodies, Cocking placed far more importance on sanitizing and disinfecting clothing. Nevertheless, it was sound epidemiologic advice because the smallpox virus could survive for extended periods of time on clothing and blankets. Similarly, William Tomison at Cumberland House along the Saskatchewan River ordered his men to fumigate the furs that they collected “with the Flour of Sulphur” as a disinfectant to prevent the spread of the disease. By all accounts, this policy of quarantine and frequent laundering of clothes and furs was successful with one HBC trader even optimistically writing that “by this prudent precaution the homeguards here are preserved.”
Despite the HBC’s short-term success of containing the pestilence, the story regrettably ended on a somber note. Events far beyond the reach or influence of on-the-ground agents at Hudson Bay cut short Matthew Cocking’s efforts to contain the smallpox epidemic. In August of 1782, a French admiral, Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse, led three French warships into Hudson Bay attacking and capturing both Churchill and York Factory. While the comte de Lapérouse had intended to deal a crippling blow to British commerce in North America as part of an offensive naval campaign in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), his attack shattered the HBC’s infrastructure and negated Cocking’s disease containment measures, which effectively opened the floodgates of a relentless microbial onslaught throughout the Hudson Bay Lowlands. For many years to come, the aftershocks of the 1779-1783 smallpox epidemic were felt throughout Hudson Bay. An HBC employee painted a bleak picture of a post-epidemic landscape along the Hudson Bay littoral: “The bleached bones of those who had become the victims of the plague, were to be seen in great quantities at several points on the shores of the Bay.” Initially, early efforts taken by Matthew Cocking and other HBC employees, who recognised the contagious nature of smallpox, worked to halt the spread of the infectious disease. For a time, a quarantine-based strategy paired with decontamination of clothing and furs proved effective at curtailing the spread of the pestilence in the Northwest.