At the turn of the 20th century, a vaccine had been developed for smallpox, a virus that killed millions in the 1800s. Those who survived the disease were often left badly scarred or blind.
The vaccine’s protection, though, lasted only five years and had to be renewed. And people forgot to do that, leading to occasional epidemics, including a serious outbreak on the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama.
In February 1901, three dozen Iowa communities reported smallpox outbreaks. When Des Moines reported 200 smallpox cases in late February, the mayor closed the schools and prohibited public gatherings. Still, no one died. That would not be the case at the Meskwaki Settlement.
On Oct. 22, 1901, an area resident told Dr. Benjamin Thompson of Tama, “I believe the Indians have the smallpox.”
Thompson went to the nearby Meskwaki Settlement, home to 309 people, to investigate.
He learned that an Indian from the Winnebago tribe had visited the settlement Sept. 23. He had become ill, but no doctor was called and he continued meeting with tribe members.
Two weeks later, the Meskwaki were becoming ill.
Thompson went back to the settlement with Dr. George Carpenter of Toledo. The first wickiup they visited had four active smallpox cases and three people recovering from the virus. Two Meskwaki who’d lived there had died.
The doctors found another five cases and were told of two other deaths.
The doctors that night reported to a joint meeting of the boards of health in Tama, Toledo and Montour.
William Malin, the Interior Department’s Indian agent for the settlement, insisted there was no problem. But after another medical visit to the settlement, the three cities quarantined themselves.
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By Nov. 2, 70 Meskwaki had smallpox, and nine members of the tribe had died. Two weeks later, the totals had risen to 90 Meskwaki with smallpox and 35 deaths.
To complicate matters, the Meskwaki declined offers to go to the hospital, they refused smallpox vaccinations and they refused to stay on the settlement. If they became sick, they would hide from the doctors.
The Tama Herald reported, “It looks as though the disease must run its course through the tribe, carrying off the aged and the infirm and weakening the constitution of those who may survive.”
The Iowa governor appealed to Interior Secretary Ethan Hitchcock for authority to enforce the quarantine among the Meskwaki. Hitchcock complied, giving the state the authority to “take any necessary action.”
National Guard hospital tents and cots were shipped to the settlement. The Meskwaki were vaccinated, and they acquiesced to the quarantine.
The local towns began raising money for medicines and provisions not covered by the federal government.
Meanwhile, Congress appropriated $50,000 — more than $1 million in today’s dollars — to eradicate smallpox on the settlement. The bill gave the Interior Department the authority to quarantine the village and, if necessary, burn Meskwaki wickiups and clothing to halt the contagion.
The state of Iowa chipped in another $7,000 to burn the clothing, blankets, wickiups and other property belonging to the Tama tribe and to provide replacements for the Meskwaki.
The money paid for disinfectants — formaldehyde gas and corrosive sublimate fluid — to bathe tribal members and their dogs. Members of the tribe were forced to move to a camping ground while their village was decontaminated.
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Malin, the Indian agent, reported to the Interior Department it took seven days to clean and renovate “the Indian camp.”
“During this process, a large number of the wickiups, where the disease had been prevalent, also large quantities of clothing, bedding and other infected property, were committed to the flames and new goods of similar character supplied,” he reported.
“Twenty-four new board houses, built of good lumber, and some 2,700 square yards of very heavy duck for tents, to those who preferred tents to houses, were given in lien of the wickiups destroyed. ... The Indians emerged from the trying ordeal through which they had passed and came out into the world again, after having been confined to the limited area of their camping grounds ... with a higher and better conception of the white man’s civilization.”
That assessment aside, the Meskwaki Settlement survived and grew. It now covers 8,000 acres and is home to 800 of the tribe’s 1,300 members.
It wasn’t until 1980 that smallpox was declared eradicated worldwide.
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