Another Halloween is rapidly approaching.
It is one of the annual events that seems to be becoming more and more popular each year, although the tradition of children going door-to-door for candy and treats is in significant decline.
People seem to enjoy dressing up and decorating their houses with all kinds of scary things. More fundamentally, the fascination with the unknown, the supernatural and the macabre is a timeless human trait.
Many Halloween stories have their roots in tragic events such as sudden deaths and epidemics. Right now, there is a lot of well-founded concern over the rapid increase in the incurable and generally fatal Ebola disease. However, despite the world-wide attention to Ebola, that epidemic (at least so far) is quite minor compared to some of the great epidemics of history.
Central Alberta was a region where devastating epidemics frequently took place. As Europeans began to make their way to western North America 200 and 300 years ago, they brought with them diseases to which the natives had very little or no resistance. The consequences were terrifying.
A story related to the early explorer David Thompson by the elderly Blackfoot man, Saukamappee, help to illustrate the horror of the early epidemics.
A band of Blackfoot First Nations attacked a Shonshoni camp along the Red Deer River. However, to their surprise, no resistance was offered.
Once the raiders entered the camp, they found all of the Shoshoni were, “A mass of corruption,” dead or dying from smallpox.
Within two days, the Blackfoot began to succumb to the terrible illness they had caught from their intended victims.
Before long, more than half of Saukamappee’s fellow tribesmen had died. Some drowned after they threw their fever-tortured bodies into the Red Deer River.
The smallpox epidemic quickly escalated. The death toll was enormous.
Some Blackfoot encampments were completely wiped out by the disease. The Blackfoot Confederacy suffered a dreadful setback. The Shoshoni were so weakened that they retreated into what is now the United States and were rarely seen in Central and Southern Alberta again.
Another horrific smallpox epidemic struck in 1869-1870. The epidemic started with a disease stricken non-native on a steamboat at Fort Union on the Missouri River in North Dakota. Before long, the epidemic had exploded across the western plains.
The Hudson’s Bay Company tried to take measures to stem the spread of the disease. Quarantines were imposed on traders and other employees. Attempts were made to bring in vaccines. However, the distances were enormous and most areas were too remote to bring in vaccines on a timely basis.
By the summer of 1870, smallpox had become endemic amongst the Metis buffalo hunters. Of the 900 residents in the settlement of St. Albert, near Fort Edmonton, more than 600 people became ill. More than 320 died. Many felt that the death rate would have been even higher if not for the efforts of the local Roman Catholic nuns and priests.
As the epidemic raged on, food became short as many people were far too ill to hunt and fish. Bad prairie fires in the fall increased the misery. Many of the sick suffocated from the smoke. Others, having lost their shelter, succumbed to exposure after the blazes.
By the spring of 1871, the crisis finally began to abate.
However, William Christie, the chief factor of the HBC at Fort Edmonton, reported 3,544 official deaths. That was only a fraction of those who had actually lost their lives, to the disease and subsequent malnutrition and even starvation.
At Red Deer, there was a cemetery for the local victims of the epidemic of 1869-1870 on the ridge on what is now the west side of the QE II Hwy.
At one time, there were markers on many of the graves. However, these appear to have now been lost and the exact location of this cemetery is now forgotten.