Siege & Contagion
Custom, & the Ports
Nat Turner, & Others
The Southern Slopes
The Mission Coasts
Mills & Planters
Silver & opium
Alamán & Calhoun
Rancheros & Pilots
The War of the South
Siege & Contagion
A Note on Then and Now
What They Called "Civil War"
Outcomes, and Vision
|Disease was part of how control systems worked.
Missionaries were certainly powerful witches. And just how is it that witchcraft causes smallpox?
One older Indian gave a fur trader on the Missouri his own philosophy on the matter: whites came in, giving new names to things, and capturing things in pictures that had nothing of ceremonial quality. This imitation and abstraction -- these acts of "representation" itself -- violated the natural order and opened the way for disease to enter.
Peasants in Guatemala, possibly acting on cues given them by Catholic priests, accused the liberal government of spreading cholera by poisoning wells. Cholera was in fact spread through contaminated water, once sick travelers had entered an area. The civil authorities of that country were trying to add disinfectants to the water -- at a time when no one had a very good idea what would work to disinfect.
No one in the 1830s offered any exact interpretation of epidemics. No one had yet demonstrated the germ theory of disease. Lacking any micro-explanations, people resorted to the best available, which was some sense for the place of epidemics in the conflicts of religion, class, and race.
Most of the spread of disease from one region to another was carried by migration and commerce. Europeans knew, and had long known, that disease would go with them when they moved from one part of the world to another.Up to that time, epidemic disease was one weapon in the network of controls that the commercial world was trying to cast over other worlds and other peoples. And it did not even have to be wielded by conscious decision.
There were times, such as the 1830s, when the push of speculation and
migration outran any barriers that society could set against contamination.
Growing cities became sinks of poor water supply, through which cholera
could spread. Military units, which were themselves like small cities without
adequate sanitary discipline, moved from one area to another, carrying
disease. Cholera disabled some U.S. units, headed to fight Indians in 1832,
just as it did some Mexican units, headed against conservative rebels in
1833. The result was the outbreak of diseases that, though "infectious,"
were fostered by poverty, crowding, and mobilization. And that included
industrial mobilization as well as military.
Smallpox, which moved in waves and had been fairly quiet for a generation, was also on the rise in this decade. The threat to biological survival was one reason to impose some discipline on the liberal energies at work in politics, and in military life. "Police" was a buzz-word of the period, and that included sanitary police.
Whether in the cities or in the countryside, a world of "mere" commerce was making a drastic shift toward one of urban and military controls. But none of this discipline was yet doing much for public sanitation and water supplies, either in city slums or in the armies of the period.
Nowhere in the world was there the kind of scientific understanding that "all" could accept. Everywhere, even when people agreed that they needed to impose some controls, there was confusion and controversy about what kind of control. Should it be the old controls of church and paternalistic tradition, or should it be some new, post-liberal controls, with bureaucratic regulations to impose limits on commerce and defecation?
All these problems imposed themselves too on the decisions made by famous men.
Andrew Jackson resented the censorious attitudes (toward him) of old-line politicians who supported military values and a disciplined army. Santa Anna had resented the prestige of the more conservative officers who made the transition from the Spanish to the Mexican Army. Both of them, as individuals, were among the outsiders who were riding on the world-wide wave of "liberal" politics at the beginning of the 1830s. But their armies were vulnerable both to the dangers of population movement, and to the dangers of unscientific crowding. Their armies, if they moved out to deal with provincial challenges, would carry with them any epidemic diseases that were circulating through international commerce and bad water supplies. In 1832, that meant cholera.In California, the flight of Indians from the missions probably saved many from a worse disease threat than they had suffered already. When Mexican liberals led by Valentín Gómez Farías moved in 1833 to secularize (finally) the California missions, they did so at the same time that cholera had struck the armies fighting in Mexico's civil war. Neither urban regulation nor army discipline yet included systematic measures for cleaning up the water supplies through which cholera spread. "Urban" discipline in the missions, if backed by no scientific understanding, would have been worse than no help at all.
Jackson discovered it when he tried to react to a problem in the area west of Lake Michigan. When citizens of northern Illinois were frightened by a migrating band of Indians, under their chief Black Hawk, Jackson decided to help out the poor locals by sending in army units under General Winfield Scott. On their way to the scene of the "campaign," the troops discovered that they were carrying cholera. His little army was itself a moving city, with its own bad sanitation. Many died, and Scott had to keep the rest away from the civilian population. They never made it into battle. Instead, soldiers already in the area had to depend on help from state militia in their campaign to push Black Hawk back away from the white settlements. This was the balance that existed between state and national force in late 1832, at the time when Jackson put Scott in charge of Army arrangements in the confrontation with South Carolina.
Santa Anna discovered the problem when he tried to move against conservative rebels in Guanajuato.
Peoples engaged in civil war did it, whenever they declined to throw
larger, compact coalition armies into the fray. Large-scale civil
wars would not be "safe," at least not until governments made some stab
at scientific sanitary measures.
The long-term strain, between two types of disease horizon, applied also to the Missouri Country and the Plains.
The Mandan-Hidatsa villages, which had been centers of trade long before Europeans entered the Plains, were now receiving white traders and outside influences coming up from St. Louis. In the same area, and very much in competition, the Lakotas wanted to control trade along more direct east-west lines, and resented the "middle-man" position of the villages. There the decision came quickly, in 1837.
The annual steamboat came up the Missouri River, with trade goods and supplies. A steamboat was itself a small town, with all the vulnerabilities of city life. One of the workers on the boat came down sick. The captain had his voyage to make. At first he would not believe that the illness was smallpox. When he had to admit that he knew, he kept going anyway, to do business at the villages, only sending messages ahead to warn those Indians out hunting, whether they were Lakotas or Mandans, not to come in from the plains. The infection swept through the Mandans, who had not been exposed to it for many years. All but about 200 died. The remainder tried to recoup, but at a time when Lakota attacks were continuing.
Villages afire, on the bluffs over the Missouri River, marked the end of an old local people, caught between the "conservative" mobility of the plains nomads and the "liberal" mobility of the white traders.
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