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1.6: “We have a terrible sickness here at this place-” Smallpox on the Ottawa Reservation in Peshawbestown, Michigan, 1881

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  • Introduction:

    In the fall of 1881, two Native American men helped to unload two schooners that docked in Traverse City. In the process, they contracted smallpox from one of the people on the boats and took the infection back to the Ottawa reservation in Peshawbestown on the Leelanau peninsula. The infection spread and, in an effort to contain it, health officials quarantined the entire village and the residents were not able to buy food or get medical help.

    These letters were exchanged between Francis Blackman, a Native American from Peshawbestown, Dr. Horace Nelson, a physician from Northport (the village north of Peshawbestown), George Lee of the Mackinac Office of Indian Affairs in Ypsilanti, and Hiram Price, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C. from 1881 to 1885. Father Philip Zorn was the Franciscan priest in Cross Village across the Bay who was responsible for the Catholic missions in Leelanau County.

    Francis Blackman, Suttons Bay, Peshobatown , to George Lee, Nov. 9, 1881

    We have a terrible sickness here at this place. 5 dead more since I wrote to you, and 16 taking sick already 7 dead here at this place, besides 1 at Suttons Bay and 1 at Elk Rapids. The Indians are hard up, can not work to get their provisions all they have to do to give some fire wood , those who are able to go around, one of my brothers house, most every body is sick, he is sick himself except 2 little girls cannot do much anything. We need lots of help at this place. Some of them getting [scared] for their group. We need flour pork cornmeal and tea, and we throwing a way our clothes, which we wear when its first come out the sickness. I was throw out pants stockings under shirts twice.

    Doctor from Northport came to see me today. He is a sergeon . He was in the [area] you can find his name at Anabor or in Generals Office at detroit Michigan. His name is Dr. Horace W. Nelson Northport Lelanaw county Mich. I am not very sick I can set up on my bead. Doctor called this my sickness this is varioloid. I do not know what kind they have the others. The doctor at Suttons Bay he don’t come here. I suppose he got [scared]. I can not attend to your business.

    My sister she is begun to sick too. This is all I have to say very respect to you.

    Photo of a handwritten letter.
    Letter from Francis Blackman, Peshawbestown, MI, to George Lee, Mackinac Office of Indian Affairs, 1881.

    Dr. Horace Nelson to George Lee, Nov. 9, 1881

    Francis Blackman of Peshawbestown has requested me to write to you in reference to the conditions of the Indians in his locality. At the request by letter of Father Zorn, the Indian Missionary (Catholic) I visited all the houses in the village in which there was sickness, I found the disease to be small pox or the confluent type which is the most malignant of all.

    In one home there were 8 cases lying upon the floor one old man (nearly blind) to wait upon them. He himself was taken today. His wife now waits upon them all. She informed Father Zorn that they had eaten up all their provisions and their last potato was gone. He magnanimously paid all his money to buy them corn meal ($250) and ordered an Indian Andrew Chippewa to distribute the meal in lots of 10 to 50 [10 words illegible] is young man of 24 years of age. 2 days before I notified the poor master of this district of the starvation of the Indians of this locality, but he refused to give or allow them anything as they were all well off and could buy what they wanted. I asked him how could they do so? When they were not allowed to come to the whites and buy. They may have lands, if so, they have no money, and therefore cannot buy. Of course, want or care and no nourishment will aggravate the disease, and cause the utmost privation and distress and hurry death. On my return to Northport where I reside, I was told I was forbidden to visit the Indians again, that the Board of Health has ordered their Supervisor to stop me and prevent me at all hazards. The Indians of that locality have requested me to come again to them with disinfectants and also to vaccinate those who are still free of the disease, as they are not allowed to leave the place. I promised to do so, as soon as I received some fresh vaccine virus from Detroit and which I expected daily. This action of the board stops me. My inclination is to go. What shall I do? I must await your orders. If you say to go, I’ll go, but I will expect you to pay me for my services, as I will be obliged to relinquish all my other practice while I attend to the Indians. One Indian woman aborted this morning, herself and one of her children down with it, both likely to be sacrificed to the disease. They have asked the mail carrier who passes through their village to carry a letter for you, which he positively refused to do, they have offered him money to bring them supplies and to pay him well for doing so. He still refused. What are the poor Indians to do? I am sorry to say that there is great apathy amongst the whites who think if the Indians are taken away by death they can buy their lands (which are very desirable) very cheap. The supervisor of Bingham (in which township Peshawbetown is located) said that he would relieve the Indian “Pontiac” whose family and relations were all sick because he had 60 acres of land and would not sell it, although a man name Calico Johnson had offered to buy the wood upon it or part of it and give him what provisions he wanted. This he told voluntarily to their Priest Father Zorn. So from this fact you can judge the feelings of some people in this vicinity. Today I counted 17 cases sick with this disease.

    I should mention to you that the above named supervisor, said that if I attended the Indians he would not allow me to be paid for my services in case I applied to the County board so you see he is in the employ of the wood buyers. There is a young physician in Suttons Bay about 4 miles from Peshawbetown, who attended the first case there, and also the next, but did not inform the friend of the patients that it was the smallpox . They blame him. For had he told them, they would have taken measures to protect themselves and stopped the progress of the disease. They say he did not know what it was until too late, when they knew it themselves.

    Francis Blackman has varisoid and may take the smallpox from his sister who is lying on the floor within 6 feet of him. If not he will be able to do your business by the latter part of the ensuing [week]. Will you please inform me by return of mail what you wish me to do, in reference to my medical services with the Indians. (I was asst serg of the 11th [illegible] [Awaiting your reply, Dr. Horace Nelson]

    Old photo of an Indian woman wrapped in a blanket beside her baby on a cradle board.
    Ojibwe/Chippewa mother and child, 1880.
    "Domestic scene, Chippewa Indians." by New York Public Library is in the Public Domain

    George Lee to Hon. H[iram] Price, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Nov. 11, 1881

    I enclose the letters of an Indian Francis Blackman and one Dr. Nelson and ask immediate directions. One cannot think such barbarity could exist among a civilized people.

    Please give me instruction in the matter. I shall of course give immediate temporary relief but it must be of more extent then I can venture. There are probably two or three hundred people in the village and the idea that the people will not help because they have some wild land is preposterous.

    [Note: We do not have Hiram Price’s response to Lee’s request for instructions.]

    Dr. [Horace] Nelson (Northport) to Geo. Lee, Nov. 18, 1881

    Yours of the 11th was received after dark, of the 15th at 7:50 pm your telegram was also recd . In accordance with your request, I proceeded next morning in horse and buggy. Two miles from the village I was stopped by a man who told me he was ordered to stop me if I attempted to go to Peshawbestown. I told him that my life was just as precious to me and to my family as any individual had of theirs and as I had not been notified by the board of health of any obstruction to a physician attending to his patients, I should go where I pleased, and I done so. When I got to Peshawbestown, I found things greatly improved. The Township of Bingham has employed a Mr. Wm. Keyes to attend to the Indians, and to (words missing) necessaries of life, such as flour, crackers, corn meal and tea and rice. He calls upon the Indians twice a day, and ask them what they want. He orders them to keep [to] their house (which they faithfully do) where there is sickness. I spent an hour in the school house with this man, seeing how he managed in regard to the distribution of supplies. His method was good. He weighed so much meal, crackers, flour, rice, tea and entered the same upon a book with the name of the Indian who received it. He has also a supply of carbolic acid in the crystal form which he dissolves in water and gives an ounce of it to each Indian and explains its use. I believe the man is doing good. He sleeps in the school house which is centrally located so when any of their family are taken sick, they are told to go to the school house and he will give them [illegible] to use. On my entrance to the village I proceeded to the residence of Francis Blackman, read to him your letter and also told him your order by telegraph. He is now convalescent and waiting upon his two nieces who are now both suffering from the smallpox. I examined them and told him I had no hopes for the youngest. I left some medicine for them, but am afraid it is too late. His sister who was just taken at [my] last visit and of which I informed you is now recovered and assists him in attending his two nieces. I proceeded to the house of Nannegoi , a house which on my first visit had 8 cases. One of them I told them would die in 24 hours. Only lived till next morning. The brother lying on the floor within 3 feet of her had just caught the disease. I gave him medicine and [words missing] sister and cousin all down with it lying upon the floor. It is a very hard place for a young man of 20 convalescing and the cousin dying. His name is Joe Penaswagesek about 15 years of age. The next house I called was that of Joe Blackman, who died last night of ten days sickness. (This is the brother of Francis Blackman and the father of the two girls sick in his house.) I found his wife recovering from the small pox, but very feeble and emaciated. I think I told you that I found that she had miscarried on my second visit. She will gather strength but only slow. Her older daughter has the disease in its serverest type. And little hopes of her. Also previous to making these calls I proceeded to the house of Lapesaw, I think the third house from Blackman and commenced to vaccinate with the virus I had received a few days before from Detroit. I vaccinated 32 and will vaccinate all of the Indians I can reach when I receive your supply. I have vaccinated the following [lists names of persons vaccinated.]

    The family suffered very severely nearly to be exterminated. Mitchell Agosa died last night and also his father, mother, and grandchild, and two of his children a few days before. The [illegible] with Joe Blackman make 5 deaths last evening. I think in all this [illegible] 17 deaths, during the week 3 more will go. I believe the disease is checked, and with the exception of the cases named, the greatest number will recover. I did not purchase any meat or flour as you requested, because as the supervisor of Bingham had seen the error of his ways, and was redeeming his good name by having a wagon load of supplies sent from Suttons Bay to Peshawbetown 3 times a week and I believe Mr. Keyes will do them justice. I think him a good and honest man, who will faithfully distribute the supplies. I have therefore retained your kind offer for a case of emergency if such should occur, and will see that it is properly distributed. I forgot to mention that some of those I vaccinated were revaccinations which had not taken , and I shall repeat the operation again in the course of a few days unless I am stopped on the highway by force. Can any Board of Health stop a physician on the highway when he is on an errand of mercy and the saving of lives? They tell me that they have more powers vested in them than any court in the state. It may be so, but I don’t believe it. Can you advise me as their legality in stopping and preventing me going?

    This township of Leelanaw has done nothing for the relief of the Indians, unless it be the place of a man to guard the road [and paying ] him for doing so. The Poor Master, refusing to see to their necessities when I told him it was his duty and his district. No such fear of the Indians starving while they have plenty of land and etc. The nearest he visited them was one mile from his own home and 3 miles of the village.


    • carbolic acid - an antiseptic mixture pioneered by Joseph Lister for treating and sterilizing wounds, surfaces, and utensils.
    • confluent - one of the two forms of smallpox along with semi-confluent smallpox, with confluent being the most deadly.
    • poor master - the county or township official who was responsible for distributing aid to the poor people in the community. This was the only social welfare available during that time.
    • privation - being deprived of basic human necessities.
    • varioloid - a mild form of smallpox affecting people who have already had the disease or have been vaccinated against it.


    1. What do the actions of the Poor Master and the Board of Health, as related by Dr. Horace Nelson’s letter, tell us about attitudes toward Native Americans in the late 19th century?
    1. What do we learn about smallpox and how it affects people from the excerpts presented here?


    Gills, Bradley J. “Navigating the Landscape of Assimilation: The Anishnabeg, the Lumber Industry, and the Failure of Federal Indian Policy in Michigan.” Michigan Historical Review, vol. 34, no. 2, 2008, pp. 57–74. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Apr. 2020.

    “Smallpox 1881.” Honoring Native Ancestors , 1 Jan. 1970,

    United States, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration. 75.15.5 Records of the Michigan Superintendency and Mackinac Agency . Washington [District of Columbia]: National Archives and Records Service: General Services Administration, 1966.

    Public Domain Mark

    These letters, by Francis Blackman, Horace Nelson, & George Lee ) are free of known copyright restrictions.