The Spirit of Pestilence

Overview and Timeline


In 1858 news was spreading of rich gold deposits in British Columbia’s Cariboo Country. In their scramble to strike it rich, many prospectors stopped for provisions at Fort Victoria. The sleepy trading post exploded from a population of about 300 to over 5000 in less than a year1 and by 1862 Victoria was a bustling little city.

The economic opportunities created by the gold rush attracted people from many different walks of life and ethnic groups-- Americans, Chinese, British, Native people from up and down the coast, and many others. Some ethnic groups such as the Chinese and Natives were segregated from the white community. The Songhees Indian Reserve stood across the harbour from the Fort. Songhees was a site set aside by treaty for the Lekwammen people in 1850-51. It had been part of their traditional lands and was where they moved in the 1840s for the economic benefit of close proximity to the Fort.

Other Native groups from along the coast came to Victoria to take advantage of increased trade. Temporary camps were set up in various locations near the town (see map). The Tsimshian had a camp close to the Fort on the beach in James Bay in front of where the parliament buildings stand today. The Haida had a camp at Ogden Point at the entrance to the harbour, where the coast guard is located today; there was Stikine camp at Laurel Point, as well as another Haida camp at Cadboro Bay. There was a third camp for all Native groups from the north that was located in Small Bay Just north of town. In all, there were between 2000 and 2500 Native people living on the outskirts of Victoria in 1862.

In the spring of 1862 smallpox was present in San Francisco and considering the shipping activity between Victoria and San Francisco it was just a matter of time before the disease reached the shores of Vancouver Island. It was indeed a miner from San Francisco that brought the disease to Victoria. The Daily British Colonist of March 18, 1862 reports this first case and on March 26th reports two new cases, one having arrived on the Oregon, the other on the Brother Jonathan, both steamers arriving from San Francisco.

Smallpox was one of the most dreaded of diseases in the nineteenth century. Even today, in the wake of the huge strides of modern medical science and with no active cases reported for more than twenty years, terrorists use its threat to instill fear into the hearts of their intended targets. The fear that must have struck the hearts of the people in Victoria 140 years ago must have been terrifying. The 1862 epidemic represented the most virulent form of the disease and widespread panic was reported in the press.

The disease effected Native people more than it affected any other group. The Northwest Coast Native people lived in communal houses which provided ideal conditions for the spread of smallpox. From the start, there was concern about what would happen if the disease spread to the Native encampments: "Imagine for a moment what a fearful calamity it would be, were the horde of Indians on the outskirts of the town to take the disease."2

There were three avenues of prevention available to the residents of Victoria. The first was vaccination or inoculation.3 The second was isolation--the quarantine and care for victims at some distance from healthy populations. The third available course of action was expulsion--forcing victims to move away from healthy populations without offering any help or aid. All three of these options were employed in Victoria to varying degrees with varying results. The media, government, church and medical community all had a hand to play in the drama of the 1862 smallpox epidemic; each reacting in a different way to the outbreak of the terrible disease.