The End

Posted by Ken Campbell January 29, 2009 0 Comment 843 views

In 1853 the schooner Cynosure dropped anchor in Neah Bay. The Makah had had some interaction with white settlers and merchants before this point, but this encounter would prove very different, and far more tragic, than any that had preceded it. One of the crew – exactly whom is unknown – had been exposed to smallpox. A Makah that had been working on board the boat took it back to the Indian village when he returned home. The die had been cast.

With no prior exposure to the disease, tribal members were completely unequipped to deal with the sickness. In a matter of days the disease had spread throughout the Makah Nation, and many individuals and families left the community in an attempt to escape the invisible killer that had invaded their homes. When they found that this tactic didn’t protect them, they came back to town, to the shop of trader Samuel Hancock, the one white inhabitant of Neah Bay, in the hope that he could provide them with a cure. They lay down in his yard outside the store, begging him to do something, anything. There was, of course, nothing to be done. Except die.

And die they did. Within six weeks, the majority of the once-powerful Makah were history. Hancock dug holes and buried up to 20 victims at a time in mass graves until even that was not enough. He was unable to excavate fast enough to keep pace with the dying Makah. Finally, when further attempts at burial proved to be impossible, Hancock simply transported the corpses to the beach at low tide, and when the water rose, the current carried the bodies away.

When the epidemic had run its course, the survivors tried, in some addled sense of primitive right-and-wrong, to pin the blame for the tragedy on Hancock. He was able, however, with no small amount of stress and skill, to convince his accusers that the carnage had not been his fault. Eventually the tribe determined that the Indian who had carried the disease to town in the first place was liable and they set him adrift in a canoe without a paddle, by way of punishment. When he managed to reach the shore of Waadah Island, just out from the harbor at Neah Bay, members of the Makah surrounded him and shot him to death.

Following the outbreak, Hancock didn’t remain in town much longer. Imagine that. He moved to Whidbey Island where he married, began a new career as a farmer, and settled down. He wrote an account of his life as an entrepreneur, “The Narrative of Samuel Hancock, being a description of his Overland Journey to Oregon in 1845; His Adventures and Sufferings; His Escape from the Indians; His Gold Seeking Expedition to California and Encounters with Robbers There; The Wreck of the Cayuga and his Near Starvation; and his life as a Trader Among the Indians.” (The title continues for another two paragraphs.)

Big changes came quickly to the Olympic Peninsula with the arrival of the white man. Whole forests were cut down, cities and towns were carved out of the wilderness – and most of the changes were easy to see. But for the Makah, it was what was unseen that mattered most.

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