We noted in our recent "On Matters of Historical Fabulism" that in his Works and Days essay, Churchill coyly demurred on actually citing sources he says prove his assertion that the smallpox epidemic that decimated the Mandan Indians in 1837 was intentionally inflicted upon them, and that further, he is now convinced the source of the smallpox came from Maryland.
Now, we have to wonder if this mysterious source (or at least one of his sources) is an interview conducted in 1879 with Gen. Bernard Pratt, Jr. by the Missouri Republican. We believe it is, but you be the judge.
Excerpt from a 1949 Missouri Historical Society reprint (The Bulletin v. VI, no. 1, pp. 59-71) of a November 24, 1879 Missouri Republican interview with Gen. Bernard Pratte, Jr.:
The same year the Mandans, numbering some 2,500 souls, were nearly extirpated by that scourge of the Indian, the small-pox, and Gen. Pratte supposes that he was in some measure the innocent cause of the calamity. The Mandans were in some respects an interesting people. They were visited by Lewis and Clarke [sic] in the early part of the century, and [George] Catlin spent many days with the tribe in 1832. During a trip up the Missouri in 1836, Gen. Pratte buried 18 men on the voyage up. When he got opposite the Mandan village he had a man on board who had had the small pox and recovered, the wages paid being a temptation to him to continue on the voyage. While on watch during the night an Indian swam on board and stole this man's blanket. Every effort was made to avert the danger, and word was left among the Indians that the thief was on shore with the stolen blanket. The Indians were adjured to hunt up the thief and urged to send him out on the plains, there to die alone, without infecting the whole village. The result was that the Mandans were infected with the small-pox and out of 2,500 only sixty souls left[,] who afterwards became amalgamated with the Arickarees and the celebrated tribe of the Mandans became extinct. The epidemic spread among the other tribes, and it was estimated, from facts subsequently obtained from all the different agencies, that 60,000 Indians perished from the disease—all owing to an Indian stealing a blanket.
When the steamer arrived at the mouth of the Yellowstone the Indians in that region were inoculated and saved from destruction. This dire calamity among the Indians was altogether the fault of an agent. There was a young man who had the small-pox in Hagerstown, Md. He was a trapper and had been in the employ of Pratte, Chouteau & Co. He wrote to a gentleman in St. Louis to send him money. The money was not sent, and out of revenge the young man bundled up some clothes with directions that they be put on board of a steamer, and left [at] Fort Pierce.
Jim Beckwith, the renowned desperado, went up on the boat and used the bundle which was put on board as a pillow. He contracted, in consequence, the small-pox. Gen. Pratte has never seen a case of small-pox. Beckwith complained of pains in the back and it was thought he had a bilious attack. The general prescribed a dose of ipecac, and he recovered. Eighteen men in succession were buried. The next case of recovery was a little Indian boy. His mother said let him go—alluding to the ipecac—better that he should die a natural death.
Note that while the interview has Pratte discussing a steamer voyage up the Missouri in 1836, he is almost certainly talking about the fateful 1837 voyage; bear in mind that this is a reporter's paraphrase of an old man's recall of events 30 years past. One would think it quite risky to hang one's professorial reputation from such a tenuous thread, but hey, it's Churchill's career, not ours.
BTW: Other sources say this rumor (or "oral tradition" if you prefer) about freedman, trapper, and fur trader Jim Beckwourth (not Beckwith) was widely circulated and believed, but that it was a canard; here's what Elinor Wilson had to say about it in her book, Jim Beckwourth:
To blame any one man for the spread of a plague is as foolish as it is evil, but if Jim's known enemies were told that he was responsible for a horror that they could neither escape nor understand, the mountain men were guilty, at least, of character assassination and, at worst, of exposing him to certain death should he encounter the Blackfeet. In any case, there is something less than honorable in this relation: If [Jim] Bridger blamed Jim [Beckwourth], he is lying; if [well-known mountain man Joe] Meek manufactured the tale, then he and [author Frances Fuller] Victor maligned both Bridger and Beckwourth.
However, once told, the story spread rapidly and was snatched up for use in reminiscences such as those of General Bernard Pratte, Jr., and of the Reverend Samuel Allis, a missionary with the Pawnee Indians. General Pratte recalled in his old age that Jim had been a passenger on his boat and caught the small-pox from sleeping on some infected clothing which had been put on board by a disgruntled former employee.
[I]t is interesting to note that, although Allis says Beckwourth departed St. Louis on April 6, records show that Jim Beckwourth was charged $3 for "7 ys of calico" in that city on April 17, 1837 [the same day the sidewheeler St. Peter's departed St. Louis].
Also by the way: Following that link to the Beckwourth biography will reveal the probable source of Churchill's claim the smallpox-infected blankets were placed on "a pair of Mackinaw boats": Reminiscences of the aforementioned mountain man Joe Meek, who Wilson quotes as saying (emphasis ours)
"The Blackfeet found the camp of Bridger too strong for them. They were severely beaten and compelled to retire to their village, leaving Bridger free to move on. The following day the camp reached the village of Little Robe, the Chief of the Peagans, who held a talk with Bridger, complaining that his nation were all perishing from the small pox which had been given to them by the whites. Bridger was able to explain to Little Robe his error; insomuch as although the disease might have originated among the whites, it was communicated to the Blackfeet by Jim Beckwith, a negro and principal chief of their enemies the Crows. This unscrupulous wretch had caused two infected articles to be taken from a Mackinaw boat, up from St. Louis, and disposed of them to the Blackfeet—whence the horrible scourge under which they were suffering."