Authors: Victoria McKernan
“This belonged to Clever Crow before me. I cannot give you his sacred objects, but I can give you a place to put your own as they come to you.” He put the thong around Aiden's neck. The leather was warm from Tupic's body.
“Thank you.” Aiden pressed his hand on the token. “I have to go.”
“Wait—” Carlos reached into a pocket inside his jacket. “Take this. For your pouch.” He pulled out a scrap of cloth. It
was brown, with a faded flower print, and worn almost through, stained with three small spots, tiny half-moons of blood in the shape of fingernails. It was the scrap of Maddy's dress that had torn off in Carlos's hand. Aiden felt his knees go wobbly. He quickly balled the scrap up and tucked it into the pouch; then he walked out into the night.
The boatman waited in the darkness. Beside him on the ground were a canvas pack, a bedroll, a canteen and—Aiden noted with surprise—his bow and quiver of arrows.
The river was high and the boat sailed easily on the current. The journey was startlingly easy. Aiden sat watching constellations and clouds, empty night and the black feather-sweep of ancient trees across the midnight sky. Sometimes he dozed, lulled by the steady shush of moving water. Sometimes the boatman sang.
It was just midnight when they bumped against the dock.
“We've a hut here,” the boatman said. “You may sleep on through the night.”
“Thank you,” Aiden said. “But I think I'll walk awhile.” He had slipped past exhaustion into a restless exhilaration that demanded motion. He had no idea where he was going, but his body needed to move and so he went along with it. The path was clear and would lead eventually to the sea. He couldn't get lost, so he walked. The forest rustled around him. The moon broke through the clouds and spilled silver on the tips of branches. Aiden walked until he came to a little clearing on a hillside. He could see the flat square shapes of Seattle and the shimmering water just beyond. Here was a path to the world.
He was sixteen years old. He had killed two men. One
he'd had to, one he hadn't meant to, but regardless, it was done. He had lost eight members of his family and buried six of them with his own hands. It was the middle of night, the middle of winter; he was alone in the world, and a fugitive. But there was a path, at least for the next little while. He laid his hand over the leather bag and pressed it against his chest and walked on.
Whites, Indians and smallpox: What's the real story?
I got the idea for
The Devil's Paintbox
several years ago while visiting the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. There was a copy of a newspaper article
(The British Colonist,
July 11, 1862) that reported a controversy going on at the time over whether or not Indians should be vaccinated against smallpox. I knew, of course, that racial discrimination has always been a sad part of our human story, but I was still surprised. How could anyone even consider withholding a lifesaving medical procedure from one ethnic group? Imagine if we had an AIDS vaccine today but some people insisted that no Chinese, or African Americans, or whatever race would be allowed to have it.
Today most Americans accept that the history of white dealings with the native populations of North America is generally not something to be proud of. Some government policies were sincere but misguided attempts to “civilize” the Indians, such as forcing native children into white-run boarding schools and forbidding them their language and culture. A few, such as forced relocation to unsuitable lands (the 1864 Navajo internment at Basque Redondo; the 1838 Cherokee “Trail of Tears”), are, quite arguably, examples of what we would today call ethnic cleansing.
One of the greatest atrocities, the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre (depicted in
The Devil's Paintbox)
, was committed under the direction of an individual officer and not sanctioned by the government. Several of the other officers under his command refused to participate. At dawn on November 29, 1864, in Sand Creek, Colorado, Colonel John Chivington and 800
U.S. soldiers attacked Black Kettle's sleeping camp and killed between 150 and 200 Cheyenne Indians, nearly all women, children and elderly men. Some of the soldiers mutilated the Indians’ bodies, cutting off scalps, ears and genitals, which were later displayed to the public in a theater in Denver.
While the U.S. government subsequently denounced the action, the response of the many local white citizens who lined up to see the sickening trophies, like some kind of carnival attraction, demonstrates a level of racial intolerance that we don't like to face.
But did white people purposefully try to infect Native Americans with smallpox?
When I told people that my new book involved Indians and smallpox, almost everyone mentioned a belief that the U.S. government had tried to exterminate Indians by giving them smallpox-infected blankets. I don't address that allegation in this book, but it has become so prevalent in popular culture, cited in movies and television shows and dozens of Web sites, that I wanted to say something about it here. Is it true?
one reliable account from 1763, during the French and Indian War, in which a British commander, Jeffrey Amherst, gave an order that blankets taken from smallpox victims be sent to “hostile” tribes. (He also referred to the Indians as “vermin” and “this execrable race” and lamented that he didn't have dogs available to simply hunt them down.)
We don't know whether the blankets were actually sent in that instance. But after lots of research for this book, I found no evidence that this was ever a common practice, if it happened at all. And it was certainly not a U.S. government policy.
This was probably due less to any great virtue than to fear.
Though the smallpox vaccine was widely available by the mid-1800s, it was never completely reliable, and everyone knew it. Unless someone had actually had smallpox, they could never be 100 percent sure they were safe. Even where Indians and whites lived apart, there was still enough contact through trade that a smallpox outbreak in an Indian camp could easily spread back to white towns and cities.
There is also the simple fact that transmitting smallpox on blankets isn't effective. The smallpox virus is primarily transmitted through the air, like the flu. While it may well be possible to infect someone with a blanket, it is unlikely. People back then would not have known this, of course, but even if they had wanted to infect Indians with blankets, it just wouldn't have worked.
Certainly many whites were happy to see the Indians die by whatever means possible. There were those who believed that smallpox was God's way of clearing out the country for white settlement. And there really was controversy over whether or not to vaccinate Indians. But I don't believe that the smallpox-blanket stories are true, not in any widespread or officially sanctioned program.
Why is this a big deal? Just as it is important to identify human atrocities, both historically and in our own times, so it is important to avoid exaggeration, for exaggeration gives doubters a foothold toward dismissal.
On the smallpox-blanket question:
Adams, Cecil. “Did Whites Ever Give Native Americans Blankets Infected with Smallpox?”
The Straight Dope,
On the history of vaccinations:
Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.
On smallpox in general:
Fenn, Elizabeth A.
Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82.
New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.
Tucker, Jonathan B.
Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox.
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001.
On the history of Native Americans:
Kehoe, Alice B.
North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account,
second ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1992.
Utley, Robert M.
The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846-1890.
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.
On American frontier life:
Stratton, Joanna L.
Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.
Individual stories from the Oregon Trail: www.over-land.com/diaries.html
is the author of the acclaimed
a historical novel for young adults about the eighteen-year-old stowaway on Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated 1914 expedition to the South Pole. She has also written four novels for adults.
Victoria McKernan lives in Washington, D.C., with a dog, two cats, and one boa constrictor.
Copyright © 2009 by Victoria McKernan
Photographs p. i, ii, iii copyright © 2009 by Eva Kolenko
All rights reserved.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Visit us on the Web!
Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The devil's paintbox / Victoria McKernan. — 1st ed.
Summary: In 1865, fifteen-year-old Aiden and his thirteen-year-old sister Maddy, penniless orphans, leave drought-stricken Kansas on a wagon train hoping for a better life in Seattle, but find there are still many hardships to be faced.
[1. Frontier and pioneer life—West (U.S.)—Fiction. 2. Overland journeys to the Pacific—Fiction. 3. Brothers and sisters—Fiction. 4. Orphans—Fiction. 5. West (U.S.)—History—1860-1890—Fiction. 6. Seattle (Wash.)—History— 19th century—Fiction.] I. Title.