Smallpox had a long and terrifying history in the world and became an epidemic in the world of the Cherokees as well. They had met it for the first time late in the 1600's and a few decades later half of the tribe was decimated. In the 1870's smallpox was a full-blown pandemic in Europe. According to traditional Cherokee beliefs the animals created diseases to protect themselves against humans but believed and had found it to be true, that the plants provided the Cherokees cures for each of the diseases the animals had created. But none of their plants worked to cure smallpox.
But the development of a vaccine by Edward Jenner and later improved by Henry Austin Martin through using lymph from cattle was more effective at inducing immunity to smallpox. In 1870, the then 46-year-old physician had launched a crusade advocating the benefits of bovine vaccination, or “true animal vaccination,” as he called it. Smallpox did not have to strike the Cherokees this time. My grandfather E.B. Frayser and Dr. Oliver Bagby divided up the Cherokee Nation and begin the process to protect every one of them. It took them two years to complete the effort.
Tribal members knew about smallpox and the serious consequences if they hid from the doctors and failed to receive the lifesaving inoculations. Word spread a doctor was coming and whole families would be waiting at the next house for the treat of getting protection from the deadly disease.
My grandfather had lost his mother to a deadly disease and I believe he pushed himself during these years to work hard and fast knowing he was trying to outrun the disease before it reached the Cherokees again as it had the century before. They had suffered enough, having only been in Indian Territory a short 40 years since their infamous Trail of Tears brought them to their new home.
The fear of acquiring a deadly disease that spreads silently and quickly may be new to us, as we covey and wonder as the COVID-19 is spreading now even in Oklahoma, but knowing disease is in our DNA. We understand the serious times we face. Our ancestors, not far removed knew to both fear and respond to that fear. Dr. Frayser got his buggy and his supplies and went forth to protect people he had never met and many who spoke no English. He went with the answer, he went with protection. But as yet, we have only our hope to keep healthy and wait for the vaccines and know there will be the health professionals ready to help us, to meet each of us, people they have never met, to help keep us healthy. In the meantime, we must believe these protections will be developed and the disease abated in the future.
Go ahead. Give up your plans. If Cher can, we all can sequester, and learn to be with people in new ways, to continue striving and believing in our futures and encouraging the young to know this too will pass.
There are no more cases of smallpox. It is over. No treatment was ever developed by anyone. Symptoms could be managed. This new pandemic will end. There will be vaccines developed and the disease will be contained and slowly we will come back out and gather again in large places and fill them up with the joy of being together again.
We will long to be back in school, sitting through lectures more alert than before, ready to relish the chance to be together, without fear of each other and what we might be exposed to or what we might be carrying on our person unaware.
Appreciate each of the people who walk out their doors each morning to go out to serve you, to protect you and to treat you should you become ill. Know you are the reason they do this work.
My Cherokee relations, we had help when we needed it and many will find ways to help others this time. We are resilient but we are not stupid, we will heed warnings and follow suggestions. And as Mary Oliver would ask:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I know what my grandfather did after that epic journey through the Cherokee Nation. He saw all that tall grass on the prairie, met all those Cherokee women, married one, and that allowed him to pursue a new career raising cattle. Lots of them. I have a better understanding on the importance he must have felt for cattle since using the bovine vaccines.
Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim