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Timeline / Reshaping America / 1802: An estimated 150,000 dead at Ne-cha-co-lee, a Chinook city

1802: Smallpox devastates Ne-cha-co-lee, a Chinook city

The expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark arrives at a Chinook village in Oregon that had recently been home to thousands of Chinook. Clark learns from a survivor that the settlement's name, Ne-cha-co-lee, means “the wreck of five houses of a very large Village.” In their journals, Lewis and Clark record that the survivor “was badly marked with the Small Pox and made Signs that they all died with the disorder that marked her face.”

The smallpox epidemic traveled along river systems, which served as trade routes for Native peoples. In Oregon, Lewis and Clark meet the Clatsop tribe, who report that the smallpox epidemic traveled through villages along the Columbia River to the Pacific, then north over other trade routes to communities on Washington’s Puget Sound.

Northwest Coast

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Map of Lewis and Clark’s route across western North America

Courtesy Library of Congress

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Interior of a Chinook lodge; engraving based on a sketch by American artist Alfred T. Agate, 1841. Agate traveled in the Pacific Northwest as a member of the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842.

Courtesy Oregon Historical Society