A Tale of Vaccination

In Camp and Cabin with John Steele — part 6

Early in the spring of 1852 John Steele left the diggings in northern California and set out to explore the coast region between San Francisco and Monterey. He met up with Don Jesus Chico, a Californio whom he had once helped to round up some cattle, and Don Jesus invited him to go on a cattle drive with his son to Los Angeles. Seeing this as an excellent opportunity to see the state and learn Spanish, Steele readily accepted. Learning Spanish would come in handy.

In May 1852 he returned to his old diggings, a place called Downing’s Ravine.

On reaching Downing’s Ravine and learning that smallpox was prevalent among the miners, fearing exposure and attack [of the disease], I immediately returned to Sacramento for the purpose of being vaccinated, and remained until it became effective. (p. 249)

Upon his return to Downing’s Ravine he met up with the chief of the local native tribe. He calls them the Columbia Indians. Now that he knew Spanish he could converse with Captain Juan, who told him that smallpox in the village had killed one person and other were sick. Steele explained vaccination to him.

I showed him my arm, telling him I had no fear, for after a person was vaccinated smallpox would not make him very sick, and taking some of the virus from my arm, I vaccinated the chief and his son, who happened to be with him.

Having in my cabin a hawk’s wing, I took a quill, and filling it with the virus from my arm, went with him to the village and vaccinated quite a number, showed them how, and advised them to vaccinate every one, old and young. (p. 250)

Red-shouldered hawk feather

In Steele’s day, the hollow spine of a feather from a large bird, a quill, could be used as a pipette. Quills were used for writing with ink, but they were also used to carry small amounts of liquid or powder, gold dust, and in this case, pus from a smallpox inoculation.

John Steele didn’t hesitate to get vaccinated, and he did the kind and neighborly thing in helping Captain Juan and his village to get vaccinated too. We should all be like John Steele.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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