Cree and Smallpox - Later Cree History
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Cree and Smallpox

Cree
Cree man

In the 1500s AD, people who called themselves the Eenou lived in the northern part of North America, around what is now the border between the United States and Canada. Modern historians call them the Cree. They mostly lived in the forests of what is now Minnesota and Wisconsin. These people got their food by hunting and gathering. They hunted mainly deer and rabbits and fish, and they gathered wild rice along the riverbanks and fruit in the forest. As they travelled around harvesting their food, the Cree people lived in big tents called tipis made of wooden poles and buffalo skins. They travelled up and down the rivers in canoes.

During the 1600s and 1700s, as Louis XIV sent French settlers into the Midwest, they pushed Ojibwe and the Chippewa people westward, and the Ojibwe and Chippewa began pushing the Cree westward in turn. While some Cree people stayed in the forest, others saw opportunities for a new life on the Great Plains (modern North and South Dakota and Montana). They left to live there, hunting buffalo. They got guns and horses from French traders, and they used them in wars against the Sioux and the Blackfoot, though at other times the Cree were allies of the Sioux. In return, Cree traders sold all kinds of furs to the French.

But like other people in North America at this time, the Cree had no immunity to smallpox, and when they caught smallpox from these traders (or maybe from other Native American people), most of them died. The ones who had stayed in the forest died, and so did the ones who had moved to the Great Plains. Only a few people of the Cree survived, though more than some other groups of people.

The Cree that were still alive in the 1800s ended up spending more and more time with European settlers, as more and more Europeans came to live in what had been the country of the Cree. Many Cree people married French settlers.

One of the European men who came, a missionary named James Evans, invented a way to write the Cree language. Soon many Cree people could read and write, and they wrote down their stories and their ideas. But by the 1900s the Cree people held only a small amount of their old land, where many people of the Cree nation still live today.

Neighbors of the Cree: the Algonquin

Bibliography and further reading about the Cree during this time:

Algonquin people after 1500
Sioux people after 1500
Blackfoot people after 1500
American History
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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