A Very Remarkable Sickness

Epidemics in the Petit Nord, 1670 to 1846

Paul Hackett (Author)


The area between the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg, bounded on the north by the Hudson Bay lowlands, is sometimes known as the "Petit Nord." Providing a link between the cities of eastern Canada and the western interior, the Petit Nord was a critical communication and transportation hub for the North American fur trade for over 200 years.Although new diseases had first arrived in the New World in the 16th century, by the end of the 17th century shorter transoceanic travel time meant that a far greater number of diseases survived the journey from Europe and were still able to infect new communities. These acute, directly transmitted infectious diseases – including smallpox, influenza, and measles – would be responsible for a monumental loss of life and would forever transform North American Aboriginal communities.Historical geographer Paul Hackett meticulously traces the diffusion of these diseases from Europe through central Canada to the West. Significant trading gatherings at Sault Ste. Marie, the trade carried throughout the Petit Nord by Hudson Bay Company ships, and the travel nexus at the Red River Settlement, all provided prime breeding ground for the introduction, incubation and transmission of acute disease. Hackettís analysis of evidence in fur-trade journals and oral history, combined with his study of the diffusion behaviour and characteristics of specific diseases, yields a comprehensive picture of where, when, and how the staggering impact of these epidemics was felt.


“This is a remarkable book. Although it deals with the history of infectious disease during a limited period in a particular area of Canada, the author’s treatment transcends his boundaries in both space and time."

Leonard G. Wilson, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 79.3 (2005) 582-583

“A scholarly work that is as much a history of the Petit Nord as it is a study of the complex behaviour of infectious disease, Hackett’s book is skilfully written and well researched. Relying, necessarily, on HBC records for much of his data, Hackett recognizes the limits of these sources and makes an effort to include other sides of the story using archaeology, aboriginal oral histories and winter counts (pictorial records of significant events). The work is extensively footnoted and the footnotes themselves contain a good deal of interesting information. Hackett tackles a complicated subject in a way that will make the book accessible to many, including those unfamiliar with either epidemiology or western Canadian history."

Manitoba History, No. 46, Autumn/Winter 2003-04

“Without question, the single strongest component of this work, and that which makes it valuable as a study beyond the geographic region under investigation, is the explanation of the means by which smallpox and other infectious diseases were spread, and waxed and waned over time and place in much of North America. Here there is much to be learned about the history of sickness and the diffusion of disease in North America. Hackett’s analysis and clear explanations will provide much to others working in similar fields elsewhere in North American history.”

Anthony G. Gulig, American Review of Canadian Studies, Vol. 34, 2004


Jason A. Hannah Medal for History of Medicine (2002)

About the Author

Paul Hackett is a medical geographer at the University of Saskatchewan.

University of Manitoba Press is grateful for the support it receives for its publishing program from the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund; the Canada Council for the Arts; the Manitoba Department of Culture, Heritage, and Tourism; the Manitoba Arts Council; and the Aid to Scholarly Publishing Programme.