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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Pattie's Tall Tale

Are tall tales accepted as fact just because the story is published in a memoir—and therefore, “must be” true? Consider the smallpox scenario included in The Personal Narrative of James O. Pattie of Kentucky, published in 1831, and until quite recently accepted by historians as genuine. Pattie, a fur trapper, claimed he had won his freedom from a dank, Mexican California jail cell in San Diego when he agreed to use a supply of smallpox vaccine he had brought from New Mexico to combat a raging smallpox epidemic in the province. By his own estimate, Pattie supposedly vaccinated some 22,000 Mexican citizens and mission Indians! But problems arise on closer examination of Pattie’s narrative, unfortunately the only source that recounts the events he claimed to experience. Was there really a smallpox epidemic in California in 1828? Why had the Patties, father and son, decided to bring along a supply of vaccine while they meandered west, trapping along the route to California? How had the vaccine remained effective after a prolonged period of less than optimal conditions? And how, given the primitive transportation methods of the time, could one man have treated the inhabitants of the entire California coast in a mere five months? Both the mission and secular records of the period are silent as to the incidents Pattie described— and in historical fact the epidemic was of measles, not smallpox. Pattie’s numbers are suspect as well, since he claimed to have treated more citizens and mission Indians than existed at the time. Further, James Pattie didn’t pen his adventures himself. His ghost writer was one Timothy Flint, a clergyman, editor, author, and storyteller who figured there would be a ready market for a book-length write-up of the stories he heard from James in 1830, in Ohio. To what degree did Timothy Flint edit Pattie’s oral stories, and how much did he embellish them with fictional details? No one really knows. Nonetheless, the Pattie smallpox vaccine legend endures. Tall tales do that, because tall tales endlessly fascinate. #history #mountainmen

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