Native Societies and Disease
Numerous reports from European traders, missionaries, soldiers and explorers in the 16th and 17th Centuries reveal the same information about the devastating effect smallpox and other epidemic diseases had on the aboriginal populations of the Americas. Europeans were colonizing Africa and Asia at the same time, but “on no other continent in historic times has a combined disease and Construct phenomenon led to the collapse of an entire indigenous population.”[footnoteRef:1] In 1492, Native Americans were one-fifth to one-sixth of the global population, but their numbers never came close to equaling that again after all the great epidemics that struck them in waves. Unlike China and India, where smallpox, plague, typhus, measles and influenza already existed, and therefore the local populations had more immunity and greatly outnumbered the European colonizers, aboriginal American societies routinely suffered mortality rates of 80 or 90%. Some forms of smallpox, such as the ‘black smallpox’ strain, caused massive internal bleeding and destruction of the skin and organs, and other diseases like measles, typhus and influenza all occurred simultaneously, so that “even medically informed Europeans were at a loss to know what was going on.”[footnoteRef:2] [1: Sheldon Watts. Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism. Yale University Press, 1997, p. 89.] [2: Watts, p. 89.]
No one will ever really know what the native population of the Americas was in 1492, or the true extent of the epidemic diseases that devastated these populations. Certainly, there exists a great deal of documentation about how these populations simply tended to ‘disappear’ in epidemics, with losses of 50-90%, and sometimes 100%. Epidemics reduced the population of Mexico from at least 25 million to 1518 to 1.1 million in 1605. From Mexico, smallpox spread as far south as Argentina and Peru, where it devastated the Inca Empire in 1524-25 before the Spanish even arrived. In 1524-1630, the Andean population declined by 93%. In 1539, Hernando de Soto reported a thriving and populous Mississippi Culture in the southern parts of North America, but “none of the flourishing cities, towns and temple complexes” he observed still existed a century later. When Jacques Cartier was exploring the St. Lawrence in 1534, he found many “heavily populated townscapes,” but soon noted that the natives “began to die off of some strange disease to which our own men were immune.”[footnoteRef:3] When Samuel de Champlain explored these areas in the early-17th Century, he found them still depopulated and abandoned. [3: Watts, p. 92.]
Estimating the pre-contact population of North America depends on whether the pandemics of the 16th Century were very extensive or localized, which is why they range from two million to over 18 million, although they fell to a low point of just 546,000 by 1890. On the one hand, “some scholars believe that much of Native America experienced sixteenth-century pandemics of European disease far in advance of face-to-face contact with Europeans and support high pre-European population estimates, while other insist that only local epidemics occurred after direct contact with Europeans.[footnoteRef:4] French observers in the early-17th Century like Champlain in 1615-16 and the Jesuit missionaries in 1634-50 all provided “descriptions of daily life, census data, and eyewitness accounts of epidemic disease,” while archaeologists have excavated dozens of Huron villages and burial grounds from the years 1100-1650. In 1634, when the first recorded epidemic occurred, most estimates agree that the population of this Huron group was around 30-35,000 and that “the French remarked on the robust health of the Wendat.”[footnoteRef:5] By 1640, when this first epidemic wave ended, the Wendat population had fallen to about 12,000. In 1634, an epidemic of measles brought to Quebec by children from France, followed by measles and influenza, carried off 10-20% of the population. Another epidemic, possibly scarlet fever, spread to the north from Virginia in 1637 and killed at least 10% of the surviving Huron. Worst of all was a ship the brought smallpox to Boston in 1638 and then spread rapidly in all directions, causing a 60-70% mortality rate among the Wendat.[footnoteRef:6] [4: Garry A. Warrick, “European Infections, Disease and Depopulation of the Wendat-Tionotate (Huron-Petun)” in Jordan F. Kerber (ed) Archaeology of the Iroquois: Selected Readings and Research Sources. Syracuse University Press, 2007, p. 269.] [5: Warrick, p. 271.] [6: Warrick, p. 272.]
Epidemics may have begun as early as 1624 when Giovanni Verranzano explored the Atlantic Coast of North America, although archaeological records indicate that these did not spread inland to Huron and Iroquois, as so many later epidemics did. For the Mohawk in New York, “there is no evidence for early sixteenth-century pandemics and consequent depopulation,” and burial grounds also show that the Wendat-Tionontate population held steady from 1475-1633.[footnoteRef:7] Studies of 15th Century Wendat skeletons show evidence of malnutrition, tuberculosis and considerable interpersonal violence, but not of epidemics, and around 70% of the population survived to age 15, with a life expectancy at birth of 25 years.[footnoteRef:8] Chronic warfare and geographic isolation in the 16th Century meant that many natives peoples in North America were “essentially isolatedfrom European contact in the sixteenth century” and that epidemics did not reach most of them.[footnoteRef:9] Only in the southeastern Mississippi Culture areas is there “any archaeological evidence for significant depopulation in the sixteenth century.”[footnoteRef:10] [7: Warrick, p. 279.] [8: Warrick, p. 280.] [9: Warrick, p. 283.] [10: Warrick, p. 284.]
Bruce Trigger was also skeptical about the evidence for pre-contact epidemics reaching as far north as Canada, and that the 1492 population figures in North America were nearly as high as 18-20 million. He notes that the first recorded epidemics occurred when the Huron were forced by the authorities in New France to accept traders and Jesuit missionaries, and to promise to convert to Christianity at some future date. Starting in 1634, “over the next seven years a series of such epidemics was to devastate the Hurons and their neighbors.”[footnoteRef:11] These diseases were probably measles and smallpox, but as always in such epidemics starvation was also a factor since the natives could not hunt, fish or harvest crops in sufficient quantities to feed the entire population. Trigger noted that it “has become fashionable to propose large population figures for native groups in proto-historic and early historic times,” but he consistently favored the lowest estimates.[footnoteRef:12] He agrees that as early as 1540, an epidemic from Mexico spread up the Mississippi and Missouri valleys, but not that it reached everywhere in North America. Even when Powhatan told John Smith in 1609 that “during his lifetime he had seen all of his people perish three times, Trigger thought this referred to warfare rather than disease.[footnoteRef:13] He could nit really deny “the massive epidemic, or series of epidemics, that had swept coastal New England between 1616 and 1619,” or that the early Puritan settlers knew that most of the aboriginal population had died off before they started their colonies.[footnoteRef:14] Further north, the Micmac had been in contact with Europeans longer than any other native group, going back to the times of the Vikings and the early traders and fishermen in the 15th Century. Epidemics had certainly reduced their population in the 16th Century, and perhaps even earlier, although their original pre-contact population is unknown. Trigger doubted that massive die offs in the 16th and 17th Centuries caused the aboriginal people to lose faith in their traditional religions and cultures, or to become more likely to convert to Christianity. Just as there was no pre-contact golden age of “physical health, economic prosperity, and social harmony,” so there was no “major repudiation” of the traditional culture after contact.[footnoteRef:15] [11: Bruce G. Trigger. Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s “Heroic Age” Revisited. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985, p. 229.] [12: Trigger, p. 235.] [13: Trigger, p. 237.] [14: Trigger, p. 238.] [15: Trigger, p. 244.]
Above all other factors, the fur trade with New France, New Netherlands and the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) caused the spread of epidemic diseases to the far north and west of North America. French traders, trappers and missionaries began to move into these regions in the 1670s, and along with the HBC influenced aboriginal trade, travel and migration patterns in ways that were highly beneficial to the spread of epidemic diseases. European ships were not as likely to carry diseases with them to the far north as they were to the Atlantic Coast and St. Lawrence since the average voyage to Hudson’s Bay before the advent of steamships was at least seven weeks rather than four. In addition, almost no children migrated to these frontier regions, which of course meant fewer childhood diseases, so the source of most epidemics had to move overland across the trade routes.[footnoteRef:16] [16: Paul Hackett. “A Very Remarkable Sickness”: Epidemics in the Petit Nord, 1670 to 1846. University of Manitoba Press, 2002, p. 37.]
Before 1670, “very few Europeans had been able to travel any great distance westward from the Atlantic seaboard,” although French trading in the continental interior expanded very rapidly after that time.[footnoteRef:17] French coureurs de bois from Montreal began to live among the natives of the north and west, setting up forts and trading posts in Sault St. Marie, Detroit and around Lake Superior. In 1669-70, a smallpox epidemic “spread from New France to sault Ste. Marie on Lake Superior,” originally brought to the colony from a ship that landed in Quebec. Aboriginal peoples regularly gathered in this city during the warm weather months, and they brought the disease back with them. It destroyed 90% or more of the population around Tadoucsac, Isle Verte and the Gaspe region, then spread north along the Rupert River.[footnoteRef:18] Smallpox also “devastated the Attikameque living up the St. Lawrence near Trois Rivieres,” so much so that they were forced to abandon their town.[footnoteRef:19] This epidemic continued its work at least up to 1679, with European traders and missionaries reporting outbreaks and starvation throughout the north and west. [17: Hackett, p. 42.] [18: Hackett, p. 45.] [19: Hackett, p. 49.]
Similar reports occurred regularly in the 18th Century, and if anything because more frequent and intense. Only occasionally were diseases brought from the HBC ships, however, such as the 1720-21 smallpox epidemic and overland trade routes remained the most common avenues of disease. Another major epidemic of smallpox was brought to the western regions by French traders in 1737-38, for example.[footnoteRef:20] Like other epidemics before and afterwards, it originated on the Atlantic seaboard, in this case from a ship that landed in Boston in 1729. Even though it had been held in quarantine, the epidemic spread rapidly to New York and Philadelphia, and then to Albany, where half the population was infected in 1731.[footnoteRef:21] A Seneca trader spread the disease from there throughout the Iroquois territories, even though the governor of New France tried to “establish a quarantine” in 1731. From Albany, it spread to Quebec and Montreal, where over 2,000 European settlers died, then it moved on to the interior along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and the Great Lakes, and to Detroit and Sault Ste. Marie, where large numbers of Miami, Potawatomie and Illinois died.[footnoteRef:22] This epidemic was rather slow, and often paused during the winters, and took over five years to cover the 1,600 kilometers to the Mississippi River. It continued on from there, infecting the Teton and Yankton Sioux in 1736, once again along trade routes and exchanges that were held in warm weather months. At this time, the Sioux also massacred French traders and missionaries after accusing them of spreading the disease, while other reports indicated that the Winnipeg Cree “had all died of smallpox,” as had 60-70% of the Assiniboine.[footnoteRef:23] In the West, the aboriginal peoples used the same strategies, as those in the East, raiding other native communities to acquire replacements for those who had died in the epidemics, abandoning less productive settlements and consolidating others. [20: Hackett, p. 59.] [21: Hackett, p. 60.] [22: Hackett, p. 61.] [23: Hackett, p. 68.]
Although the pre-1492 population figures for aboriginal peoples in North America will never be known with certainty beyond question they were far higher than after the epidemics started. Even if a continental pandemic did not expand everywhere in the Americas from Mexico in the 16th Century, it definitely did affect Peru, Argentina and the southern and central regions of North America, causing a population die off of 80-90%. Other evidence indicates that epidemics occurred before settlement on the Atlantic seaboard before actual colonization took place, and indeed greatly facilitating European settlement and colonization. As early as 1534, Cartier reported an epidemic in Canada brought by his own men that permanently devastated at least one region along the St. Lawrence. These are just the pre-contact epidemic that are known, and from the better documents ones later in history it would seem very likely that they destroyed the majority of the native population wherever they occurred. In the 17th and 18th Centuries, epidemics spread along the fur trade routes to the far northern and western regions of North America, wiping out aboriginal populations as far west as Manitoba and the Dakotas, and as far north as Hudson Bay. These epidemics originated on the Atlantic coast and the St. Lawrence River, which would indicate that the voyage across the Atlantic was not necessary long enough to act as a quarantine against all diseases, especially smallpox. Indeed, this particular disease had the most destructive impacts on the aboriginal populations of all, along with plague, influenza and measles, and studies of burial grounds indicate that they did not exist before European contact. Only when they found a ‘virgin population’ that had no immunity to them could they have the exterminating effect of the Black Death in Europe, and neither Africa or Asia reported such extreme levels of population los as a result on contact with Europeans. In the Americas, they ensured that conquest and colonization would meet far less resistance than they otherwise might have, which is why the Europeans often attributed the destruction of the aboriginal peoples as an act of divine providence on their behalf.
Hackett, Paul. “A Very Remarkable Sickness”: Epidemics in the Petit Nord, 1670 to 1846. (University of Manitoba Press, 2002).
Trigger, Bruce G. Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s “Heroic Age” Revisited (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985).
Warrick, Garry A., “European Infections, Disease and Depopulation of the Wendat-Tionotate (Huron-Petun)” in Jordan F. Kerber (ed) Archaeology of the Iroquois: Selected Readings and Research Sources (Syracuse University Press, 2007), pp. 269-86.
Watts, Sheldon. Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism (Yale University Press, 1997).
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