Epidemics and Social Disorder - By Kevin Sweeney


During the 1500s and 1600s millions of invisible invaders transformed the Native communities of the Northeast. Even before the arrival of French and English colonists, European fisherman and mariners brought with them disease-bearing microbes. Diphtheria, influenza, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox and possibly bubonic plague, among other contagious diseases, were introduced into an environment where they had been unknown, and they were passed on to populations that were highly susceptible. The results were devastating as thousands died and Native communities were destroyed. European colonists were the direct beneficiaries of these epidemics that they unwittingly unleashed.

Pre-1500 Disease Environment

Native peoples in the Northeast, in general, enjoyed access to an abundance of seasonal foods and a good level of health before European contact, but their lives were not disease free. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of anemia, respiratory infections, intestinal parasites, rickets and infant mortality. Communities that depended heavily on corn tended to experience malnutrition and dental cavities. In addition, Native peoples like people everywhere experienced arthritic joints, broken bones, bruises, and other wounds. Native healers employed a wide variety of indigenous herbs, roots, barks, oils and other medicines for the treatment of disease and injury.

Native peoples were geographically isolated from the epidemic diseases bred in the towns and villages of the Eastern Hemisphere where dense human populations came into contact with populations of domesticated animals. In these disease environments where influenza, measles, bubonic plague and smallpox were endemic, some individuals and populations in Europe had developed degrees of resistance, though not full immunity, to these killers. Before European contact, indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere were not exposed to these diseases, and thus had no chance to develop adaptive immunities to them.

First Epidemics

The invisible killers first arrived in the Northeast in the later 1500s in what is today Eastern Canada and New England. Diseases were passed along by Europaen fisherman who dried their catch on shore and sometimes traded with Native peoples. During the 1500s, it is possible that European diseases, along with climate change and wars, played some role in the disappearance of the people historians call the Saint Lawrence Iroquoians. By the early 1600s the impact of European diseases was obvious along the coast. In 1616 a Jesuit priest working among the Mi'kmaqs and Maliseets of Nova Scotia reported that Natives "complain that since the French mingle and carry on trade with them they are dying fast, and the population is thinning out." (1) Around the same time, 1616-1618, a single epidemic or series of diseases ravaged the shores of New England, killing perhaps as much as 75% of the coastal population of the region. Among its victims would have been Wôbanakiak living in what is today coastal Maine and New Hampshire and the Pawtuckets of northeastern Massachusetts who were Wattanummon's ancestral people. In parts of southern New England entire villages appear to have been wiped out. One English colonist, Thomas Morton, found sites covered with heaps of the victims' unburied bones and skulls. Archeologists and historians suspect that these earliest killers may have been dysentery or respiratory infections such as influenza.

Smallpox Epidemic of Mid-1630s

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Smallpox pustules left indelible scars.
Courtesy Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, Italy. Palat. 200, c. 460v. On concession of the Ministry for Assets and Cultural Affairs. Further reproduction prohibited.

With the arrival of settlers, particularly families with sick children, came measles and the great killer, smallpox. By this time in Europe most of these diseases were associated with childhood. Not having been exposed to them in childhood, Natives of all ages were especially vulnerable. In 1633 a smallpox epidemic ravaged the Native peoples of New England. Along the Connecticut River, the mortality was such that in one village "of a 1000 above 900 and a half of them dyed, and many of them did rott above ground for want of burial."(2) The next year the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) living along the Mohawk River suffered and their population dropped from around 8000 to less than 3000. In 1656 Native peoples in what is today New York told a Dutch colonist that "before the arrival of the Christians, and before smallpox broke out amongst them, they were ten times as numerous as they now are."(3)

Natives' Medical Responses

As a rule, imported infectious diseases overwhelmed the resources of Native healers. These doctors had great knowledge of the healing properties of plants and rich traditions of curative rituals that drew on herbal cures and spiritual powers, but these measures did little to counter the ravages of infectious diseases such as measles and smallpox. Some common healing practices actually did harm. Fasting and sweat baths aggravated effects of smallpox, which responds better to nourishment and drying the skin. Family gatherings to perform ritual cures and nurse those who fell ill merely spread contagions. Those who turned to colonists for assistance in combating these imported diseases discovered that there was little that the newcomers could do in the face of such epidemics, even if they did not die in such great numbers as Native peoples did. Some missionaries tried to convince Native peoples to embrace Christianity for protection while other colonists were content to interpret the diseases as God's way of clearing the land for English settlement.

Wendats and Disease

In 1634 smallpox also appeared among the Wendats (Huron) initiating a cycle of disease and devastation. During the next two years smallpox or possibly measles continued to sicken and kill Wendats. Influenza arrived during the winter of 1636-37. Smallpox came back in 1639. All told, the population of the Huron Confederacy fell from approximately 25,000 to about 10,000 during the years from 1634 to 1640. The losses experienced by the Wendat people provide a particularly well-documented example of the ways in which a wave of infections could decimate a community as those spared but weakened by one infection provided vulnerable targets for the next epidemic.

Impact on Communities

The experience of the Wendats also shows that the losses from these epidemics involved more than the tragic deaths of family members and neighbors. The fabric of their communities was torn part, and as communities frayed, they became more susceptible to these diseases. It was a vicious cycle. Deaths of elders cut ties with the past as traditions of learning were lost. Deaths of children destroyed a community's future. Deaths of those in the prime of life only compounded the problem by depriving the young and the elderly of care they needed and reducing the community's ability to feed itself. The loss of leaders and warriors also made the community vulnerable to the influence of outsiders. Already there were Jesuit priests among the Wendats who sought to exploit the situation by calling upon their hosts to abandon the old ways and embrace the protection and power of the Christian god. Some heeded this call while others saw the Jesuits as the cause of their sufferings. These different reactions only served to divide Wendat villages at a critical time. In 1648 and 1649, attacks by members of the Iroquois Confederacy destroyed the villages of the weakened and divided Wendats and scattered the survivors, many of whom were adopted into the Iroquois Confederacy.

Epidemics and War

These attacks by the Iroquois on Wendat villages grew, in part, out of their Confederacy's response to its losses from disease. In Iroquoian cultures, there was a pre-existing practice of waging mourning wars to capture and adopt individuals to replace tribal members who had died. In the wake of epidemics, mourning wars escalated as a way to replenish a community's population. Losses from disease combined with a desire to expand hunting territory and control part of the fur trade all inspired the Iroquois Confederacy's wars with the Wendats and other Native peoples in the Northeast. Attacks by the Iroquois provoked retaliation from their victims and drove Native peoples to form new alliances. During the 1660s, wars inspired in part by losses from epidemics spiraled out of control, embroiling Natives from the Illinois Country to New England and from the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay in intertribal wars.

New Communities

In times of great loss, Native communities traditionally moved away, temporarily, from sites where a great deal of death had occurred, in order to preserve themselves and their cultures. Native communities established in the later 1600s along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River thus embodied another response to the deaths and dislocations wrought by disease and other causes. The people who founded these villages included people such as Wendats fleeing attacks by the Iroquois Confederacy as well as some members of the Confederacy who sought to remove themselves from the cycle of war. It also included members of the Iroquois Confederacy who sought to escape the social destruction wrought by alcohol since anyone who wanted to enter or reside in these villages had to refrain from drinking. Native peoples from New England, such as Sokwakiak, Pocumtucks and others moved north to avoid increasing encroachment by English colonists. Native refugees from several tribes joined together, drawing on common ties of kinship, culture, language, shared traditions and recently adopted practices such as Christianity to forge a new basis for community.

Lasting Legacy

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The great Wendat chief Kondiaronk, who died in an epidemic that took place during the negotiations for the Great Peace of 1701.
Illustration copyright Francis Back.

All Native communities remained vulnerable to the impact of imported diseases into the 1700s and beyond. Smallpox remained the primary killer, with an epidemic infecting the villages in New France in 1701. According to one Kanienkehaka tradition, the loss of a child in this 1701 epidemic played a direct role in motivating one young man named Paul to join the raid on Deerfield. During the 1700s another disease, alcoholism, established itself in some Native communities. Recurring epidemics and wasting diseases such as alcoholism and pulmonary tuberculosis contributed to declining Native birthrates, making it hard for populations to recover from the onslaught of epidemics. By the late 1700s and early 1800s, Native populations began to rebound, but a heavy price had been paid. Because of the earlier losses of population and the displacement of Native communities, waves of European colonists had already claimed what they considered to be vacant and "free land" in New France and New England. The fact that communities of Algonkian and Iroquoian peoples still considered these lands to be their homelands became one of the driving motivations behind the so-called French and Indian Wars.

Further Reading

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