Smallpox Epidemics Kill Native Americans

Introduced to the east coast of North America with the arrival of European explorers and colonists, a series of smallpox epidemics decimated the Native Americans of the region during the first half of the seventeenth century. The disease killed as much as 90 percent of the indigenous population as it spread from New England into the Great Lakes region.

Summary of Event

Smallpox was first introduced to the Americas, probably by accident, during the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés beginning in 1519. The Native American populations Population decreases;Mexico and American Southwest of Mexico and the Southwest were devastated by the disease, dying in such great numbers that a small force of Spanish conquistadors was able to conquer an empire of as many as 5 million people in less than two years. The smallpox virus, however, is maintained only in humans and cannot be carried or transmitted by animals. Consequently, the relatively isolated populations of southwestern North America did not provide a focus of infection for the Native American tribes of the Northeast, who remained unaffected by the disease during the sixteenth century. [kw]Smallpox Epidemics Kill Native Americans (1617-c. 1700)
[kw]Native Americans, Smallpox Epidemics Kill (1617-c. 1700)
[kw]Epidemics Kill Native Americans, Smallpox (1617-c. 1700)
Health and medicine;1617-c. 1700: Smallpox Epidemics Kill Native Americans [0750]
Biology;1617-c. 1700: Smallpox Epidemics Kill Native Americans [0750]
Colonization;1617-c. 1700: Smallpox Epidemics Kill Native Americans [0750]
American Colonies;1617-c. 1700: Smallpox Epidemics Kill Native Americans [0750]
Canada;1617-c. 1700: Smallpox Epidemics Kill Native Americans [0750]
Smallpox;Native Americans and

The introduction of smallpox to the eastern coast of North America followed explorations by French, Dutch, or English explorers. The first recorded epidemic appeared between 1617 and 1619 along the Massachusetts coast. The death rate among the Narragansett Narragansetts tribe alone probably exceeded 90 percent. Seven years prior to the epidemic, the Narragansetts were reportedly able to muster at least three thousand warriors from a population estimated at some seventy-five hundred persons. The absence of any form of natural immunity, however, resulted in disease taking a deadly toll: By the time Captain Miles Standish Standish, Miles arrived in 1620, the only survivors present were a “few straggling inhabitants.” What had been villages in the region between Narragansett Bay and the Kennebec River had become devastated sites containing only burial grounds and graves. The Wampanoag village of Pawtuxet, for example, had been completely abandoned. While there is some question as to whether this devastation was the result of an outbreak of smallpox, the description by Captain Thomas Dermeer Dermeer, Thomas of sores and spots on the faces of survivors supports that theory. Standish believed the outbreak to be a “blessing in disguise,” as it provided an opportunity for the Pilgrims to establish a colony in the absence of native competition.

A second major epidemic occurred in 1633 in the vicinity of Plymouth Colony Plymouth Colony . The epidemic appears to have originated with Dutch traders moving between the colonies and the native tribes along the Connecticut River. Within a year, it infected the surviving Narragansetts and Connecticuts, spreading through New York into both the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence regions of North America. Whole communities of Native Americans Native Americans;smallpox and were devastated. By 1641, out of an estimated 160,000 members of the Five Nation Iroquois Confederacy Iroquois Confederacy in New York, approximately 20,000 had survived. The Iroquois fell victim to the epidemic itself, as well as to its indirect consequences, including famine. Nearly 80 percent of eighty-one hundred Mohawks died within two years of the outbreak. The epidemic was not confined to the native tribes; twenty Mayflower Pilgrims also died. The Puritan clergyman Increase Mather Mather, Increase described the disease as an act of God, a divine punishment for disputes between the settlers and natives. “God ended the controversy,” he said.

By 1634, smallpox had spread into the Great Lakes region, the epidemic lasting until 1640. The Hurons Hurons , with an estimated population of between twenty thousand and thirty-five thousand persons living in twenty-eight villages in 1620, had lost 50 percent of their members by 1650. Further incursions into Huron territory by hostile Iroquois from New York resulted in their absorption into other tribes and the effective elimination of the Huron tribe as a distinct entity. Nor were the Iroquois themselves spared: Between 1649 and 1679, at least three major epidemics of smallpox were reported within the Confederation. At least one Iroquois war party in 1649 was forced to turn back from an assault on the French in Montreal as a result of the disease.

Jesuit missionaries reported a significant number of baptisms among the dying natives. Ironically, however, it is likely that spread of the disease was exacerbated by the practice of kissing the crucifix as priests moved from village to village. Also, while not widespread, there is some evidence of the intentional infection of natives by the French and English. There exists at least one report of a trader intentionally presenting a keg of rum wrapped in a smallpox contaminated flag to a tribe as revenge for a recent raid.

The absence of densely populated villages in the Middle Colonies limited the outbreak of diseases such as smallpox. The Powhatan Confederacy Powhatans , which surrounded the 1607 settlement at Jamestown, numbered some eighty-five hundred persons spread among an estimated thirty tribes occupying one-fifth of present day Virginia and representing approximately one-half of the native population in the region. Only a single isolated smallpox epidemic was recorded in the region during the century, in 1667. Nevertheless, by the end of the century, fewer than two thousand Powhatans were believed to have survived. In this case, however, the devastation was a consequence of military conflicts.

The tragedy of Pocahontas Pocahontas represents a small example of the effects of European diseases on a population lacking any form of immunity. Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, chief of the tribe, is most noted for having twice saved the Jamestown colony from attack. In 1614, she married Jamestown colonist John Rolfe, Rolfe, John converted to Christianity, and returned with him to England, where three years later she was exposed to smallpox and died at the age of twenty-one.

By the end of the seventeenth century, smallpox and other diseases had played a significant role in reducing the populations of native villages to a fraction of what they had been at the beginning of European settlement. Europeans were not universally immune to these diseases. In 1630, for example, John Winthrop Winthrop, John sailed from England on the flagship Arbella with nine hundred persons, eventually founding a number of towns, including Boston, along Massachusetts Bay. Smallpox broke out on board ship, but death was limited to a single child. Winthrop would later record (1636) that smallpox had wiped out the native population, opening the way for European settlement. The endemic nature of the presence of diseases such as smallpox throughout Europe ensured that these settlers would have a distinct advantage when outbreaks did occur.


The size of the Native American populations in North America at the time of initial European settlement is subject to dispute, though it probably numbered in total in the tens of thousands. The absence of any previous exposure to European diseases resulted in minimal immunity to even the more benign forms of illness imported by the colonists. Even among Europeans who presumably had some level of immunity, however, smallpox epidemics often produced mortality rates of 70 percent or higher. Decimated by disease, native populations were unable to resist encroachment by the ever-growing numbers of Europeans arriving in the New World. As their populations declined, peaceful tribes were sometimes overrun by more hostile neighbors. The Hurons of the Great Lakes region, for example, became vulnerable to attacks by the more warlike Iroquois from New York and eventually ceased to exist as a unique tribe.

Repeated epidemics resulted in the loss of villages long present in the eastern regions of the continent. In many cases, the few survivors simply abandoned the dead, being unable even to bury them. Native American villages were either absorbed by their neighbors or were dispersed, or the villagers simply ceased to exist as distinct tribes. Many of the natives continued to resist European settlement for another century or more, but declining numbers resulting from a combination of disease, starvation, and warfare made the result inevitable.

Further Reading

  • Fenn, Elizabeth. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. Discusses the eighteenth century smallpox epidemics that began with the Revolutionary War. The dynamics of smallpox epidemics were similar in the preceding century.
  • Grob, Gerald. The Deadly Truth: A History of Disease in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. The author provides a historical review of disease in America, spanning the period from the first arrival of Europeans to the twenty-first century. Emphasis is on social factors relating to development and spread of illness.
  • Hopkins, Donald. Princes and Peasants: Smallpox in History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. A historical account of the presence and movement of smallpox from its likely origins in Africa to its presence throughout the world. Effects of the disease on human history are also recounted.
  • Robertson, R. G. Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2001. Graphic account of a smallpox outbreak among the tribes along the Missouri River during the 1830’.
  • Stearn, E. W., and A. E. Stearn. The Effect of Smallpox on the Destiny of the Amerindian. Boston: Bruce Humphries, 1945. Using contemporary accounts, the authors describe the spread of disease through the Great Lakes region.
  • Williams, H. U. “The Epidemic of the Indians of New England, 1616-1620.” Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin 20 (1909): 340-349. Review of contemporary accounts of the outbreak of disease among Native Americans.

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