22 November 2014

The New England Plague - Early 1600s

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, 1995, Excerpts

The inhabitants of North and South America were “a remarkably healthy race” before Columbus. Ironically, their very health proved their undoing, for they had built up no resistance, genetically or through childhood diseases, to the microbes that Europeans and Africans would bring to them.

In 1617, just before the Pilgrims landed, the plague started in southern New England. For decades, British and French fisherman had fished off the Massachusetts coast. It is likely that these fishermen transmitted some illness to the people they met. The plague that ensued made the Black Death pale in comparison. Within three years the plague wiped out between 90 percent and 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England. The Indian societies lay devastated.

Unable to cope with so many corpses, the survivors abandoned their villages and fled, often to a neighboring tribe. Because they carried the infestation with them, Indians died who had never encountered a white person. The ground was strewn with the skulls and the bones of thousands of Indians who had died and none was left to bury them.

During the next fifteen years, additional epidemics, mostly smallpox, struck repeatedly. These epidemics probably constituted the most important geopolitical event of the early seventeenth century. Their net result was that the British, for their first fifty years in New England, would face no real Indian challenge. Indeed the plague helped prompt the legendarily warm reception Plymouth enjoyed from the Wampanoag Indians.

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