No Resistance. Native Americans had no natural resistance against deadly European diseases such as smallpox, measles, bubonic plague, influenza, and whooping cough. Diseases spread like wildfire in the “virgin soil” conditions of the Americas. Epidemics occurred in the New World in 1520–1524, 1564–1570,1586,1588, and 1592–1593. In the Americas, Indians generally enjoyed a better diet and healthier surroundings than did the average European. But because they encountered these diseases for the first time when Europeans touched American shores (and therefore had built up no immunities), they died quickly and in large numbers. Native people who never saw any Europeans still encountered diseases as infected Indians from other groups traveled around the countryside in the course of everyday life. As Europeans arrived in America, they often settled in unoccupied areas that Native Americans had cleared. In many cases these Indians had died from diseases, thus leaving a “widowed” land for Europeans to occupy.
Social Impact. Indian populations plummeted in the face of European diseases. For example, the area of present-day Florida contained as many as one million Timucuan-speaking Indians in the early 1500s; by 1700 they were nearly all dead, most from pandemic diseases. That statistic repeated itself throughout the continent. Diseases rarely attacked in solitary fashion; usually a combination of different illnesses debilitated Indians at the same time. Even the common cold proved deadly when added to other diseases such as smallpox. The young and the old were most vulnerable to illness. Thus even if some of the population survived, the children (the future) and the elders (the keepers of the past) perished. Often entire villages got sick at once, leaving no one to care for the sick and causing many to die of simple neglect and starvation. Even the survivors of a pandemic faced extreme danger. Because of their reduced numbers and state of shock, they could offer little resistance to attacks from other Indian groups or from Europeans. These refugee communities often joined together and formed new societies out of the ashes of several old ones. In addition their entire cosmological world turned upside down. Shamans who normally healed the sick could do little against smallpox, and the people lost faith in the
ability of their religious leaders to protect them from evil outside forces.
“The People Began to Die Very Fast”
In 1588 Thomas Harriot accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh’s settlers establishing a colony on the North Carolina coast. The English inadvertently brought diseases with them. Hariot described the impact of smallpox on the Algonquian Indians of North Carolina:
There was no town where we had any subtile [sic] device practiced against us, we leaving it unpunished or not revenged (because we sought by all means possible to win them by gentleness) but that within a few days after our departure from every such town, the people began to die very fast, and many in short space, in some towns about twenty, in some forty, and in some six score , which in truth was very many in respect to their numbers. This happened in no place that we could learn but where we had been.... The disease also was strange, that they neither knew what it was, nor how to cure it, the like by report of the oldest men in the country never happened before, time out of mind.... All the space of their sickness, there was no man of ours known to die, or that was specially sick.
Source: Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen, eds., The Discovery of America & Other Myths: A New World Reader (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992), pp. 131–132.
Henry F. Dobyns, Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983);
Ann F. Ramenofsky, Vectors of Death: The Archeology of European Contact (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987);
"Sickness." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sickness
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sick·ness / ˈsiknis/ • n. 1. the state of being ill: she was absent through sickness. ∎ a particular type of illness or disease: botulism causes fodder sickness of horses | a woman suffering an incurable sickness. 2. the feeling or fact of being affected with nausea or vomiting: she felt a wave of sickness wash over her travel sickness.
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