Colonial America Epidemics Term Paper

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Epidemics and Smallpox in Colonial America

In 1992, the Smithsonian Museum held an exhibit on the process of exchanges between the Old World and the New World that resulted from the explorations of Christopher Columbus.

The exhibit, entitled Seeds of Change, focused on five catalysts or "seeds" which had the most far-reaching consequences for both Europe and the new colonies in the Americas. These catalysts were the horse, sugar, the potato, corn and disease.

This paper focuses on disease as a catalyst, paying special focus on the role of smallpox in subjugating the Native American nations. The first part is an overview of how various diseases have affected North American Indians, from the arrival of the first Europeans in the 1500s to the Spanish missionaries who first came to Mexico and California in the 18th century. The body of the paper focuses on the use of disease - particularly smallpox - as a biological weapon against the Native Americans during the Seven Year's War.

Finally, the paper assesses the short- and long-term effects that disease has had, on both the Old and the New Worlds. These effects include the decimation of the Native American population as a whole, as seen in the decrease from 500 distinct groups in 1500 to only 300 federally-recognized Native American groups by 1900. Secondary effects of the epidemics of disease include declines in animal population and the promotion of the slave trade, as slaves were shipped from Africa to provide much-needed labor in the American colonies. In many ways, this paper shows that effects of biological weapons such as smallpox and influenza continue to be felt today.

The Columbian Exchange

The cultural and biological changes that resulted after the 15th century European "discovery" of the New World are often referred to as the Columbian exchange. During this period, there was a one-way transfer of religion, as European settlers and missionaries converted much of the Indian population in South American and the Caribbean to Catholicism.

Aside from religion, however, a variety of plants, animals and disease were exchanged between the populations. The arrival of horses, called "skydogs," became a measure of value and helped revolutionize the economy of Plains Indians. The exchange of goods, services and even marriages were arranged according to number of horses. Horses also acquired spiritual significance for tribes like the Sioux, the Crow and the Nez Pierce.

The most immediate effect of the Columbian exchange, however, was seen in the massive decline of the Native American population. The European explorers were unwitting carriers of diseases such as smallpox and cholera, illnesses which were unknown in the New World. Because they lacked natural resistance, Native Americans quickly succumbed to the disease. They also transmitted the virus to other populations. In South America and the Caribbean, an estimated 8 to 20 million people died, many without even encountering a white man.

Bartolome de las Casas, a 16th century missionary who spent much of his life arguing for the rights of Indians, wrote that "I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like fifteen million."

In the United States, the devastation brought about by war and disease continued. Experts now believe that the Native American population before the Columbian exchange was around 8 million. By the 1900, however, that figure had fallen to 400,000 in Europe and Canada.

Observers during the time interpreted the quick spread of smallpox in divergent ways. One Spanish soldier wrote that God was surely on the Spanish side during the conquest, since "when the Christians were exhausted from war, God saw fit to send the Indians smallpox." To the Native Americans, however, smallpox "a far more efficient killer than the white man's guns." Among the North American Indians, smallpox was known as "the rotting face."

Smallpox was only one of the epidemics resulting from the Columbian exchange. In addition to the disease of the rotting face, the Native American population was also felled by cholera, measles and the bubonic plague. Many of these diseases were spread by Caucasian fur traders as they ventured deeper into Native American territories. Employees of St. Louis-based furrier Francis A. Chardon, for example, unwittingly spread cholera and measles epidemics among the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa villages in the upper Missouri region river.

By the 18th century, the epidemics of diseases among Native populations continued. The Yakama Indians, for example, were struck by epidemics of smallpox, influenza, "ague" and other diseases. This time, however, the carriers were no longer the explorers but EuroAmerican immigrants, settlers and their descendants.

Smallpox and warfare

The epidemics discussed previously, while devastating, were also the unintentional result of the Columbian exchange and of contact among the Native populations and EuroAmerican settlers. However, there were also more insidious epidemics, where Europeans used the Native American susceptibility to smallpox as a biological weapon.

One of the most renowned uses of smallpox against Native Americans occurred in 1763 in the British outpost of Fort Pitt, located in Western Virginia. This was the period known as the Pontiac Rebellion, when the Delaware, Shawnee and Mingo Indians were attacking British-held outposts throughout the Great Lakes and the Midwest.

The Pontiacs and their Indian allies had burned houses and nearby settlements, forcing the European traders and colonists to retreat into the fort. In addition to attacks, the colonists had other problems - disease. In a letter to his superior, Fort Pitt's Capt. Simeon Ecuyer wrote, "We are so crowded in the fort that I fear disease...I cannot keep the place as clean as I should like; moreover, the small pox is among us." The news was then relayed to British Commander in Chief Jeffery Amherst, who has stationed in New York. In a letter June 23, 1763, Bouquet confirmed, "the small Pox has broken out in the Garrison."

By early July, based on the information from Ecuyer and Bouquet, Amherst developed a strategy to defeat the Native American rebels. In a letter back to Bouquet, Amherst asked, "Could it not be contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them."

When Bouquet and the plan was carried out. Amherst fired off a message of approval, noting that the Fort Pitt soldiers "will Do well to try to Innoculate the Indians by means of Blanketts, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execreble Race."

During the spring and summer seasons of 1763, the Shawnee, Delaware and Mingo tribes were struck by a severe smallpox epidemic. The epidemic continued through 1764. John M'Cullough, a white teenager who lived as a captive among the Indians, reported that Native populations as far as central Pennsylvania and Ohio were felled by smallpox.

Throughout the Seven Years War, historian Peter MacLeod observed that the smallpox contagion continued to ravage Indian tribes who were allied with the French. By this time, many Indian tribes suspected that the British were deliberately using the infection as a weapon of war. Another released captive stated that the Potawatomis believed that "English poison(ed) the Rum, & (gave) them the Small Pox, for which they owe them an everlasting ill will."

Native American oral histories soon began to reflect accusations of deliberate smallpox contagions. Ottawa Indians on the shores of Lake Michigan, for example, told of a "tin box" which was sold to them in Montreal in 1757. They were supposedly instructed to open the box only upon arrival in the villages. The box contained a series of progressively smaller boxes, the last of which had "mouldy particles." After the boxes' arrival, smallpox soon broke out among the Ottawa. As a result, the area was "entirely depopulated and laid waste."

Instances of deliberate contagion continued to circulate throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The Ojibwa Indians accused EuroAmerican fur traders of infecting their Indian counterparts at an outpost by presenting them with a contaminated flag. The Ojibwas unwittingly made the problem worse by unfurling the flag while visiting tribes at Lake Superior's Fond du Lac region. During this epidemic, an estimated 300 Native peoples died in Fond du Lac alone.

Historians continue to disagree on whether the smallpox epidemics were deliberately orchestrated or whether the Native American warriors merely caught smallpox from sick European soldiers. However, Amherst's own letters show that the colonizers were not averse to using smallpox as a weapon. In fact, Amherst further suggested that the colonizers could use dogs to hunt the Indians down, as the Spanish had done previously.

Effects of smallpox on Native American populations

The effects of the smallpox and other disease epidemics continue to be felt among the Native American populations. The massive population decline and the loss of various Native American nations, for instance, helped to pave the way for the eventual European settlement of the North American continent.

The spread of diseases also changed the way of life for many Native American groups. In an attempt to flee…[continue]


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