When the Europeans arrived in America, the Native Americans were a settled agricultural people. These Indians relied heavily on corn, beans and squash and their diet was supplemented through the gathering of wild plants and hunting. (Geier, 1991)
Hundreds of thousands of Native Americans lived in America with the greatest diversity - as many as 120 - of languages, dialects, and cultures of any comparably sized are in the world. For example, Indians in the far north had very different languages and cultures from the central and southern tribes.
Tribes traded with each other but were self-sufficient for the most part. With bountiful game, fish, and plants available and a moderate climate, most Indians bands led stable, productive and peaceful lives.
The tranquil lifestyle of the Indians changed dramatically with the introduction of European settlers. Many hunters and trappers were attracted to America by the abundance of fur-bearing animals.
Tragically, with the arrival of these European explorers came diseases, which decimated the Native American population. (Debo, 1970) Malaria and smallpox epidemics swept throughout the Indian villages. As a result, much of the diverse Native American culture has disappeared.
Epidemics Arrive in America
In early America, when people of three continents came together, the Native Americans were dramatically affected by epidemics, suffering higher mortality rates than any other time in human history. (Geier, 1991) People from Latin America, North America and Europe merged, each carrying and introducing diseases indigenous to their own societies.
When the Native Americans first encountered common European diseases like smallpox, measles and dysentery, millions died. In extreme cases, 90% of certain Indian tribes died as European epidemics swept through their villages.
The Native Americans were not the only ones who suffered from foreign ailments. As a result of sexual contact with the Indians, Europeans developed a new disease, known as syphilis, and this was quickly spread throughout Europe.
Most immigrants to the New World experienced an initial period during which they caught various new diseases. (Debo, 1970) Africans also endured an initial process that cost many lives. In addition, they introduced various tropical diseases, like yellow fever and malaria, to the New World.
It is estimated that some 400,000 Native Americans lived in America by 1600. With the arrival of English and Dutch people, this number was dramatically reduced as a result of new diseases, such as plague, smallpox, chickenpox, mumps, measles and influenza. (Bailey, 1969) Between 1616 and 1619, the Native American people were nearly wiped out as a result of a mysterious plague, most likely either bubonic or pneumonic, which was contracted from Europeans sailing along the coast of Maine.
This plague killed about 90% of the seacoast Algonquians. The Great Lakes native inhabitants, including the Huron, Iroquois and Mohawks, experienced an epidemic of smallpox that killed at least 50% of the inhabitants during the 1630s and 1640s.
In 1759, an epidemic of smallpox killed half the Cherokee and Catawba. The native populations were often so destabilized by these European epidemics that their losses sometimes reached 90% or higher.
Smallpox was the most dangerous disease in North America, eventually killing thousands of Native Americans. Smallpox is a highly communicable disease characterized by high fevers and rapid pulse, followed by the development of eruptions. (Dowd, 1991) Smallpox is usually transmitted between people, but the virus often contaminates clothing, bedding, dust or inanimate objects and remains infectious for months.
Exposure to the disease resulted in almost universal contagion among people who had never been previously exposed to the disease. The occurrence of a large-scale epidemic usually resulted from the absence of the disease from a population for a significant time; when smallpox returned, most inhabitants had no natural defense against the virus. European migrants carried smallpox to the colonies. Once contracted, no cure was available for smallpox.
After smallpox, the most lethal disease in colonial times was diphtheria, a communicable disease. Diphtheria causes the throat to swell and then become congested with a thick membrane over the larynx and trachea. (Debo, 1970)
In extreme cases, death due to respiratory obstruction, heart failure or overwhelming toxemia and shock occurs. No age is immune to the disease, but it most commonly affects small children. This was another disease brought to the New World by Europeans.
Effects on Native American Lifestyle
Native Americans died in unprecedented numbers because of diseases introduced by Europeans, both inadvertently and occasionally on purpose. By the late 1870s, when the last of the serious epidemics had swept through the indigenous population, there were only about 4,000 left.
The ability of the Native Americans to resist English colonization was weakened by the European epidemics. Many of the Indian villages had been deserted, and grass and vines had taken over the central plazas. (D'Azevedo, 1986) The mortuary temples overflowed with bodies and the goods that were buried with them.
As European diseases decimated the Indian villages, European colonists learned the simple, direct methods of Indian hunting and survival in America. Under the guidance of the Indians, the colonists became frontiersmen. They substituted many pieces of their own European technology, such as the musket and rifle, for in place of the Indian bow, spear and blowgun.
In many respects, these frontiersmen followed Indian custom even to the point of wearing buckskin clothing, moccasins and buffalo hide to keep warm in the cold winters. They also adopted much of the Indian equipment of canoes, kayaks, snowshoes and snow goggles. What remained of Native American culture and society became Europeanized.
The Indians and colonists merged cultures to synthesize a frontier culture from their decidedly different traditions, and the core of this frontier culture centered on hunting for subsistence. However, the colonists were largely "takers" and did not view the Indians with respect.
After helping the Europeans start their colonies, many Indians died of the many fevers and epidemic diseases introduced by the Europeans. When the majority of the Indians were wiped out, the Europeans took over their vastly prepared fields and storehouses. (Debo, 1970) The Native American lifestyle greatly changed as Europeans took over their houses, cleared their fields, and adopted their means of hunting and production.
The Native American lifestyle was basically destroyed by contact, whether direct or indirect, with Europeans. This destruction began well before the European invasion of America began in earnest. When Europeans first came to America, the Indian population was so great and their lifestyle so intact, that the European settlers could not fight the Indians off their land. There were simply too many Indians and the Europeans were outnumbered.
However, through the introduction of a whole series of Europeans pathogens, viruses and bacteria, which the natives had never been exposed to, the Indian population was largely decreased. The Indians had no immunity to these foreign diseases.
Accidental or Not?
Historians and other experts have traditionally treated the decimation of Native Americans by disease as a sort of natural disaster, induced but never intended by the Europeans. However, there is considerable evidence that this was not always the case. (Bailey, 1969)
For instance, the so-called King's War between British colonists and the Native Americans during 1675 and 1676 appears to have been fought, in part, because the Indians were convinced that the colonists had deliberately spread disease among them. Further evidence concludes that the Europeans infected Indians with diseases through contaminated blankets, intended to break the Indians' resistance to colonization and force them to surrender to European invasion.
Leaders of Indian nations did not understand that the Europeans viewed Indians as inferior. They were neither white nor Christian. To the Europeans, they were savage, wild creatures-- a dangerous and unfeeling commodity for the slave markets. The European attitude of superiority resulted in devastating effects on the tribes.
The Native Americans did not understand the European viewpoint. The natives did not view their civilization as inferior but, rather, as different, with completely different values and viewpoints. Therefore, as the Europeans settled across America, violence increased on both ends.
The Europeans were afraid of the Indians because of their reputation for scalping. However, the Indians were fighting a losing battle against superior odds, both in numbers of people and in arms, especially because many of the Indians were suffering or had died from European epidemics.
In most cases the Indian tribes ended up having to leave their ancestral lands or die. Often the Indians left their lands and then were killed or died of disease and starvation.
The European colonists eventually were able to invade the Indians' land peacefully because epidemics of European diseases brought by earlier European settlers had decimated the Native population to less than a tenth of its former size before colonization. (Geier, 1991)
The native were forced to give up their land or sell the land forever in exchange for European goods, which they willingly did because they had no concept of individual ownership. The Indians viewed the bounties of nature as being for all to share.