Before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, more than 18 million Native Americans lived in the area that is now the United States. They had developed vast, complex civilizations with distinct architecture, arts, language and culture. The majority of the diseases that plagued Europe at that time simply did not exist in America, so Native Americans had not built up immunity to them.
As more colonists arrived in the land they called the New World, the numbers of people who already called the land home began to plummet. European diseases decimated Native American populations. In some areas, the death toll rose as high as 90 percent. Other tribes vanished completely only a few years after European settlers arrived.
European invaders brought many diseases with them, but the European disease that was most devastating to natives was smallpox. Other diseases brought by European settlers include cholera, influenza, scarlet fever and more, each introducing new ailments that had been previously unseen in Native American populations.
The History of Europeans and Native Americans
You may have been taught that relations between Europeans and Native Americans started out peaceful, but that is not the case. In almost every instance of first contact, Europeans shed Native American blood. The worst considered Native Americans subhuman and thought they could be used as slaves without the thought disturbing the European colonists' consciences.
For the most part, European colonists did not spread disease on purpose. However, many took it as a sign from God that so many Indians were dying. This plays into the general European feeling that the New World existed for their conquest. European colonists believed that it was their right to take the lands of the Americas. The deaths of countless Native Americans only made their goal easier to attain.
On the other hand, some Spanish priests believe that these epidemics of disease were God’s wrath against the Spanish, not the Native Americans. Regardless of what anyone felt, the results of colonial pandemics have been lasting and horrible.
Why Diseases Brought by European Settlers Were So Lethal
Before Europeans arrived, there were very few diseases on the North American continent. Native Americans possessed a generally good overall health. Colonists who wrote about the Native Americans they encountered noted that the native populations were strong and able to work for long hours in the sun, nimbly completing tasks that would have required Europeans a great deal of effort and much more time. Some observers even described the health of pregnant Native American women who, unlike European women, carried on with their daily work out in society, only stopping briefly to give birth and then recovering soon after to return to their duties once again. Very few Native American women died in childbirth.
Why were Native Americans so much healthier than Europeans? One reason is because of their diet. Native Americans had access to a wider variety of cleaner food. In coastal areas like in Florida, the diets of native tribes consisted of oysters, fish, deer, wild turkey and alligator as well as farm crops that included maize, melons, pumpkins, squash and beans. Native tribes also foraged for foodstuffs like berries, nuts and roots.
However, during the same period, the diet of the average European lacked both quality and quantity. Many Europeans believed that fruit and vegetables were not clean enough to eat. The poor ate bread, porridge and stews, and diets were heavy in grains and starch. Sometimes meals contained meat or cheese, but such delicacies were usually difficult to afford for the common folk. Diseases like scurvy, caused by a diet lacking in vitamin C, were not uncommon, and the average person did not live long. Very few Native Americans died of starvation because most people shared food supplies within tribes.
Although neither group possessed measures of modern sanitation, Native Americans lived in generally cleaner conditions. Most European cities were dark, dingy places that lacked indoor plumbing. It was not uncommon for sewage to flow in the streets. This lack of cleanliness and their minuscule knowledge of sanitary practices allowed diseases to spread quickly within European cities. By contrast, Native Americans knew better than to sully their clean living spaces with their own waste. Native Americans were much closer to nature, so they were attuned to any disturbances in the natural order that their presence might create. This kind of harmonious living resulted in a better environment for both people and animals.
What Were the Diseases Brought by European Settlers?
For centuries, scientists studying the deaths of Native Americans from European diseases have remarked on the surprising lack of disease in the Americas prior to European colonization. Research has not yet revealed an explanation, however. This has not prevented scientists from hypothesizing possible causes.
Some suggest that the lack of diseases is due to how Native Americans came to North America. Some anthropologists and archeologists believe that the first aboriginal Americans crossed the Bering Strait land bridge from Siberia into what is now Alaska around 15,000 years ago. This crossing was arduous, and many of the sick and weak may have perished during the trip. With only the strong surviving the rest of the journey, no one carrying a disease would have made it to the Americas and neither would their diseases.
Another hypothesis involves domesticated animals. European infectious diseases such as influenza, measles and smallpox originated from mutations of animal diseases. They were transmitted to humans because so many Europeans lived in close proximity with domesticated animals like horses, cows, chickens, pigs, sheep and goats. Because Native Americans for the most part did not share European animal domestication practices, they did not succumb to the diseases associated with them.
Diseases brought by European settlers included chicken pox, cholera, scarlet fever, smallpox, bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, diphtheria, measles, influenza, whooping cough, tuberculosis and typhus. These diseases spread among the large populations of Native Americans, killing thousands of people often in a short amount of time. Bubonic plague, influenza and measles all had disastrous effects on Native American populations. However, the European disease that was most devastating to natives was smallpox.
What Were Smallpox Blankets?
Smallpox has almost been entirely eradicated in the modern world, but in the 1500s and 1600s when colonists were first arriving in America from Europe, smallpox was a death sentence. Smallpox is a viral infection that can be spread through the air and by direct contact. You may have heard that colonists deliberately infected Native Americans with smallpox using smallpox blankets, or blankets that had been infected with smallpox. According to the legend, colonists presented these smallpox blankets to Native Americans as a Trojan horse, and Native Americans succumbed and died of the disease because they lacked immunity.
Contrary to popular belief, the story of these smallpox blankets is a myth. Colonists perpetrated many heinous atrocities against Native Americans, including murdering them, waging wars against them and rounding them up to remove them from their own land, but purposely infecting Native Americans with diseases was far beyond the knowledge and means of the colonists. Most Europeans in those days did not understand how the disease was transmitted. Additionally, the idea of infecting a blanket with a virus and using it as primitive germ warfare is much more difficult but just as absurd as it sounds. Besides, colonists did not need to work to infect Native Americans with diseases. Native Americans were already dying of European diseases at alarming rates.
Native American Smallpox Epidemics
There is little question that the European disease that was most devastating to natives was smallpox. Most historians believe that the Spanish were the first European colonists to bring smallpox to the New World, perhaps as early as 1520. Native American healers tried many things to cure European diseases, but they found their traditional medicines to be useless against these foreign foes.
Many Native American cultures regarded the healing process as sacred. Medicinal and religious services are often provided by the same person or people in a tribe. However, many of these practices were also lost with the influx of European colonists.
Europeans forced Christianity on countless Native American cultures, stripping them of their beliefs and many of the things they held sacred. The fact that Christian missionaries were often unaffected by disease because of their immunity convinced some Indians to trust in the power of this new God.
By the mid-1700s, Europeans had discovered a way to inoculate people against smallpox. Lewis and Clark even carried a smallpox vaccine with them on their travels with the intention of inoculating natives whom they encountered. The U.S. government made other attempts to inoculate Indians against smallpox in the 1800s, but initiatives failed to eradicate smallpox until the 20th century.
How Did European Diseases Affect the New World?
Researchers now believe that more than half of the Native American populations showed a direct decline almost immediately after European conquest. DNA analysis of living Native Americans in conjunction with analysis of DNA from archeological sites has shown that a steep decline in the population of Native Americans occurred roughly 500 years ago. From the time the first colonizers landed to only a few years after that, roughly 50 percent of the population of Native Americans had perished.
In addition to the effects of infectious disease, famine, wars and slavery are also to blame. Needless to say, the colonizing forces did not treat the natives well. Even though many Americans are taught about peaceful meals of welcome celebrated between Native Americans and the newcomer Europeans, those cozy tableaus are far from reality. Colonists waged war with Native Americans for hundreds of years of animosity and violence. In many places in the Americas, such as in the Caribbean and Brazil, native populations were enslaved to work on the lands or in their masters' houses.
It is easy to say that the introduction of European diseases in America caused an unintentional genocide, but the inhumane treatment faced by Native Americans hardly stopped there. To this day, much of Native American religion and culture remains lost.
Appreciating Native American History and Culture
If reading these facts about the deaths of countless Native Americans has made you want to do something, the first thing you can do is acknowledge that the violence of the past didn't remain in the past. Countless Native American tribes continue to fight for their rights, including the right to their ancestral land, the right to equal citizenship, the right to education, health and social services and protection from violence perpetrated on their reservations that often goes unpunished.
Take a step toward acknowledging Native American sovereignty by learning about the tribe on whose ancestral land you now live. In some places, you may be able to visit reservations and take part in cultural events. Keep in mind that Native American heritage doesn’t just exist in the past. It’s an active part of the lives and cultures of people living closer to you than you might think.
Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.