Left: Photo from CDC of one of the last known victims of smallpox, circa 1974.
The first documented instance of epidemic disease in New England occurred in the years 1616-1619; this manifestation seemed to be centered on Boston Bay, radiating up and down the Atlantic Seaboard. The exact nature of the disease is itself the subject of some debate; scholars are torn between labeling the epidemic one of smallpox, yellow fever, or of bubonic plague.
Regardless of the exact pathogen, the pestilence was surely one to which natives were not immune; contemporary reports indicated that natives were devastated to the extent that “the twentieth person is scarce alive.” Jesuit Father Biard made the following observation about the Abenaki Confederacy during this period:
They are astonished and often complain that, since the French mingle with them and carry on trade with them, they are dying fast, and the population is thinning out.
The Abenaki had good reason to be wary of interaction with Europeans; a population that has been estimated at 32,000 in 1600 dwindled to fewer than 8,000 people by the end of the seventeenth century. Occupying most of present-day Maine, the Abenaki were among the first indigenous people of New England to be struck down by the diseases that traveled with Europeans.
Another eyewitness account of the destruction produced by the 1616-19 epidemic was documented by Captain Thomas Dermer in 1619:
[The expedition] passed along the Coast where I found some ancient plantations, not long since populous now utterly void; in other places a remnant remains, but not free to sickness. Their disease the plague, for we might perceive the sores of some that had escaped, who described the spots of such as usually die.
Left: 17th-century drawing of Abenaki village in throes of deadly epidemic
The demise of the Algonquin-speaking Massachuset people in the Boston Bay area began with this mysterious 1616-19 epidemic. It has been estimated that there were approximately 30 villages containing as many as 3,000 people at the beginning of the epidemic; this number fell to a mere 500 by Pilgrim count in 1631. Most of the remaining Massachuset succumbed to the successive waves of epidemics in the seventeenth century. Amalgamation by the small number of survivors into other regional tribes caused the Massachuset to disappear as a distinct group.
Captain John Smith noted the decline of the Massachuset in one of his colonial propaganda pieces:
A fishing boat being castaway upon the coast, two of the [English] men escaped on shore. One of them died, the other lived among the natives till he had learned their language. Then he persuaded them to become Christians, showing them a Testament, some parts thereof expounding as well as he could. But they so much derided him, that he told them he feared his God would destroy them. Whereat the king assembled all his people about a hill, himself with the Christian standing on the top, and demanded if his God had so many people and able to kill all those? He answered yes, and surely would, and bring in strangers to possess their land. But so long they mocked him and God, that not long after such a sickness came, that of five or six hundred about the Massachusetts there remained but thirty, on whom their neighbors fell and slew 28. The two remaining fled the Country till the English came, then they returned and surrendered their country and title to the English.
While Smith’s overall veracity may be suspect (his embellished romance with a certain Pocahontas being only one of a series of fabrications), his version of the events correlates with contemporary accounts.
The first smallpox epidemic in New England for which there seems to be a historiographical consensus was that of 1633-35; this outbreak struck the Narragansett with particular virulence, killing a reported 90% of the population. William Bradford blamed the outbreak on traveling Dutch traders; irrespective of the original source, the disease brought forth this observation from Bradford:
[The natives] fell sick of the small poxe, and died most miserably; for a sorer disease cannot befall them; they fear it worse than the plague; for usually they that have this disease have them in abundance…they dye like rotten sheep.
Evidence of the deadly nature of this disease to natives as well as the immunity of the English was also demonstrated in Bradford’s account; he wrote of the perceived divine favor that accompanied this outbreak:
…But by the marvelous goodness and providens of God not one of the English was so much as sicke, or in the least measure tainted with this disease…
It is small wonder then that Europeans looked upon epidemic disease as proof positive of providential displeasure with native groups. Given the incomplete understanding of disease transmission, the ability of Europeans to avoid developing diseases that felled natives must have seemed to be compelling evidence of divine favor.