Jan 31, 2006

La Florida: The Land Of Flowers Became A Graveyard

Left: Map of early Spanish explorations courtesy of luddist.com

This is an excerpt of a book project I am working on that deals with the role of epidemic disease in the European conquest of the Americas

Beginning with Ponce de Leon in 1513, the Spanish began a campaign of conquest and exploration in the land that they called La Florida. This territory encompassed not only that of present-day Florida, but parts of Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi.

The largest ethnic group in the region was the Timucua, who dominated the northern third of La Florida. Demographic estimates of the population size of the Timucua range from 200,000 to 500,000 people; the difficulty in quantifying population size is a function of the decentralized nature of Timucuan society. There were approximately 30 Timucua kingdoms of various sizes, and the lack of a formal system of writing has hampered efforts to determine the scope of Timucuan civilization.

The first epidemics in La Florida have not been as well-documented as those of Hispaniola, Mesoamerica, and Peru; however, there is strong evidence of catastrophic depopulation among Timucuan peoples. The number of chiefdoms had dwindled to 13 by 1595, and the population had fallen to an estimated 50,000 people.

The colonizing expedition of Hernando de Soto was instrumental in describing and cataloguing the various ethnic groups of La Florida. Without these narratives, it is possible that the names of entire indigenous groups might have vanished from history. Of course, de Soto’s expedition and the Eurasian microbes that tagged along may, in and of themselves, have triggered an initial wave of demographic disaster for the original inhabitants of the Floridian peninsula.

The century after initial European contact was, for the Timucua-speakers, one of massive depopulation. The exact date of epidemics is not known; what can be pieced together from contemporary accounts is the large number of empty villages in the southeastern United States that developed between the expeditions of de Soto and LaSalle.

The maelstrom of disease and death that may have been roiled by de Soto apparently extended across the entire Southeast. The Coosa city-states of western Georgia and the Caddoan-speaking civilization, centered on the Texas-Arkansas border, collapsed soon after the de Soto foray. The Caddo were renowned for their taste in colossal construction: public plazas, ceremonial platforms, mausoleums.

After the period of de Soto’s travels, the Caddo stopped building community centers and began digging community cemeteries. Between the expeditions of de Soto and La Salle, the Caddoan population plummeted from about 200,000 to an estimated 8,500 people - a drop of nearly 96 percent.


M A F said...

When I read these types of articles (short esays) I am remindeed of something that I read about the colonization of the Americas was the first known form of germ warfare.

I could be mistaken, but I was under the impression that the aborigines of the Americas died in greater numbers from the spread of disease than anything else.

historymike said...

You are correct, Mac. The generally accepted demographic estimates are for about a 90% drop in the indigenous populations of the Americas after the first century of contact with a given group.

These estimates were more completely backed up in the example of the Hawaiian Islands. The pre-contact Hawaiian monarchy kept detailed tax and census records, and those were compared in the 1880s with European-based censuses; the results were also about a 90% drop.

Generally the first waves of epidemic disease took tolls of up to 50% of the population, with successive wave claiming smaller percentages.

These are startling figures, and they secondarily should serve as reminders of how new diseases can bring widespread death.

Dariush said...

Probably the first, and still one of the best, books I read on this and other neglected aspects of European/Indian relationship in the Americas was James Loewens' "Lies My Teacher Told Me." Get a hold of it, if you haven't already.

One of the most fascinating (and again, very much neglected) aspects of this relationship was the whole concept of "tri-racial isolates". Something else that I was introduced to via Loewens' book.

The book "Gone to Croatan" does an admirable job of dealing with the "tri-racial isolates" in an in-depth manner.

Hooda Thunkit said...


A few questions:

Did anything similar happen in Europe when it was first colonized, or was there no known/recorded colinization as such?

I know Europe has a much longer history of occupation, and that may have allowed similar sicknesses/diseases to occur spread out over a longer timeframe, but where did the Europeans het their exposure from?

Did everything start in the east, gradually moving across Europe and Asia, tempering the impact that later became unavoidable in North America?

If I were to guess, that would be my theory, without the benefit of research/knowledge...

historymike said...

The bubonic plague (and its pneumonic manifestation) ripped through Europe beginning in the 14th century.

A disease like smallpox (some historians argue it was also the plague) hit Europe very hard in the 6th century and wiped out 20-25% of Europes population (as well as most of Roman emperor Justinian's armies).

Any population without previous immunity to a new pathogen is ripe for the disease to cut a wide swath of death through it, which is why so many people are freaked about avian flu h5n1.