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HISTORY

The untold story of the disease the Pilgrims brought to the New World

The Pilgrims brought more than problems to the indigenous population of North America; they came with a disease that decimated 90% of the population.

The turkey is probably in the oven already, the cranberry sauce is sitting on the table not to be eaten, pumpkin pies are in the making, you already enjoyed the iconic Macy's parade or the classic football game, and all in all, we're all about to enjoy a happy Thanksgiving Day surrounded by our beloved ones. However, most of the time, we fail to step back a little bit from the joyful rush to think about the implications this day had in history and the bloody origins of a festivity that is even celebrated in other parts of the globe.

Yes, the Pilgrims might've shared a meal with the Indians, but this alleged truce was only momentary. Before and after the famous dinner, Native Americans were met with hostility, violence, and a little less talked threat, disease. Newcomers that came before and in the Mayflower, didn't reach American soil alone, they came with an invisible weapon that decimated the population. It's estimated that around 18 million Native Americans lived in North America before the 16th century. After Europeans settled in the territory, 90% of the Native population perished.

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A decimated land

When the Pilgrims from the Mayflower reached what they called New Plymouth, in November 1620 they found an already abandoned land but a vast crop of corn that seemed to have been planted years before. They couldn't believe their luck, but little did they know that the previous occupants of the land had died of a terrible disease. For them, this had been God's gift who had set the ground before their arrival.

Months later, by the spring of 1621, the famous pilgrims finally met some natives, who greeted them in English and welcomed them happily. Well, that according to the Pilgrims. They informed the new settlers that many had died of a terrible plague. According to the 1620 issue of the Charter of New England, granted by King James I: “Within these late years, there hath, by God’s visitation, reigned a wonderful plague, the utter destruction, devastation, and depopulation of that whole territory, so as there is not left any that do claim or challenge any kind of interest therein.”

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The diseases brought by the Pilgrims

Throughout history, a set of different diseases has been listed among the visitors that came with the Pilgrims to the New World. Smallpox, chickenpox, syphilis, malaria, influenza, measles, and the bubonic plague are just some of the invaders that colonizers brought to the colony even before the Mayflower pilgrims. However, the 'plague' that desolated Massachusetts at that time was no other than leptospirosis, a terrible deadly bacteria that, according to estimations, killed nine out of ten indigenous people. Just within a decade, the death rates would reach that terrible number of 90%.

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One of the most notable victims of leptospirosis was the Wampanoag Tisquantum, best known as Squanto. He was among the group that welcomed the Pilgrims in 1621. Squanto had been abducted by British Europeans and taken to London, one year before the arrival of the Mayflower Pilgrims, Squanto made it back to Patuxet, the original name of Plymouth, to find that his land had been ravaged by this plague. One year after meeting the Pilgrims, Squanto died tragically of a mysterious disease that made the infected bleed from their nose and eyes, among other symptoms.

Leptospirosis is a blood infection caused by the bacteria Leptospira. It's believed it was transmitted through the rats transported on the European ships. Besides bleeding, other symptoms included high fever, general pain, and symptoms similar to those of the flu. The immune system of the Native Americans was just not prepared to fight such an aggressive infection. Moreover, inside the colonies, the conditions set the perfect atmosphere for the bacteria to spread easily among the territory. Poor sanitation and malnutrition were just some of the factors that encouraged the morbidity of the inhabitants.

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The decimation of the population

We've mentioned that after the arrival of the Pilgrims to North America 90% of the indigenous population perished. In Massachusetts, from an estimated population of 30,0000, within a decade, it was reduced to only 300. But these numbers aren't only limited to North America, and diseases were pretty much all European colonizers' best weapon.

When Christopher Columbus first arrived on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean in 1492, the population rounded to 250,000 Native inhabitants. Just 25 years later, there were fewer than 14,000; that is about 95% of the population. Just paint the whole image, the death rates caused by diseases in all the continent are way higher than the ones presented in Europe during the Black Plague

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Nothing to be that grateful for

Yes, Pilgrims might not have been aware they were bringing this terrible disease with them, but the narrative around their arrival and the foundations of the United States is based on a story of abuse, invasion, and death. For the new settlers, the rapid death of Native Communities was seen as a gift from God. For them, this was only proof that God wanted them to colonize the territory and this plague that seemed to affect the indigenous population more aggressively was just God's way to ease the process. 

While the Wampanoag and other indigenous groups referred to this plage as "The Great Dying," colonizers just called it the "Indian Fever," detaching themselves from all responsibility. That's how the country has always dealt with Native communities, always seeing them as something apart from them and not as the main victims of their system.

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Photos from Wikimedia Commons

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