“The Europeans were able to conquer America not because of their military genius, or their religious motivation, or their ambition, or their greed. They conquered it by waging unpremeditated biological warfare.”
—Howard Simpson, Invisible Armies: The Impact of Disease on American History (1980).

When was the country we now know as the United States first settled? Of course the consensus answer is the year 1620 when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. We remember the Pilgrims don’t we? They had been persecuted in England for their religious beliefs, so they had moved to Holland. They sailed on the Mayflower to America and wrote the Mayflower Compact. Friendly Indians, who gave then food and showed them how to grow corn, aided them.

Starting the story of America’s settlement with the Pilgrims leaves out not only the Indians but also the Spanish. The very first non-native settlers in the country we now know as the United States were African slaves left in South Carolina in 1526 by Spaniards who abandoned a settlement attempt. In 1565 the Spanish massacred the French Protestants who had settled briefly at St. Augustine, Florida, and established their own fort there. Some later Spanish settlers were our first pilgrims, seeking regions new to them to secure religious liberty: these were Spanish Jews, some settling in the area known as New Mexico in the late 1500s.

Few Americans know that one-third of the United States, from San Francisco to Arkansas to Natchez to Florida, has been Spanish longer than it has been “American,” and that Hispanic Americans lived here before the first ancestor of the Daughters of the American Revolution ever left England. Spanish culture left an indelible mark on the American West. The Spanish introduced horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and the basic elements of cowboy culture, including its vocabulary: mustang, bronco, rodeo, lariat, and so on. Horses that escaped from the Spanish and propagated triggered the rapid growth of a new culture among the Plains Indians.

Beginning the story in 1620 also omits the Dutch, who were living in what is now Albany by 1614. Indeed, 1620 is not even the date of the first permanent British settlement, for in 1607, the London Company sent settlers to Jamestown, Virginia.

The warmer parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa have historically been the breeding ground for most of mankind’s illnesses. People in the Western Hemisphere had no cows, pigs, horses, goats, or chickens before the arrival of Europeans and Africans after 1492 and they caught no diseases from them. Many diseases, from anthrax to tuberculosis, cholera to streptococcosis, ringworm to various poxes, are passed back and forth between humans and livestock. For more on these subjects see: Peter Farb, Man’s Rise to Civilization (New York: Avon, 1969) and Hubbert McCulloch Schnurrenberger, Diseases Transmitted from Animals to Man (Springfield, Ill, 1975).

The scarcity of disease in the Americas was also partly attributable to the basic hygiene practiced by the region’s inhabitants. Residents of northern Europe and England rarely bathed, believing it unhealthy, and rarely removed all of their clothing at one time, believing it immodest. The Pilgrims smelled bad to the Indians. Squanto, the Native American (Pawtuxet tribe) interpreter and guide at Plymouth Colony “tried, without success, to teach them to bathe,” according to Feenie Ziner, his biographer.

The inhabitants of North and South America (like Australian aborigines and the peoples of the far-flung Pacific islands) were “a remarkably healthy race” before Columbus, according to Howard Simpson (Invisible Armies). Ironically, their very health proved their undoing, for they had built up no resistance, genetically or through childhood diseases, to the microbes that Europeans and Africans would bring to them.

In 1617, a plague broke out in southern New England, likely transmitted from British or French fisherman who had fished the coastal waters of Massachusetts for decades. Some historians think the disease was the bubonic plague; others suggest that it was viral hepatitis, smallpox, chicken pox, or influenza. Within three years the plague wiped out between 90 percent and 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England. The Indian societies lay devastated. Only “the twentieth person is scarce left alive,” wrote Robert Cushman, a British eyewitness, recording a death rate unknown in all previous human experience (in the years 1348-1350, the Black–or bubonic-Plague killed perhaps 30 percent of the population of Europe).

Unable to cope with so many corpses, the survivors abandoned their villages and fled, often to a neighboring tribe. Because they carried the infestation with them, Indians died who had never encountered a white person. Howard Simpson describes what the pilgrims saw: “Villages lay in ruins because there was no one to tend them. The ground was strewn with the skulls and the bones of thousands of Indians who had died and none was left to bury them.”

During the next fifteen years additional epidemics, most of which we know to have been smallpox, struck repeatedly. European Americans also contracted smallpox and other maladies, to be sure, but they usually recovered. Native Americans usually died.

The impact of the epidemics on the two cultures was profound. The English Separatists, already seeing their lives as part of a divinely inspired morality play, found it easy to infer that God was on their side. John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called the plague “miraculous.” In 1634 he wrote to a friend in England: “but for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the smallpox which still continues among them. So God hath thereby cleared our title to this place.”

Even before the Mayflower sailed, King James of England gave thanks to “Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty toward us” for sending “this wonderful plague among the savages.” When a land conflict developed between new settlers and old at Saugus in 1631, “God ended the controversy by sending the small pox amongst the Indians,” wrote the Puritan minister Increase Mather. “Whole towns of them were swept away, in some of them not so much as one soul escaping the destruction.”

Sadly, many Indians likewise inferred that their god had abandoned them. Writer Robert Cushman reported that “those that are left, have their courage much abated, and their countenance is dejected, and they seem as a people affrighted.” After a smallpox epidemic the Cherokee “despaired so much that they lost confidence in their gods and the priests destroyed the sacred objects of the tribe.” After all, neither Indians nor Pilgrims had access to the germ theory of disease. Indian healers could supply no cure; their medicines and herbs offered no relief. Their religion provided no explanation. That of the whites did. Like the Europeans three centuries before them, many Indians surrendered to alcohol, converted to Christianity, or simply killed themselves.

The very death rates that some historians and geographers now find hard to believe, the Pilgrims knew to be true. For example, William Bradford described how the Dutch, rivals of Plymouth, traveled to an Indian village in Connecticut to trade. “But their enterprise failed, for it pleased God to afflict these Indians with such a deadly sickness, that out of 1,000, over 950 of them died, and many of them lay rotting above ground for want of burial.”

Historian Henry Dobyns has put together a heartbreaking list of ninety-three epidemics among Native Americans between 1520 and 1918. He has recorded forty-one eruptions of smallpox, four of bubonic plague, seventeen of measles and ten of influenza (both often deadly among Native Americans), and twenty-five of tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhus, cholera, and other diseases. Many of these outbreaks reached truly pandemic proportions, beginning in Florida or Mexico and stopping only when they reached the Pacific and Arctic oceans.

Even well into our day the pestilence continues. Miners and loggers have recently introduced European diseases to the Yanomamos of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela, killing a fourth of their total population in 1991.

For well over a century, historians and anthropologist have overlooked the evidence offered by the Pilgrims and other early chroniclers. Beginning with P. M. Ashburn in 1947, however, research has established more accurate estimates based on careful continent-wide compilations of small-scale studies of first contact and on evidence of early plagues. Most current estimates of the pre-contact population of the United States and Canada range from ten to twenty million.

Disease was common in the large cities of Europe, from where most early colonizers came. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, of Medieval Europe was still in recent memory for most immigrants. It was just accepted that disease and premature death was part of life. Europeans brought many of these Old World diseases like smallpox, influenza, and measles to the New World. Many of the settlers had survived outbreaks in their homelands and developed immunities. However, the Native American Indians had no previous exposure and disease, along with the wars waged against them, decimated their populations. With their numbers weakened, Native Americans were unable to prevent European immigrants from settling on their lands.

Perhaps Charles Darwin, writing in 1839, said it best when he remarked almost poetically: “Wherever the European had trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal.”


Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. An author, historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.