Sickness Among the Natives

William Bradford

Most historians speak of the encounter between Europeans and Native Americans as resulting in an Indian Holocaust.  There were many causes to this Holocaust:  the introduction of new technological weapons into inter-tribal disputes; the dislocation of Indians off of their tribal land; the constant warfare that often resulted from this dislocation; and the depletion of game in hunting grounds by Indians who sought to trade with the new European settlers.  By and large, however, the greatest cause to this holocaust was the introduction of European diseases that Native Americans had no developed immune system to fight.  William Bradford, a Pilgrim leader of Plymouth between 1622 and 1656, explains in the following account the devastating effect disease had upon New England tribes.

Questions to Consider

  1. What is William Bradford's perspective in this document?

  2. What was the impact of smallpox on the Native Americans?

  3. How did the Native Americans react?

  4. How would disease assist European conquest of the New World?

        I am now to relate some strange and remarkable passages.  There was a company of people [who] lived in the country, up above in the river of Conigtecut [Connecticut], a great way from their trading house there, and were enemies to those Indians which lived about them, and of whom they stood in some fear (being a stout people).  About a thousand of them had enclosed them selves in a fort, which they had strongly palisaded about.  3 or 4 Dutch men went up in the beginning of winter to live with them, to get their trade, and prevent them for bringing it to the English, or to fall into amity with them; but at spring to bring all down to their place.  But their enterprise failed, for it pleased God to visit these Indians with a great sickness, and such a mortalitie that of a 1000 above 900 and a half of them died, and many of them did rot above ground for want of burial, and the Dutch men almost starved before they could get away, for ice and snow.  But about Feb: they got with much difficulty to their trading house; whom they kindly relieved, being almost spent with hunger and cold.  Being thus refreshed by them diverse days, they got to their own place, and the Dutch were very thankful for this kindness.

        This spring, also, those Indians that lived about their trading house there fell sick of the small pox, and died most miserably; for a sorer disease cannot befall them; they fear it more then the plague; for usually they that have this disease have them in abundance, and for want of bedding and lining and other helps, they fall into a lamentable condition, as they lie on their hard mats, the pox breaking and mattering, and running one into another, their skin cleaving (by reason thereof) to the mats they lie on; when they turn them, a whole side will flee off at once, (as it were,) and they will be all of a gore blood, most fearful to behold; and then being very sore, what with cold and other distempers, they die like rotten sheep.  The condition of this people was so lamentable, and they fell down so generally of this disease, as they were (in the end) not able to help one another; no, not to make a fire, nor to fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead; but would strive as long as they could, and when they could procure no other means to make fire, they would burn the wooden trays and dishes they ate their meat in, and their very bows and arrows; and some would crawl out on all four to get a little water, and some times die by the way, and not be able to get in again.  But those of the English house, (though at first they were afraid of the infection,) yet seeing their woeful and sad condition, and hearing their pitiful cries and lamentations, they had compassion of them, and daily fetched them wood and water, and made them fires, got them victuals whilst they lived, and buried them when they died.  For very few of them escaped, notwithstanding they did what they could for them, to the hazard of themselves.  The chief Sachem him self now died, and almost all his friends and kindred.  But by the marvelous goodness and providence of God not one of the English was so much as sick, or in the least measure tainted with this disease, though they daily did these offices for them for many weeks together.  And this mercy which they showed them was kindly taken, and thankfully acknowledged of all the Indians that knew or heard of the same; and their mrs. here did much commend and reward them for the same.