Challenging Virgin Soil Epidemic Assumptions 

The depopulation of Native Americans during the 16th to 18th centuries, one result of the ‘Columbian Exchange’, has been held up as the ultimate example of virgin soil epidemics. The emphasis put on the ‘virginity’ of the native population, bordering on biological determinism, has absolved the colonial powers of a multitude of sins. Some archaeologists and historians of early North America have begun to challenge the emphasis placed on the virulence of the new pathogens in the native population without minimizing the depopulation itself. They have uncovered multiple additional factors that led to such a drastic loss of native Americans.

Chiaves la florida, 1584
Chiaves la florida, 1584

I recently finished Paul Kelton’s Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophes in the Native Southeast, 1492-1715 (2007) and it was illuminating. He is covering the area of the modern Carolinas, Georgia, northern Florida, and Alabama and contiguous frontiers. This area was colonized by the Spanish, English and the French toward the Mississippi. These infant colonies set off an extensive reorganization of native tribes as trade goods shifted the balance of power throughout the region.

The colonial powers were initially interested in resource extraction over building large colonies. This region had only two easily exploitable resources — deer skins and slaves. This sparked a period of nearly constant intra-tribal warfare and the creation of confederations for protection.

Kelton shows that native depopulation did not occur solely due to epidemics, but due to a set of actions taken by the colonial powers primarily in Carolina. In the first century of the English colonies, native tribes became dependent upon trade good especially guns, powder and shot that were paid for with deer skins and captives. Moreover, the English wanted primarily women and children as captives. Eventually this led to a gender imbalance in most tribes preyed upon for captives. This made it nearly impossible for the tribes to recover from severe epidemics. Having enough women of reproductive age is absolutely necessary for population recovery after an epidemic or any other sudden population loss.

Kelton does not look at human genetic analyses but this makes me think of population analyses in Central and South America where native mtDNA lineages (via matrilineal only) are common but native Y chromosomes are very rare. Many female captives would become wives to immigrant men and their offspring are advantaged over all North American native children. Kelton never really explores the destination of native captives/slaves but implies that many went to markets outside of the English colonies. He implies that it was primarily when native captives were exhausted that Carolina turns to more African slaves.

As the tribes disintegrated from the stresses of warfare and slave raiding, they reorganized into the confederations we are more familiar with, like the Cherokee, Creeks, and Choctaw. None of the groups existed before the colonial period.  In the process of reformation many villages were abandoned. They resettled in a tighter configurations and some built palisades for the first time. In the past many of these settlements were claimed to have been depopulated by epidemics.

Natives in the south-east were primarily farmers who supplemented their diet with venison, fish and other salvaged sources of protein. Without domestic animals for protein, their nutrition was maintained by a precarious balance of crops liable to be disrupted by climate and social disruption. Evasion of slave raiding parties made it difficult to grow crops (most maize) and gather supplementary wild food (deer, fish, oysters, fruit/berries etc). Famine coupled with enteric disease has to be a significant factor in any explanation of native depopulation.  Even before 1492, native populations showed signs of nutritional stress and short lifespans, sometimes with average lifespans in the low twenties.

I’ve focused on non-epidemics causes of depopulation so far because this was the newest material to me. Kelton postulates that malaria was the first epidemic disease to spread among the native population. Malaria is likely to have become entrenched in wetlands early, but how quickly it spread is more questionable and he seems to minimize its demographic impact.  From my own research on the mid-Mississippi valley, malaria makes its first appearance in the records with the arrival of the English even though the French and Spanish had been in the valley long before.

Smallpox is generally considered the most dangerous pathogen of the Columbian Exchange. Kelton acknowledges that smallpox first came to the Spanish missions in Florida and Georgia, but asserts that these epidemics were limited to the mission system. Native North Americans did not have the population density or extensive trade networks found in Mexico and further south. He shows that smallpox (and perhaps measles) did not begin to spread between tribal groups at distance from the colonial settlements until the English facilitated native enslavement system, always done through native partners, developed. By the mid-18th century, native tribes stopped cooperating with the British to sell captives creating a more direct confrontation between the European colonies and all native groups, and increasing the importation of African slaves.

Supposed virgin soil epidemics have been an attractive explanation for demographic collapses in part because it comparatively simple, absolving humans of more responsibility. Humans are portrayed as being victims of biology. Finding other causes does not clear new pathogens of a significant role in native depopulation. Epidemics remain an integral piece of the puzzle, but only a piece.

Reference: Paul Kelton, Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492-1715. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

4 thoughts on “Challenging Virgin Soil Epidemic Assumptions 

  1. This looks like an interesting book, and I wasn’t aware of it, so thanks for reviewing! I have no trouble believing that European incursions in search of slaves or wealth spread disease in North America just as it had in Central and South. One of the things I found most interesting (in reviews of the book on JSTOR) is the suggestion there was a substantial creole population in North America. You never hear about that!

  2. Have not read Keaton’s book yet, but suspect that he left out invasive species (though in a sense pathogens are an invasive species). Numerous new animals and plants were introduced into the Americas, often time displacing native species, and in the case of the horse changed the direction of cultural development of indigenous people to be dependent on a single resouce (Buffalo) which made them more vulneralbe to European style warfare.

    1. He was primarily talking about virgin soil epidemics – so invasive microbes and limited to the southeast; so, no buffalo and limited numbers of horses. I’m not sure what other protein sources plains people had other than buffalo before horses. Catching prairie dogs could be …. frustrating.

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