Category Archives: American history

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.

Capturing Mid-Twentieth Century Medicine in Art

I’ve been reading some history of medicine and anthropology on re-emerging infectious disease lately. The label, ‘re-emerging’ infectious disease, is a response to the mid-20th century attitudes when eradication was the goal for many, if not most, pathogens.  The eradication of smallpox will stand out all the more awesome because we now know it will be a rarity. Polio is still so close, and yet so far. These pathogens are ‘re-emerging’ because they were thought to be beat, conquered or at the very least managed. It was an age of confidence, some might say over confidence.


This picture is floating around the internet. I don’t know where it originally came from or where this sculpture is located. It just seems to typify that era so well. The buff man of medicine holding back death itself. I guess its supposed to portray strength and confidence. This era is foreign enough to me that it’s just off-putting, such bravado and over-confidence. I doubt that few of us who became professionals in the era of HIV, much less SARS or ebola or the ‘re-emergence’ of old foes like pandemic influenza,  cholera and plague can understand the level of confidence that prevailed in the mid-20th century.

Does anyone know more about this sculpture or where it came from? It seems somehow familiar to something I seen in St. Louis, but not the figure of death. It looks like the 1950s or 1960s to me?

Update: Thanks to the wonder of twitter, Heather Battles found it for me. It’s at the Fulton County Health Services, 99 Jesse Hill, Jr. Drive, SE Atlanta, GA 303034 google map . She found out the artist’s name, Julian Hoke Harris.

Personal ties to Cholera, 1833

Map created by Henry S Tanner of the 1832 Cholera pandemic

What a strange feeling looking at this map of the 1832 cholera pandemic.  It looks like a blotchy bruise on the country. A little surprise at how restricted the pandemic was in America. As it turns out this map is incomplete, ending in October 1832;  cholera eventually traveled down the Mississippi to reach New Orleans and stops along the way.  One of my first experiences with history of medicine discovered in my own research occurred while doing some family genealogy. Cholera is often depicted among the poor in crowded, old cities like London. For me though, cholera is a disease of the American frontier.

My ancestor John Biggs Moore died of cholera on July 4th, 1833. John Moore was the patriarch of a large family in frontier Illinois on the Mississippi River. He came to Kaskaskia Illinois with his parents in 1781 in the last years of the Revolutionary war. His father James Moore had first seen the Illinois country in the militia of George Rogers Clark when they took the area from English control during the Revolution. John Moore was teenager listed among the men on the first census of Americans in the Illinois country in 1787 used in part to prove that Americans were settled as far west as the Mississippi River to Congress. When American territorial boundaries were established, the Mississippi River was set as the western border, putting them on the furthest edge of the American frontier. (The Louisiana Purchase would extend the frontier in 1804.) The Moore family started the American settlement at Bellefontaine (present city of Waterloo), at the site of a big well-known spring,  on the trail between Kaskaskia and Cahokia in 1782.

John Moore’s death on July 4th tells us something about its circumstances. July 4th was the biggest community celebration held on the frontier. John Moore was the son, son-in-law, and nephew of Revolutionary war soldiers and a former War of 1812 soldier. There is little doubt that he would have been part of the independence day celebrations. Cholera came to Illinois the previous summer with Gen. Scott’s arrival with federal soldiers to take charge of the Black Hawk War.  They arrived at Fort Dearborn (modern Chicago) on the shore of Lake Michigan and the disease traveled with the troops down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers fading out in the fall. When cholera re-emerged the following summer it is recorded in Belleville in July of 1833, claiming the life of former Governor Ninian Edwards on July 20, 1833. John Moore died of it over two weeks earlier 20 miles from Belleville. Most of the men in John Moore’s extended family where in the Illinois militia on campaign under his step-brother Gen. Samuel Whiteside during the Black Hawk War. So the community gathering for independence day celebrations the summer after the war, that could have went on for days, is the context of his death.

The arrival of the first steamship in Illinois brought with it the double-edged sword of connection with ‘civilization’. Most of the early Illinois pioneers did not come with grand visions of living in an isolated primitive wilderness.  They were very focused on land ‘improvements’ and recreating a Virginia-style plantation landscape. Steam ships would have been heralded as a sign of progress since river trade was vital to their economy until the railroad arrived. The cholera brought to the frontier by the federal troops killed more people than the Black Hawk War.