The smallpox virus spreads either through the air (sneezing and coughing) or from direct contact. It comes in three varieties, including the most virulent, Variola Major, a mild version known as Variola Minor, and a less deadly but bothersome variety, Variola Vaccinae, also known as cowpox. Persons who survive any of these pathogens develop immunity against the others.
In general terms, children resist the smallpox virus best although it is still deadly. Since smallpox was a constant among the European populations, it spread commonly among children. Those that survived grew into immune adults.
When smallpox swept into an unexposed population, such as the native peoples of the Americas, the death toll shattered the civilization, with the virus raging most deadly among adults—those with the most cultural knowledge and societal memory. When its deadly work had finished and the population considerably thinned, the virus killed itself off. Most epidemics were brief and deadly, leaving behind a crowd of orphans with little understanding of their own people’s life ways. This cycle would repeat itself every generation or two as non-exposed peoples would come into contact with European immigrants.
The smallpox virus, too, is insidious, and can live for long periods of time in cloth. Thus, it spread well beyond the sites of European encounters following native trade routes. As a result, many New World nations collapsed well before actual contact with the newcomers from the Old World. Traditional Native American healing proved ineffective against smallpox, and actually hastened death in many cases. One curing technique common among most native peoples was the sweat lodge which only accelerated the suffering of patients with febrile—fever inducing—diseases like smallpox, chickenpox, and measles.
High Indian mortality rates well in advance of contact with Europeans probably explains why so many exploration accounts from the early 1600s include observations of abandoned fields and towns. These reports then fueled a belief that the New World hosted a very small indigenous population and, in some circles, proved God’s divine plan for people to settle in this new land. In fact, the native people encountered were only a remnant, perhaps ten percent, of those that had lived just a hundred years before.
The pandemic had another consequence for native peoples. Since healing was part of their religion, may Indians believed their gods and protecting spirits had abandoned them, while the Christian God seemed most powerful since Europeans did not succumb as readily to these diseases. Many Native Americans, thus bewildered, reasoned that conversion to this new religion might be the only way to survive