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Germs Reorder the Native Population (CEC)

Spanish explorers arrived in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico by 1512, unleashing plagues of smallpox and other diseases that spread through the Indian population like wildfire. Nearly nine out of every ten members of the indigenous population in the Americas perished, with civilizations with denser populations suffering most. This pressure, coming amid a new colder climate cycle known as “The Little Ice Age,” completely reshuffled most Indian societies. Spanish exploration reached the region of Frontier Texas between 1528 and 1545, bringing the disease plagues already ravaging Mexico to the Rio Grande Valley and to the Mississippian heartland to the east.
Once again, diminished populations abandoned once thriving villages and towns and began wandering, looking for other ways to stay alive. Others wandered into the vacated lands, and established new homelands on the ruins of previous settlements. Some of the Shoshone people moved through the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains and began to emerge onto the great plains, displacing other people already there. They pushed the Kiowas, for instance, northeast to the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Shoshones also clashed with the Apaches for dominance but generally stayed north of the Arkansas valley.

The Killing Diseases

European Germs:

The Spanish and later Europeans introduced a number of pathogens into the Americas, including bubonic plague, chicken pox, pneumonic plague, cholera, diphtheria, influenza, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhus, tuberculosis, and whooping cough.   These so-called crowd diseases were common in the densely populated port cities of Europe, and individuals that survived their infection generally became immune.  Most of these illnesses, too, required larger populations to spread—smaller concentrations of people would cause the germs to not only kill their victims, but also to die out themselves, stripped of incubators for the next go-round.  So, new generations of people would bloom, unexposed.  The diseases were tough on those that succumbed, but good news for their descendant populations, which might once again thrive—until the next epidemic.

Europeans, too, lived in close proximity to their animals.  Cattle, mice, rats, horses, swine, poultry, dogs, and cats all shared space with their human keepers, and many illnesses caused by unclean living conditions or carried by animals—or the creatures that were parasitic to them—introduced an additional dimension to the microbial zoo surrounding a typical European household.

The Killing Pathogens

Millions of the indigenous peoples of the Americas died from these European diseases, as had people in the Old World before them.  The calendar was against the people of the New World, however, and their population declines never had time to recover like they had among the Medieval Europeans.  Instead, the presence of the newcomers and their ever-increasing numbers kept a grinding pressure on the Indian populations.  Small pox killed the most native peoples, followed by measles, influenza, and plague.


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