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Smallpox & Native American Populations

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Amerindian history is famously punctuated with dramatic epidemics of smallpox. In this lesson, we'll talk about why this was, and what smallpox really meant to Amerindian histories.

Amerindians in North America

Once, North America was full of Amerindian nations, populations of people ancestrally indigenous to the continent. Researchers estimate population numbers in the millions prior to the arrival of Europeans, but today Amerindians make up only about 1% of the total population. So, what happened? Well, the arrival of Europeans introduced many new things to North America. Some of those things were invisible bacteria and viruses that caused pandemic-level outbreaks amongst Amerindian populations. Now, off the bat it should be acknowledged that diseases did not single-handedly destroy Amerindian civilizations. However, when coupled with slavery, oppression and forced dietary/social changes that came from colonialism, these diseases did have an absolutely lethal impact. One of the most notorious of these diseases was smallpox, a vicious virus that even today cannot be treated except to manage its symptoms and prevent its spread. Of all the colonial empires to touch Amerindian nations, smallpox may have been the most aggressive.

Introduction of Smallpox

Smallpox found its way into the Americas basically in tandem with the first major colonial expeditions. The Spanish started setting up colonies in the Caribbean in the late 15th century, and by the first decade of the 16th century the region was already experiencing widespread mortality amongst Amerindian populations. Now, the obvious question here is why smallpox affected Amerindians so harshly. Smallpox as a disease first transferred to humans around 10,000 BCE. It appeared first in agricultural societies as humans were exposed to diseases carried by animals, and spread across Africa and Europe. But, over thousands of years they built up immunities. This doesn't mean they were completely safe; a smallpox outbreak in Rome is believed to have killed roughly 7 million people in 108 CE. However, when smallpox appeared in the Caribbean, it encountered a people with absolutely no previous exposure, and therefore no genetic immunities to the disease.

Europeans landing in the Caribbean unknowingly introduced new diseases
Columbus

The people of the Caribbean, called the Taíno, were the first to really have to deal with smallpox, and they were entirely wiped out. When Europeans first arrived in the Caribbean, they often enslaved the Taíno and forced them into hard labor. Exhaustion and starvation weakened their immune systems, reducing the little ability they had to fight off new diseases like smallpox. Of the many populations to be decimated by smallpox, the Taíno are amongst the only ones considered to have experienced nearly a 100% mortality rate. In fact, it was because the Taíno had all succumbed to the disease that Europeans started importing new slaves from Africa. This actually made the smallpox problem worse, as African slaves unknowingly carried new strains of the disease.

Impact on European Colonialism

Smallpox ended up being one of the most dramatic factors in the colonial wars that would emerge between Amerindians and European empires across the next several centuries. When Hernán Cortés and the Spanish Conquistadores took on the Aztec Empire, many parts of that empire had already been ravaged by smallpox. Since the virus passes from person-to-person and can hide within a host for almost two weeks before that person shows any symptoms, smallpox worked its way into the continental Americas long before the Europeans got there. In fact, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán was ravaged by smallpox while the Spanish weren't in the city, and the Aztec emperor himself was killed. The loss of warriors and political disunity caused by the disease was part of the reasons the Aztec Empire fell.

Smallpox depicted in Aztec illustrations
Aztec illustration

This trend would continue across the Americas. When European traders first made it to what is now Oregon and Washington, they noted that there were already members of the tribal nations there who were sick with smallpox. Researchers estimate that a smallpox outbreak in a community who has never seen the disease before can impact their population for 100 to 150 years. Those who survive are still carriers of the disease, and with each generation the virus can reappear, wreaking havoc.

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