|" Smallpox was the captain of the men of death in that war, typhus fever the first lieutenant, and measles the second lieutenant. More terrible than the conquistadores on horseback, more deadly than sword and gunpowder..." (Asburn 1947)|
Infectious disease probably had the most impact on the world following the initiation of contact by Columbus and his men. Certainly disease was the most effective weapon that Europeans brought to America. The devastating effect of disease on Native peoples was mostly due to the biological isolation and the limited intrusion of infectious diseases in America before A.D. 1492. The weapon of disease was not well recognized by Europeans, nor intentionally used in the early colonial contacts. In later times, especially the 19th century, disease was sometimes allowed to do its damage or was purposefully introduced into populations. However, African, and European populations were also dramatically affected by both epidemic and endemic diseases. Native Americans suffered 80-90% population losses in most of America with influenza, typhoid, measles and smallpox taking the greatest toll in devastating epidemics that were compounded by the significant loss of leadership. More incipient diseases such as tuberculosis, syphilis, typhus, mumps, whooping cough, malaria, yellow fever, and pneumonia would be compounded by the impact of nutritional, sanitation, and labor conditions in colonial America.
It is estimated that the total Native American population of the Americas to be 90- 114 million people. About 90% died due to disease with the lowest Native American populations recorded in 1900. The initial 50 years after Columbus' arrival devastated the populations of the Caribbean and Meso America. It is now clear that the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortes was helped considerably by the diseases brought by the Spanish in 1519. In South America diseases, especially smallpox, spread ahead of the Spanish to cause a civil war among the Inca and also weaken their armies to give an advantage to Pizarro and his when they arrived in 1532. The coastal areas of Brazil were settled by the Portuguese beginning in 1500 and the coastal areas suffered the greatest population loss of Native Americans initially. The Amazon Basin was the least settled and only in recent years diseases are beginning to take a toll on tribes just being contacted. As the Spanish explored into North America diseases spread beginning with Desoto in 1539. Later in the 1600s English and French explored and settled North America beginning along the Eastern Seaboard and spreading into the West in the early 1800s. Much of the damage of epidemic diseases was due to the fact that leaders were more likely to suffer initial losses thus crippling the decision making networks of the culture.
On the Upper Missouri River American Fur Company interests stimulated trade via steamboats. In 1832 the US government approved smallpox vaccinations for Native Americans. However, the Secretary of War notified the Western Indian Agent not to vaccinate on the Missouri River above the Arikara villages. Later, in 1837 the American Fur Co. steamboat St. Peters went up the Missouri River with people contaminated with smallpox. With people getting off at Indian trading posts an epidemic quickly spread. Most of the tribes suffered 60% population loss and the Mandan suffered a 90% loss. This event has always been controversial and the intentionality, i.e. genocide is still not clear. Some say blankets were intentionally contaminated, others blame the edict by the Secretary of War five years earlier. Most scholars are also aware the two artists, George Catlin and Karl Bodmer on separate expeditions in 1833-34 painted pictures of some of these Upper Missouri tribes right before they were decimated by smallpox. It is believed that only 40-150 Mandan survived the smallpox scourge and survivors had to seek refuge with the Hidatsa.
Copyright � S.J. Crouthamel