Taking Sides: Was Disease the Key Factor in the Depopulation of Native Americans in the Early Americas

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Was Disease the Key Factor in the Depopulation of Native Americans in the Americas?

Did Europeans purposefully infect the Native Americans? That question will never be answered. Whether intentional or accidental, the truth remains that disease was indeed brought to the early Native American culture due to European expansion. The true question is in Taking Sides, issue 2, Was Disease the Key Factor in the Depopulation of Native Americans in the Americas? In this particular issue two sides are represented; yes by Collin G. Calloway, and no by David S. Jones. Let’s take a look at Calloway’s perspective towards the issue. The most important cause of Native American depopulation, during European contact, was epidemic disease. The sixteenth through nineteenth centuries saw many different diseases strike Native American populations with considerable frequency. Many of the diseases, such as syphilis, smallpox, measles, mumps, and bubonic plague, were of European origin; and Native Americans exhibited little immunity because they had no previous exposure to those diseases. While they did experience other forms of illnesses like malnutrition, anemia, respiratory infections, and parasitic intestinal infections prior to the Europeans; this was brand new to them and it caused greater mortality than would have occurred, if these diseases been common to the Americas. Collin Calloway goes on in detail, the documented evidence of how drastic disease was on their people. “Governor Diego de Rebolledo reported in 1657 that […] Indians were few because they have been whipped out with the sickness of the plague[…] According to one scholar […] Apalachee Indians of Northern Florida numbered 25,000-30,000 in the early seventeenth century; by the end of the century, less than 8,000 survived” (26). This is approximately a 75% wipeout due to strictly disease and is not the only example. In 1539 New Mexico’s population was estimated at 130,000 and 110 Pueblos, and by 1706 there were only 6,440 and 18 Pueblos: during the early 1600’s the coast of Massachusetts flourished with over 3,000 Natives, and by 1763 there were only 348 people. The same circumstances occurred across the continent: in Cuba, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Guatamala; up to Virginia, South Carolina, New England coast, Connecticut, Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas, Great Lakes, Eastern New York, and Canada; to the West side of California, and Texas; involving the Iroquis, Omahas, Hurons, Cherokees, Crees, Mohawks, and Senecas. Calloway acknowledges that the diseases were able to spread so rapidly due to the Natives’ immune system. Because Native Americans had only witnessed malnutrition, parasites, and respiratory infections; they were unprepared for the epidemic destined in their future. Their practices consisted of herbal remedies, sweat boxes, and praise dances; which were ineffective towards the viruses that spread upon them. Due to their ignorance, they used these same practices as treatment for viruses; turning them from an illness to death. Until they became desperate, Indians strictly opposed the “white-man’s” medicine: by the time they accepted their remedies, it was too late. “[In 1796,] many Indian people overcame their suspicion of the white man’s medicine to accept he protection it could offer against the white man’s diseases. Nevertheless, the protection was too little and too late to stop demographic disaster” (Calloway 30). Unfortunately, Indians were left to fend for themselves in this issue; for there were no hospitals in America until 1811, after almost their entire ethnicity was demolished. The Native Americans had no help, no knowledge, and no escape. The Indian population once stood somewhere between five and ten million in 1492, but by the 1800s, that figure dropped to around 600,000. In turn the European colonial population doubled every twenty-five years in America. What does that mean- that the colonies flourished, because of their...
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