Learning from History: Pandemics are Nothing New in Native Communities

"A Medicine Man administrating medicine." By Captain Samuel Eastman, U.S. Army, for an 1857 book. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images).

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Recently the federal government has revoked the reservation status for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s land. “The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs informed the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe on March 27, 2020 that its 321-acre Cape Cod reservation will be “disestablished” and its land taken out of federal trust, according to Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell.” The Wampanoag trace their roots back to the Native Americans that shared a fall harvest meal with the Pilgrims in 1621, an event that is a part of the history of our modern Thanksgiving celebrations. The Mashpee Wampanoag’s loss of reservation status is indicative of the historic plight of Native American tribes in the United States. Native American history has been chocked full of discrimination, persecution and disease wrought by Europeans. The COVID19 pandemic has caused many to reflect upon the nature of pandemics in the world. If there is one group that understands widespread diseases that decimated entire communities and even generations, it is Native Americans; however, Native history is often downplayed. In this article we will offer a brief discussion of pandemics in Native American communities to pay tribute and honor to the historic struggles Native people have had with widespread disease. In the conclusion of this article we offer resources and lesson plans about the impact of widespread disease on Native communities.   

In Pre-Columbian America Diseases Were Not Widespread
Most of the major diseases that have caused pandemics in the Americas originated in the Old World. Becauses Native Americans had very limited contact with groups outside of North and South America, the development and spread of deadly diseases was limited. With the arrival of Europeans in the Americas diseases from the Old World devastated entire tribes. Native Americans were not previously exposed to most diseases brought to the continents by European colonists, they had not built immunities to those bacteria and viruses. In addition, Europe served as a crossroads between many different peoples. Through constant warfare that spread afflictions throughout the continent and the Silk Road bringing diseases from the East, Europeans developed immunity to a large variety of diseases. Therefore, the diseases Europeans brought to the Americas, decimated Native populations but had little effect on Europeans. This phenomenon is called the virgin soil effect.

Natives were inflicted with many diseases brought to the Americas, including smallpox, bubonic plague, chickenpox, cholera, the common cold, diphtheria, influenza, malaria, measles, scarlet fever, some sexually transmitted diseases, typhoid, typhus, tuberculosis, and pertussis. These brought unspeakable destruction to Natives, in the form of disability, illness, and extensive deaths. Like the COVID-19 in modern times, many of the Europeans were asymptomatic and thus did not even realize they were carrying or spreading the diseases. There is at least one case of the British intentionally exposing Native Americans to disease. In the Ohio country they gave blankets to the Natives as gifts that had come from their smallpox infirmary. This is said to be the first instance of biological warfare.

Native Cultural Practices and the Spread of Disease  
Unfortunately Native culture and their way of life contributed to the rapid spread of disease in their communities. For example, they placed much emphasis on visitation of their sick, which led to the rapid spread of disease through continual contact. Native religious cultural practices also increased their exposure to these diseases. Many believed that disease was caused by magic and sorcery and that if the body was not protected properly by the spirits they were susceptible to diseases. This increased their exposure to these diseases. They often called on religious practitioners known as shamans to cure them of illnesses, a practice that involved continual close human contact. Of course, these beliefs only allowed the diseases to proliferate. 

Widespread Disease Among Natives Throughout History
As noted, much of Native American history has been plagued by widespread disease. The Plains Indians were ravaged by disease in the nineteenth century. Between 1837 and 1870, at least four different epidemics struck the tribes in the plains. It was such an issue that the Plains Indians began to avoid the White man when they learned that they were the source of the diseases. However, Europeans had valuable goods and resources that Indians relied on such as metal pots, skillets, and knives. Thus, the allure of trade was too great and they traded with the Europeans eventually and spread disease throughout their villages.

The introduction of Old World diseases brought great depopulation to many Native tribes. On average many Native Americans lost 25–50% of their tribe to illness. Disease affected smaller tribes in a greater way, as epidemics often brought certain tribes to the brink of extinction. For example, the Native population before the arrival of Cortés’ invasion was estimated to be between 25-30 million in Mexico. However, half a century later the population was reduced to just three million, largely due to infectious diseases brought by the Spanish. In 1520 there were 700,000 Native Americans in Florida. However, by 1700 the number was reduced to 2,000 because of widespread disease. 

The most devastating disease brought from the Old World by Europeans was smallpox. Smallpox was lethal to many Native Americans, bringing sweeping epidemics and affecting the same tribes repeatedly. The first well-documented smallpox epidemic happened in 1518. The Lakota Indians called the disease the running face sickness. A smallpox epidemic struck the Huron Natives in 1639 in the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes regions through traders from Quebec. Disease cut the Huron population in half, going from 18,000 people in 1634 to nearly 9,000 just about five years later. In the 1770s, smallpox wiped out an estimated 30% of the West Coast Native Americans. A decade later in the 1880’s the same disease devastated the Plains Indians. As a result, the federal government of the United States established a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans in 1832. In their 1839 report The Commissioner of Indian Affairs discussed the casualties of the 1837 Great Plains smallpox epidemic. They stated that:

“No attempt has been made to count the victims, nor is it possible to reckon them in any of these tribes with accuracy; it is believed that if [the number 17,200 for the upper Missouri River Indians] was doubled, the aggregate would not be too large for those who have fallen east of the Rocky Mountains.”

The devastation from disease and depopulation devastated Native communities in many ways. The division of labor and interdependence that was indicative of Native culture was greatly impacted by the epidemics. Fewer people were available to hunt, plant crops, and or support their community in other ways. Loss of cultural knowledge transfer also impacted the population. Today although Native Americans have developed the same immunity as their non-Native counterparts, some modern diseases affect Native Americans at a much higher rate than other Americans. American Indians and Alaska Natives die at greater rates from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, diabetes mellitus and chronic lower respiratory diseases. These discrepancies in disease patterns vary significantly between diseases, but have a significant impact on Native populations. Today, there is a growing concern about the mounting effects of the coronavirus on Native populations today. Below we have included resources and lesson plans that can help teachers and students learn more about the history of epidemics in Native communities in the past and in contemporary times.

Lesson Plans
Smallpox & Native American Populations- Lesson
After helping Pilgrims, today’s Wampanoag tribe fight for their ancestral lands – Lesson Plan
Smallpox Among Native Tribes- Lesson Plan
Smallpox Lord Jeffrey Amherst’s letters discussing germ warfare against American Indians-Lesson Materials
Smallpox Epidemics (1781, 1837, 1851)
Smallpox Epidemic of 1862 in British Columbia
Western Expansion: CSI WORKSHEET: Smallpox Blankets and Tribal Genocide
The Effect of Contact on Indigenous People: A 600 Year Old Problem

References/Resources Coronavirus and Native Communities
Two pueblos have some of the highest infection rates in US
How the coronavirus threatens Native American communities
The coronavirus is exacerbating vulnerabilities Native communities already face
Coronavirus Hits Native American Groups Already Struggling With Poor Health Care
Coronavirus ‘could wipe out Brazil’s indigenous people’
Federal Government Revoking Reservation Status for Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s 300 Acres
Trump administration revokes tribe’s reservation status in ‘power grab’
The Story Of… Smallpox – and other Deadly Eurasian Germs

References/Resources- Epidemics in Native American History
How Europeans brought sickness to the New World
Smallpox and the Native American
Native Americans and The Smallpox Epidemic
World Without Genocide- Americans Indians
The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas
Did Colonists Give Infected Blankets to Native Americans as Biological Warfare?
Smallpox epidemic ravages Native Americans on the northwest coast of North America in the 1770s
Native American disease and epidemics


  1. This article was so interesting to me because it aligns perfectly with what we are experiencing today. The only difference is, the media is much more widespread and heard in 2020 than it was back in the times of smallpox and other diseases, often brought on by the Europeans who were traveling to the Americas. One specific point that stuck out to me after reading this article was how the Europeans would give Native Americans blankets as gifts. This seems like a nice gesture. However, in reality, these blankets were made in the smallpox infirmary, and this turned out to account for a major death toll for the Native Americans. Europeans moving to America were often less affected because they had worked up some immunity to the diseases. Even though this topic saddened me, it was nice to read more about the people who lived on this land before us because this is something that I had not learned much about throughout my years of education.

  2. The history of Native Americans is one that needs to stop being ignored. This was their land, where they thrived in numbers and culture. European arrival put an end to that. Though it was unintentional in some circumstances, Europeans took advantage of it to take land, resources, even slaves. And still today we see a troubled relationship between Native Americans and their government. One example is the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation status being revoked, despite the historical and cultural significance of their land. This bad history between Native Americans and the government is one that needs to be set right.

  3. The title of this article caught my attention because with Covid-19 still around and it being basically September, I thought I would discuss my thinking regarding what the article says. In paragraph two, under the subtitle, “In Pre-Columbian America Diseases Were Not Widespread”, it states that because the Native Americans were not immune to the Europeans’ diseases, many were killed by the viruses. This phenomenon is relevant today because those who have weak or jeopardized immune systems are the ones who are struggling with Covid-19. From the third paragraph under the same sub-title, the Europeans where asymptomatic which is similar to people now who may have the Coronavirus yet not show any symptoms at all. This article mainly talks about how today’s Native Americans are suffering from Covid, just like they did from previous European diseases. It is crazy how much history can repeat itself, but we, as a unit, have not learned from it yet.

  4. Prior to reading this article, I had not thought about the amount of pandemics that have occurred in the past. After reading this article I am even more thankful for modern technology and the knowledge that we have from modern science to help stop the spread of the pandemic that we are currently in.

  5. The history of widespread disease in Native American communities is not entirely unknown to me but the intentional introduction of disease by White people is baffling information to learn. It is extremely disheartening to hear of marginalization of Native American people occurring today as we would like to believe we’re “passed” that. Although some of our ancestors may have been well-intentioned, their ignorance proved to be a hindrance as well as a major mechanism in inflicting long-standing harm to Native American communities. I believe it is very possible that our current handling of the COVID-19 virus is improper and perpetuates devastation as no one has immunity today, not to mention prior health vulnerabilities.

  6. In the world we live, biological warfare is nothing new. It is interesting to learn about the smallpox blankets being the first imposition of biological warfare, because learning this same information as a kid; I knew nothing of what it truly meant. White people have been committing atrocities for centuries and it is sad that the same patterns are happening today. From taking lands away from native people in the Americas to the spread of deadly diseases to underprivileged and susceptible people, we are responsible for so much more that the normal person would admit. At what point does humanity finally snap and take back what was rightfully theirs? Are we seeing it currently with the BLM movement? If so, how do we encourage and see to finality the righting of all the wrongs?

  7. Pandemics are rarely kind to the underprivileged. Cultural practices combined with socio-economic disadvantages create a perfect storm for widespread biological contagion. Historically, Native American communities were depopulated quickly and with little recourse- the loss of many times up to 50% of a tribe’s numbers was of little concern to colonists and explorers who had many less Native American potential enemies to contend with. Moreover, the Europeans had already developed immunity to many of the diseases that utterly massacred the Native Americans with not a shot being fired. As I see the COVID-19 numbers reported daily- I cannot help but ache for the socio-economically disadvantaged, because the nature of the virus increases its’ transmission the closer you are to another. The economically disadvantaged rarely have the space or room to truly “quarantine,” and they are also more likely to be the “Essential workers” working an hourly wage at a Kroger, or a fast food restaurant, or in the fields picking crops, or delivering your precious Amazon packages. These scenarios unfairly single out the lower-income families that do not have jobs that allow them to work from home. In fact, unemployment on reservations is already chronic and well above the national average. It will be interesting to see if the record number of Americans filing for unemployment in the last month and onward will begin to be more reflective of what is already a harsh reality on reservations.

  8. This article is very informative. In the introduction it talks about the federal government revoking the reservation status for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s land. I am curious how and why this is happening, what the reasoning is behind it, and if the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has agreed to it, or if they even have too. I have not looked into it, but my assumption would be they’d have to agree to this revocation. Are they getting a payout or some form of compensation? As for the history of epidemics with Native Americans, you only briefly touch on this in school. They mention how much of the Native American population is wiped out as a result of immigration to the Americas. I 100 percent believe this is the immigrants fault, but I don’t believe it was at all intentional or that they though that would happen. I do believe they took advantage of it once they realized, like the example of the small pox blankets in the Ohio country. I do believe that wasn’t the only time- which is despicable. Native American culture was wiped out with its people and it is sad that we have learned very little about this special group of people. I think this article does a good job connecting to the coronavirus and what is going on in the world today. There are a lot of good resources to incorporate into the classroom to help teach an effective lesson.

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