Monday, April 13, 2020

Pandemics among Native American Populations in Pennsylvania and Surrounding Regions

Like many of you, the archaeologists at the State Museum of Pennsylvania are telecommuting from home working to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. Across the North American continent, we know that millions of Native Americans died as the result of diseases introduced by the invading Europeans. This week’s blog is a brief overview of pandemics that affected Native American populations in Pennsylvania and the surrounding regions. This will include the types of diseases, their immediate effects on native populations, how Native populations responded and the broader effects on societies during the time that Europeans moved into the region. 

A pandemic is defined as a disease prevalent over a whole country or the world. To a Delaware or Susquehannock Indian, smallpox must have felt like it was affecting their whole country and essentially their whole world. An epidemic is a widespread outbreak of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time and has been commonly used to describe widespread diseases in Native populations. Depending on the context, local versus regional, we will use both terms.  

It is difficult to identify disease in Native Americans prior to European contact. Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, existed in Native American populations prior to European contact, but they require detailed osteological analysis to identify. These studies have not been undertaken regularly until recently. Therefore, it is difficult to investigate how prevalent they were because we don’t have the information. We know that diseases of pandemic proportions arrived with the Christopher Columbus sponsored by Spain in 1492. There is some debate, but it is thought that Hispaniola was his first stop and diseases spread quickly throughout the West Indies. The Native American population consisting of approximately a million people in the West Indies was exterminated quickly. Not all died from disease, many were enslaved, died in warfare or were causally killed (Diamond 1999:373). 

While infecting the West Indies, the Spanish brought diseases such as smallpox to the mainland of Central America. Cortez is credited with conquering the Aztec in 1521, however there is a more interesting back story. Arriving in 1519, Cortez heard stories of great treasures held by the Aztec empire.  Along with an army of 250 Spanish soldiers, he was invited into the capital city of Tenochtitlan by the emperor Montezuma who believed this was the best way to control the Spanish. Relations between the Spanish and the Aztec quickly broke down; Montezuma died, killed by the Spanish or his own people is unclear, but Cortez was driven out of the city escaping back to the coast. A year later, after the Aztec population was decimated by smallpox killing millions, Cortez returned with an army of Indians and the city, in its severely weakened state, was horribly pillaged. His victory was more a result of the disease rather than his military ability. A similar sequence of events occurred across South America including the pillaging of the Inca empire. 

Aztec suffering form smallpox pandemic 

Additional Spanish incursions into the American Southwest and the Southeast were economic failures but spread diseases and millions of Native Americans died. In the Southwest, several expeditions were initiated but met resistance from local Indian populations. The Coronado expedition in the 1540s was especially brutal but was one of the last until the late 1500s. In the Southeast, the De Soto invasion cut a deadly path through a large number of Native American towns, brutalizing the population and infamous for spreading disease. 

In the Northeast, it is difficult to identify when the first epidemics struck Native populations. European fishermen were exploring the North Atlantic coast; the French were exploring the St. Lawrence basin and the Spanish were exploring the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay (O’Brien 2008: 47, 60). The Indians were interested in European goods and the Europeans were interested in natural resources such as the gold being exploited by the Spanish. Based on our knowledge of pathogens such as the coronavirus or even the common flu, disease was almost certainly exchanged in these early trading events, but we don’t have the historic records to determine either way. 

Prior to the Europeans, there were probably epidemics among Native Americans, but they are difficult to identify. However, some archaeologists have explained gaps in the archaeological record (time periods when there are no archaeological sites) by suggesting devastating epidemics. Stewart Fiedel (2001) has argued that the low number of recorded sites during the Early Woodland period (2800 to 2000 BP) in the Middle Atlantic region could be explained by a pandemic that significantly reduced Native American populations to the point that they were barely visible in the archaeological record. Barry Kent (1984:123) has suggested that the sites on the West and North branches of the Susquehanna River cease to be occupied around 1525 and the reason was that an epidemic had devastated the population with the survivors moving elsewhere. A similar scenario has been suggested for the seemingly sudden end of the Monongahela culture in the upper Ohio Valley of western Pennsylvania. There are a small number of Monongahela sites with a low density of European trade goods, but no sites with large numbers of European materials similar to the Susquehanna or Delaware valleys. After 1635, the Monongahela culture seems to disappear and one of several possible explanations is a major pandemic (Johnson and Means 2020; Wallace 1968: 14).

James Herbstritt (2020), also follows this logic suggesting that pathogens were responsible for the collapse of the Shenks Ferry people in the lower Susquehanna River Valley. Shenks Ferry villages and hamlets dating from the 13th to the early 16th century are found along the major streams of Lancaster County. Over time, according to Herbstritt, their population seems to expand into the adjacent Schuylkill drainage to the east and later it retracts back into the major streams of Lancaster County. In the early 1500s, a time of early Spanish and French exploration in the surrounding region, their sites had retracted to along the Susquehanna River. This last retraction may be the result of diseases contracted during contact with coastal Algonquians who had acquired pathogens from Dutch, Swedish and English sailors. When the Susquehannocks migrated from the north to the lower Susquehanna valley 1550s, the Shenks Ferry population had been decimated by pathogens, causing their social and political system to collapse. The survivors either moved or more likely were assimilated by the Susquehannocks. The latter explanation, according to Herbstritt (2020), is supported by Shenks Ferry and Susquehannock ceramic vessels in the same pit features.

As for well documented pandemics, they are first noted in the 1630s in New England. The Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts numbered approximately 12,000 prior to their meeting with the Puritans in the 1620s. “Because of their frequent and sustained contact with the whites” European diseases reduced their population by 90% by 1675 (Treuer et al 2010:26). Disease completely disrupted basic life functions resulting in poverty, political upheaval and disillusionment in their spiritual leaders. They were the first tribe in the region to feel the effects of devastating epidemics and their old enemy, the Narragansetts (who had maintained “social distancing”), forced them to cede territory. 

In 1634, William Bradford of the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts reported that 95% of a tribe along the Connecticut River died of smallpox and many of the dead were unburied (Kraft 2001:389). While on a map making survey, van den Bogaert recorded eight Mohawk villages in the Hudson valley. These were affected by a devastating smallpox epidemic. Approximately 4000 died and it spread via community contact, a term that we know so well today, to adjacent tribes killing thousands more. Snow (1995) conducted a detailed analysis of this incident and noted that the Mohawk subsequently formed four smaller villages. Snow (1995:36) estimates that there was a mortality rate of 63% during this epidemic. At the time of European contact, the Five Nations numbered approximately 20,000 people. By the 1640’s, the Iroquois population was half its pre-contact level. As unfortunate as the number is, it is believed that coastal populations were reduced by 90%. 
The smallpox pandemic of 1660-1663 began in New Amsterdam, spread to the Susquehannocks in 1661 and to the Lenape (Delaware) in 1663. This was bad timing and as noted by Willem Beeckman, it caused “great mortality” among the Susquehannocks who were being pressed by the Seneca Indians from the north. In addition, it was bad for trade indicating there were economic impacts. The Lenape suffered additional smallpox epidemics in 1677 and 1694 (Kraft 2001:431). By the end of the 1600s, the Lenape  population had been reduced by 90%, much of it from diseases, and were outnumbered 20 or 30 to one by their Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and English neighbors (Kraft 2001:389). Throughout the 1600s, the Lenape had good relations with their European neighbors and had a great deal of control over the fur trade and their territory. However, with their population severely reduced, and the Europeans greatly increased, this situation changed. By the 1700s they began moving west. 

Europeans carried many infectious diseases such as smallpox, measles, influenza, plague, tuberculosis, typhus, cholera, malaria and others. Kraft reports (based on Dobyns 1983:8-26) that tularemia may have affected animals as well as people. As another consequence of the European invasion, tularemia may have exterminated Indian dogs. Early explorers and traders frequently mentioned how common dogs were in Indian villages. However as argued by Largent (2020: 1-4) their genome is not found in our modern dog population suggesting that they were somehow eliminated. They seem to have been replaced by Old World dogs, possibly because of this disease. In addition, most European dogs were larger and specialized, trained for specific duties. 

Epidemics not only caused death, depending on their severity, they caused a great disruption in the basic functions of tribal societies.  People were unable to care for the sick: subsistence activities were impacted causing hunger and dehydration; mothers infected their babies; and there was a loss of faith in healers and spiritual leaders causing stress in traditional ideological systems. The young and the old were the first to succumb, resulting in a loss in traditional knowledge and leadership. As populations decreased, they were susceptible to domination by their enemies such as the Narragansett in New England, the Iroquois in New York, the Susquehannocks in the Middle Atlantic or the Europeans wherever they could take advantage of the situation. When tribal boundaries began to break down, warriors from different tribes joined together for defensive or offensive measures or allied with the Europeans, and when they contracted diseases, they were transmitted back to their home villages.

The driving economic force of the 17th century in Pennsylvania and the Middle Atlantic region was the “fur trade” – the exploitation of natural resources by the Europeans in exchange for superior technological items by Native Americans. Both sides understood this system and adapted to preserve it. However, epidemic diseases were a destabilizing factor for a variety of reasons such as reducing the flow of furs or requiring Europeans to find new trading partners. Adding to the instability was the practice of “mourning wars”. In response to death in a family, morning wars involved capturing enemies, torturing some to replenish the community spirit and adopting others to replenish loved ones. This was especially common among the Iroquois and Susquehannock resulting in a constant low level of violence, but it was also practiced by the Lenape (Soderlund 2015: 106). As the Lenape increasingly blamed the Dutch, Swedes and Finns for their problems and their epidemics, they became the object of their morning war acts threatening the stability of the fur trade. 

One outbreak of smallpox illustrates the complexity of the fallout from epidemics. In 1654, a Swedish ship landed in the lower Delaware River near Tinicum with much needed supplies. Unfortunately, a hundred passengers had already died of smallpox and more died on land. This resulted in an epidemic in the local Lenape population, killing more. Lenape sachems complained to Swedish Governor Risingh, accusing him of intentionally infecting the Lenape people. The Swedes and the Lenape had recently signed a treaty of mutual respect and assistance. This incident could jeopardize the agreement. Risingh sympathized with the Lenape and suggested they should turn to God. The Lenape had a history of not converting to Christianity and quickly disregarded his suggestion. Both groups wanted to preserve the treaty and the Lenape knew that “morning war” would be a problem. Risingh showed empathy and the sachem convinced their people not to participate in morning war (Soderlund 2015: 83). 

Self-righteous Europeans saw epidemics as acts of God – “Where the English come to settle, the Devine Hand makes way for them by removing or cutting of the Indians either by wars with one another or by some ravaging mortal Disease (Denton 1845:6,7) Reported in Kraft (2001:390)

Smallpox was the most common pathogen, but other diseases had significant impacts. It is not known if venereal disease was in the pre-contact Lenape population, but syphilis was present in the West Indies. Columbus brought it back with him and it spread quickly throughout Europe and the British Isles. Syphilis was recorded in Boston in 1646 but the Lenape could have already been infected by sailors along the Atlantic coast.

It is often asked “Why were Indian populations so susceptible and Europeans not? The standard explanation is that they had no immunity to these diseases while Europeans had been living with them for thousands of years. But why did Europeans have these diseases and the Indians did not? According to Diamond (1999:357) many of these diseases were viruses that started with domesticated animals and were eventually transferred to humans. In the early Middle East and Europe, many animal herders lived with their animals. These living conditions were ripe for animal viruses to mutate and move to humans. Native Americans had very few domesticated animals. The North American horse went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene and the American bison did not have the temperament for easy domestication. The llama/alpaca and guinea pig were restricted to South and Central America. In addition, the Americas only had a few “cities’ with high concentrations of people where these diseases could develop whereas the Old World in Asia, the Middle East and Europe had many cities with concentrated populations for the virus to spread.  

 As a final indignity, the earliest recorded example of germ warfare is found in 1763 when English Lord General Jeffery Amhurst and Colonel Henry Bouquet conspired to infect the Delaware with smallpox. Two blankets and a handkerchief from smallpox victims were given to friendly Delaware’s at Fort Pitt. However, as noted by Kraft (2001:464), this was unnecessary as the damage had long been done and the population had been reduced by 90% from pre-contact times. The 17th century in Pennsylvania was a tumultuous time beginning with two powerful Native American tribes totally engaged in the “fur trade’ and ending with decimated populations and the fur trade passing them by. 

Finally, Engelbrecht (2003), Snow (1995) and Dobyns (1983) suggest that European diseases spread far inland well before interior tribes made direct contact with Europeans. Obviously, these epidemics were not restricted to the initial contact along the Atlantic coast. In 1801, a group of Pawnee returning from New Mexico, infected their homeland along the lower Platte River and lost half of their people (Andrist 1964:14). The worst of the smallpox epidemics on the Great Plains occurred in the 1830s. The Mandan were almost wiped out when they were visited by a steamboat; of an estimated population of 1500, only 31 survived. Their neighbors the Arikara and Hidatsa were reduced from 4000 to 2000. The pandemic spread north to the Crows, Assiniboine’s and Blackfeet. It is estimated that 6000 to 8000 Blackfeet died. Tribes attempted to escape but continued to die, leaving their dead unburied and teepees standing (Andrist 1964:14). 400 Sioux died in the spring of 1838. The Pawnees returned home with captured Sioux and 2000 Pawnee died. From there it spread to the Osage and from there to the Kiowa and Comanches in the winter of 1839 – 40. The virus eventually ran its course in the early 1840s, but unknown thousands were dead.

Image of Mandan Village after the epidemic of 1837. 

 Epidemics have continued in Pennsylvania with devastating epidemics such as the great yellow fever plague in Philadelphia in 1793 (Powell 1949); the typhoid epidemic in Harrisburg in 1916 and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919 just to name a few. We are now experiencing a new pandemic. It will be devesting. It will be hard, but we will get through this one also. With all the incredible developments in medicine, we may have become complacent. Hopefully, this will result in better preparations for future pandemics.

We hope you have found this presentation interesting and will join us in future blogs. It is important to remember that examining the past through the archaeological record has provided an opportunity to examine how cultures changed and adapted to these pandemics. It helps us to see that adaptation and change are often necessary in survival and we can all understand the need to adapt to new ways of working, social engagement and subsistence as we move forward. Please continue to practice social distancing and follow the CDC Guidelines to ensure the passing of this pandemic is as soon as possible.


Andrist, Ralph K.
1964    The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plains Indians, Macmillan Company, New York.

Diamond, Jared
1999    Hemispheres Colliding: The Histories of Eurasia and The Americas Compared. in Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

Dobyns, H. F.
1983    Their Numbers Became Thinner. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Engelbrecht, William
2003    Iroquoia: The Development of a Native World, Syracuse University Press.

Fiedel, Stuart
2001    What Happened in the Early Woodland. Archaeology of Eastern North America 29:101-142.

Herbstritt, James T.
2020    The Late Woodland Period in the Susquehanna and Northern Potomac Drainage Basin AD 1100 to 1575. in The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania edited by Kurt W. Carr, Christopher Bergman, Christina Rieth, Bernard K. Means, Roger Moeller and Elizabeth Wagner. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Johnson, William and Bernard Means
2020    The Monongahela Tradition of the Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric Periods, Twelfth to Seventeenth Centuries AD, in the Lower Upper Ohio Drainage Basin. in The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania edited by Kurt W. Carr, Christopher Bergman, Christina Rieth, Bernard K. Means, Roger Moeller and Elizabeth Wagner. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Kent, Barry C.
1984    Susquehanna’s Indians, Anthropological Series no 6. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.

Kraft, Herbert C.
2001    The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage 10,000 BC to AD 2000. Lenape Books

Largent, Floyd
2020    America’s Lost Dogs, Mammoth Trumpet 35(1):1-4.

O’Brien, Greg
2008    The Timeline of Native Americans: The Ultimate Guide to North America’s Indigenous Peoples. Thunder Bay Press, San Diego.

Powell, J. H.
1949    Bring Out your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793. The University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Snow, Dean R.
1995    Mohawk Valley Archaeology: The Sites. The Institute for Archaeological Studies, University at Albany, SUNY.

Soderlund, Jean R.
2015    Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Treuer, Anton, Karenne Wood, William W. Fitzhugh, George P. Horse Capture, Sr., Theresa Lynn Fraizer, Miles R. Miller, Miranda Belarde-Lewis, and Jill Norwood
2010    Indian Nations of North America. National Geographic Society, Washington D.C.

Wallace, Paul A. W.
1968    Indians in Pennsylvania, third printing. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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