Diseases Decimate Native American Populations

From the 16th century through the early 20th century, no fewer than 93 confirmed epidemics and pandemics — all of which can be attributed to European contagions — decimated the American Indian population. Native American populations in the American Southwest plummeted by a staggering 90 percent or more.

The Europeans believed that the Natives died because God was on their side. The Indians, on the other hand, believed that God had abandoned them and looked to the "evidence" that their healers were helpless in the face of catastrophic disease outbreaks. Many Indians turned to suicide, alcoholism, and Christianity as a solution. Unfortunately, what could have helped them — antibiotics, for one — had not yet been invented.

An epidemic is an outbreak of a disease that spreads rapidly through a group of people. A pandemic is when epidemics of disease spread widely, often raging through several states, regions, or even countries at the same time.

Is it any wonder there was such a drastic decline in the Indian population once the Europeans set foot on the continent? The diseases the Native peoples' immune systems suddenly had to contend with included this vile smorgasbord of illnesses:

  • Bubonic plague: An often fatal bacterial disease that affects the lymphatic system and then the entire body.
  • Chicken pox: A contagious viral disease.
  • Cholera: An often fatal intestinal disease commonly caused by drinking water contaminated with the cholera bacteria.
  • Diphtheria: Often deadly infectious bacterial disease that damages the heart and nervous system.
  • Influenza: A contagious viral disease that can be deadly for people with weakened immune systems or other systemic problems.
  • Mumps: An acute contagious viral disease that causes fever and a swelling of the salivary glands and can also damage the pancreas, testes, and ovaries.
  • Pleurisy: A serious lung inflammation that is often the result of a systemic viral or bacterial disease like tuberculosis.
  • Scarlet fever: A contagious bacterial disease caused by an infection and causing fever and throat problems.
  • Smallpox: The killer — a highly contagious viral disease causing back pain, high fever, and the development of small pustules on the skin. Smallpox has a fatality rate of approximately 30 percent.
  • Typhoid fever: A bacterial infection of the digestive tract, sometimes fatal, that is caused by eating or drinking salmonella-contaminated food or water.
  • Typhus: A bacterial infection spread by ticks and fleas that causes high fever and delirium and can be fatal.
  • Whooping cough: An infectious bacterial disease that causes violent coughing and a very recognizable shrill inhalation sound.
  • Yellow fever: An often fatal viral infection spread by mosquitoes and causing liver damage, hemorrhaging, high fever, and vomiting of blood.

A review of these horrific ailments makes it clear that the odds were stacked against the Indigenous populations when these diseases entered their environment.

But Indians dying from European diseases did not mean they were always intentionally infected. A lot of the death toll was due to just plain "biological bad luck" — immune systems that had never been exposed to European diseases and, thus, were unable to fight them off.

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