The arrival of 102 Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower at Plymouth in 1620 and the settlements by the Puritans in Boston, Salem and Ipswich a decade later were accompanied by the demise of the native population of North America.

“Within these late years, there hath, by God’s visitation, reigned a wonderful plague, the utter destruction, devastation, and depopulation of that whole territory, so as there is not left any that do claim or challenge any kind of interest therein. We, in our judgment, are persuaded and satisfied, that the appointed time is come in which Almighty God, in his great goodness and bounty towards us, and our people, hath thought fit and determined, that those large and goodly territories, deserted as it were by their natural inhabitants, should be possessed and enjoyed by such of our subjects.” –King James I

An estimated 18,000,000 Native Americans lived in North America before the 17th Century. As explorers and settlers arrived from Europe, a tidal wave of disease, especially in the years 1616-1619, reduced the native population by up to 90 percent. Pilgrim and Puritan colonists arrived on the New England coast to find empty villages waiting for them to occupy. Among the diseases introduced to the Native American population were smallpox, bubonic plague, chickenpox, cholera, the common cold, influenza, diphtheria, malaria, measles, scarlet fever, sexually transmitted diseases, typhoid, typhus, tuberculosis, leptospirosis, yellow fever and pertussis.

In April of 1614, Captain John Smith sailed near Ipswich and recorded,

“Here are many rising hills, and on their tops and descents are many corne fields and delightful groves.”

Native Americans in the North Shore area at that time are believed to have numbered in the thousands, but twenty years later when Ipswich was settled, the Agawam people are believed to have been reduced to less than a hundred individuals.

Joseph Felt wrote in his book, “History of Ipswich, Essex and Hamilton published in 1834,

“When we look back on the Aborigines, as the sole proprietors of our soil, on the places which once knew them, but are now to know them no more for ever, feelings of sympathy and sadness come over our souls. In the light of history, a tribe of men immortal as ourselves…have irrevocably disappeared from the scenes and concerns of earth. A plague swept off most of the New England Indians about 1617.”

The 1854 book “Indian Narratives,” by Henry Trumbull, Susannah Willard and Zadock Steele states,

“Three years before the arrival of the Plymouth colony a very mortal sickness supposed to have been the plague or perhaps the yellow fever raged with great violence among the Indians in the eastern parts of New England. Whole towns were depopulated. The living were not able to bury the dead and their bones were found lying above ground many years after. The Massachusetts Indians are said to have been reduced from thirty thousand to three hundred fighting men.”

agawam
Image from the Ipswich Riverwalk Mural by Alan Pearsall portrays a sick and depleted Agawam tribe, with a European settlers ship off the coast of Ipswich.

“Where the English come to settle, a Divine Hand makes way for them”

The colonists interpreted the disappearance of the Native American population as part of a divine plan to make way for Puritan settlements.

Strangely they have decreased by the Hand of God… and it hath generally been observed that where the English come to settle, a Divine Hand makes way for them.” 

 Daniel Denton, (c. 1626 – 1703) who in the 1640s accompanied his father to Massachusetts, Connecticut, and eventually Long Island., and became one of the grantees of a patent at Elizabethtown, New Jersey

In short time after the hand of God fell heavily upon them, with such a mortal stroke that they died on heaps as they lay in their houses… For in a place where many inhabited, there hath been but one left alive to tell what became of the rest…And the bones and skulls upon the severall places of their habitations made such a spectacle after my coming into those parts, that, as I traveled in that Forrest near the Massachussets, it seemd to me a new found Golgatha.

And by this means there is as yet but a small number of Salvages in New England, to that which hath been in former time, and the place is made so much the more fit for the English Nation to inhabit in, and erect in it Temples to the glory of God.

Thomas Morton, among the founders of the settlement at Mount Wollaston (present day Quincy, MA).

“For the natives, they are near all dead of the smallpox, so the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess.”

–John Winthrop, Massachusetts governor, writing in 1634 from Boston.

That the Heathen People amongst whom we live, and whose Land the Lord God of our Fathers hath given to us for a rightful Possession, have at sundry times been plotting mischievous devices against that part of the English Israel which is seated in these goings down of the Sun, no man that is an Inhabitant of any considerable standing, can be ignorant.”

–Increase Mather, A Brief History of the Warre With the Indians in New England 

Further reading:

2 thoughts on “The Great Dying 1616-1619, “By God’s visitation, a wonderful plague”

  1. That’s a good example of the ignorant basis of white supremacy. The colonists brought disease everywhere they settled which killed off a majority of indigenous people very quickly, then attributed it to god and deemed themselves superior. Very tragic and sad.

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