A Mortal Sickness Among the Indians

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

The arrival of European traders and settlers, including 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 from diseases. The first was a widespread, extremely lethal epidemic believed to be Plague Leptospirosis, which began in 1617, followed by a series of smallpox epidemics. Thousands of Native Americans died of these and other European diseases in the course of less than two decades. The massive die-off of the native population was often interpreted as an act of God by the European settlers:

“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.”

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 several 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

Sources and Further reading:


I asked Mary Ellen Lepionka to review and respond to this article:

Hi, Gordon, Nice article. You found some good quotes from primary sources. Here’s another one (John Winthrop 1633):

“The mortality among them was very great, and increase among them daily more and more, insomuch that the poore Creatures being very timorous of death, would faine have fled from it, but could not tell how, unlesse they could have gone from themselves; Relations were little regarded by them at this time, so that many, who were smitten with the Disease, died helplesse, unless they were neare, and known to the English….The Winters piercing cold stayed not the strength of this hot Disease, yet the English endeavouring to visit their sick Wigwams, helpe them all they could, but as they entered one of their matted Houses, they beheld a most sad spectacle, death having smitten them all but one poore Infant, which lay on the ground sucking the Breast of its dead Mother, seeking to drew living nourishment from her dead breast. Their dead they left oft-times unburied, wherefore the English were forced to dig holes, and drag their stinking corps into them. “

The population estimate of 18 million is one of many, with critical consensus still lacking. The problem is that observers often did not identify their unit of measure or its equivalencies; i.e., they variously counted warriors, males, adults, families, wigwams, or villages for their population estimates. Also they invariably estimated low, as the people often avoided contact or were absent on subsistence rounds, pilgrimages, or attacks on enemies. Each adult male could easily have represented up to 10 unseen others. Each wigwam could sleep 10. And each extended family represented at least 10 individuals.

Based on early observations and survivalist and land use data (on average each family would have needed around 20 hectares), I estimated that Cape Ann would have seasonally supported around 2,000 people. There certainly were way more than 100 people in Agawam after 1620.

The pre-1620 epidemic was leptospirosis. Smallpox was not until after 1630. That early epidemic had more devastating effects on the south shore than the north shore. Essex County had at least a 50% survival rate, for example, especially inland. The difference was partly due to geography, as the fall line leaves a broader piedmont in the south for greater exposure of more people to soil- and water-borne diseases, whereas the fall line in the north approaches the shore, leaving no piedmont at all. On tidal rivers the bacterium and many of its animal hosts did not range above the fall line. Also rivers in the north are more barred and less navigable than in the south. The rat-urine infected ballast stones dumped at the mouths of those rivers had less effect than in the south where large vessels could dump contaminated ballast farther inland.

One also needs to consider that native populations recovered through the acquired immunity of survivors, which increased in the population after each epidemic. There was a “great dying”, of course, but the worst news came from Boston south (Winthrop was the worst). The idea that the Indians died out from disease has been used in the past as a convenient exaggeration in light of what followed (state-sponsored genocide).”

9 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.

    1. You summed it up very concisely! I have only 4% Native American DNA but 16% British Isles. Yet I feel ashamed of what that latter population did to the former. It was a crime against humanity, nothing less. I hate it when religion is used to justify racism, sexism, intolerance, and atrocity, all because their god supposedly sanctioned it. The beat of the Native drum I can hear faintly within my soul. These Natives were my people too. Their land was taken but not their soul!

  2. I encourage everyone to learn about the Doctrine of Discovery. It’s comprised of a series of Papal Bulls originating with Pope Nicholas, with more added later. The Doctrine of Discovery essential declares that non- Christians and non- Christian nations are not humans, and are therefore ripe for colonization the taking of slaves and all Peter resources. It is responsible for much misery in the world. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discovery_doctrine

  3. Can you provide a citation for your woodcut images of the Abenacki? I’m looking for the original publication. Thanks!

    1. Just added– Illustration from “Historical, poetical and pictorial American scenes; Principally moral and religious; being a selection of interesting incidents in American history: to which is added a historical sketch, of each of the United States” by Barber, John Warner and Elizabeth G., Publication date 1850

  4. Native Americans who didn’t die from disease were killed or driven from their lands. Africans were kidnapped and enslaved to work for the rich white settlers. This country is reaping the rewards of their abuse of Natives and slaves.

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