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The Politics of Plague

The accepted story of how the English settled New England begins with a virgin soil epidemic destroying 90 to 95 percent of the native population. The range of this plague is very specific, between the Saco River (present day Maine) and southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod. This natural cause of death is supported by historians and popular writers, like Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel), as well as the medical community, which has suggested viral and bacterial agents over the years, from infectious hepatitis and smallpox to a more recent hypothesis published on the CDC website involving leptospirosis. This most recent hypotheses maintains that rats from European ships may have harbored a spirochete bacteria that contaminated stored food and potable water sources. The published report states, “the Indian lifestyle, which included constant exposure to rodents and their excreta on land and in water, exposed them to the leptospiral life cycle. Bare feet were common in and around houses.” This is a myopic and biased view of indigenous lifestyles. The majority of these cultures were agricultural and food safety was of prime importance both for sustenance and as trade items. The authors of this article don’t consider that in the accepted years of this plague, these coastal communities are documented as preventing prolonged contact with any European due to years of kidnappings.

Modern belief in virgin soil epidemics mimic the fait accompli attitude of the English colonists who believed the plague was a sign that God intended his righteous people to prosper. Yet, a critical evaluation of the details of this population reduction, including timing and location, and accounts and behaviors of native survivors combined with a better understanding of the various European explorers and traders from competing countries and with separate agendas, might yield other hypotheses. A better investigation of this perception of obliterated cultures can be revealed if we consider these people as intelligent and discerning and striving to navigate a complicated situation with imbalanced native trade networks and increased European presence of explorers and colonizers. Europeans never observed permanent settlement in one location by North American indigenous people but rather multiple dwellings based on seasons. English and French visitors to the region consistently remark on the vigorous health of the encountered people. They were not so weak that they were afflicted immediately by European pathogens because prior exposure to fishing, trading and exploration voyages hadn’t reduced populations. More importantly, those kidnapped individuals such as Squanto and the Nope (Martha’s Vineyard) sachem Epenow and several others from what is now Maine, all survived the ground zero exposure to pathogens in England while being stressed and enduring poor nutrition and returned in good health.

Warfare affects healthy people, reduces population size and causes people to abandon villages. One major event, documented by multiple sources often in the same chapters as the devastating plague, are the “Terratine” raids on the coastal nations, including the Massachusetts. These raids are recorded for at least an entire decade before the Pilgrims arrive in 1620 and are conducted by sea from European shallops. The Terratines are historically identified as MicMacs. French accounts document a war between the MicMacs and the coastal “Almouchiqouis” after a failed trade meeting between Onemechin and Marchin, two sachems of the “Armouchiquois”, and Messamouet, a MicMac leader. Animosities between these two groups happened well before and was the reason for the palisaded fort at Chouacoet. The meeting takes place in September of 1606, orchestrated by Poutrincourt, a leader of the French settlement of Port Royal (present-day Nova Scotia). David Hackett Fisher describes it as “a war of gifts” in his book Champlain’s Dream as Messamouet presents the other sachems with French trade goods including hardtack and dried beans and “with a dramatic flourish” flung them into their canoes. Onemechin and Marchin respond by flinging the agricultural bounty of corn, squash and beans into their canoe and handing over a MicMac prisoner directly to the French. The coastal sachems refuse to recognize the MicMac’s role as intermediary and seek trade directly with the French. They understand the French need a better source of food to survive the winter. Because the MicMacs had altered their lifestyles to accommodate the Europeans and maintain status as fur trade middle men, they were now reliant on European trade provisions. Interestingly, the Micmacs blame the quality of French food for subsequent illnesses and lament a population decline.

The Port Royal settlement is a diverse group of aristocrats and artisans, including shipwrights, alchemists, professional hunters and two Eastern European miners commissioned specifically by King Henry IV. The Port Royal charter is revoked for failure to bring Jesuit missionaries and most of the French leave the settlement to seek another charter. While they are gone, the MicMacs have a difficult time, existing on French provisions and pigeons. When the French return, Jesuits accompany them and they begin to assert themselves as leaders at Port Royal with the backing of wealthy royals and a charter to participate in the fur trade. This leads to tension with earlier leaders like Poutrincourt. These earlier leaders begin to distance themselves from the MicMac, realizing they had alienated other nations, specifically the coastal agriculturalists. Eventually, the Jesuits form their own mission on Mt. Desert Island in 1613 and continue converting the MicMacs. A curious similarity to the word Terratine can be found in Jesuit parlance as the word “tertian” or “tertianship” is part of the process of becoming a Jesuit. One year later, Samuel Argall from Virginia, sails north and burns the Jesuit settlement and Port Royal to the ground. England considers the land their territory. Many of the French colonists of Port Royal return to France where they plan for the eventual settlement of Quebec. Some of the men remain and marry into the MicMac community. One hypothesis of the origins of the Terratine raiders might be an ad hoc consortium of Jesuit converted MicMac and French colonists, unable to plant and closed from traditional trade that step up raids on the enemy agricultural growers who are now being visited by English explorers, including John Smith, who makes a detailed map of villages and population numbers in 1614.

The years for the plague (1616 -1619) may actually be the years of the raids. It would account for abandoned villages with bodies left unburied not because there were no survivors but because those survivors feared returning raiders. This account of unburied bodies is based on one source, Thomas Morton, an untraditional European settler who also records an incident with the French ship and believes both events are connected. The French ship is there to trade for beaver fur but some incident angers the natives and they set the ship on fire, killing mans but keeping the survivors on an island. Allegedly, one of ht survivors who could speak their language tells them God would rebuke and destroy them. According to Morton, God’s hand falls heavily on them after the event with the ship, with “such a mortal stroke that they died on heaps as they lay in their houses; and the living, that were able to shift for themselves, would run away and let them die, and let their carcasses lie above the ground without burial. For in a place where many inhabited, there hath been but one left alive to tell what became of the rest; the living being (as it seems) not able to bury the dead, they were left for Crows, Kites and vermin to pray upon. 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.(sic)”

This incident seems less like a traditional disease with no real mention of symptoms and more like a directed assault on a targeted population. Morton mentions there were survivors that ran away and this could be the plague survivors interviewed by Daniel Gookin, the one-time Superintendent of the Indians, or more correctly, guardian of the Praying Indians, (converted by John Eliot), who interviewed Massachusetts Indian survivors of the plague many years after. “This nation, a very great number of them, were swept away by an epidemical and unwonted sickness, [annum] 1612 and 1613, about seven or eight years before the English first arrived in those parts, to settle the colony of New Plymouth…What the disease was, that so generally and mortally swept away not only these but other Indians, their neighbors, I cannot well learn. Doubtless, it was some pestilential disease. I have discoursed with some old Indians, that were then youths; who say, that the bodies all over were exceeding yellow, described it by a yellow garment they showed me, both before they died and afterward.”

Gookin’s interview predates another account of the outbreak with English eyewitnesses. In 1616 and 1617, the Vines expedition attempted year round settlement at Chouacoet on the Saco River. The English stay with the natives over the winter and “lay in the Cabbins with those people” and “not one of them ever felt their heads to ake while they stayed there.” No other symptoms are described and it is unclear if the Vines expedition witnesses the full iteration of the sickness until death. It may be more important to record that the English were not susceptible to the disease because Vines’ funder, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, is a major proponent of English colonization and has designs on a patent that would extend from Virginia to New France, kicking out the Virginia Company claims and most likely raising the ire of the fire storming Samuel Argyll. John Smith and Thomas Dermer, both explorers for England and proponents for colonization detail the population reductions, and Smith asserts the reductions are due to three consecutive plagues while Dermer believes it to be the Plague with a capital P, writing “some antient Plantations, not long since populous now utterly void; in other places a remnant remaines, but not free of sicknesse. Their disease the Plague, for wee might perceive the sores of some that had escaped, who described the spots of such as usually dies.”

Somehow, the Great New England Plague has become accepted as one disease rather than several diseases or the ravages of raids and non traditional warfare. Squanto believes he knows the cause of the plague. After surviving his second kidnapping and returning to his home, now abandoned by Patuxets and filled with Pilgrims, he shares his belief with Hobbomok who later questions the Pilgrims. As recorded by Pilgrim Edward Winslow: “Here let me not omit one notable (though wicked) practise of this Tisquantum, who to the end he might possesse his Countrimen with the greater feare of us…told them we had the plague buried in our store-house, which at our pleasure we could send forth to what place or people we would, and destroy them therewith, though wee stirred not from home. Being up on the fornamed brabbles sent for the Governor to this place, where Hobbamock was and some other of us, the ground being broke in the middest of the house (whereunder certaine barrels of Powder were buried, though unknowne to him.) Hobbamok asked him what it meant? To whom he readily answered; That was the place wherein the plague was buried, whereof he formerly told him and the others.” Squanto would later die of an “Indian Fever” with the symptom of bleeding at the nose. He survives European voyages and life in prison, questioned by Sir Ferdinando Gorges at Plymouth Fort in England, returning hale and hearty, only to die on his home country. If we take Squanto literally, the plague buried in storehouses could be three things: gunpowder (the Terratine Raiders had access to French armament); rat poison (arsenic poisoning is discussed in Jesuit accounts as MicMacs used arsenic sublimate obtained from Port Royal on their enemies), or dried broad beans.

The dried broad beans and arsenic can both present with all of the standard symptoms of the unknown plague, which include, “fever, headache, epistaxis, jaundice, and skin lesions.” Broad beans, favored by the English and French, are also known as fava beans. Favism is intolerance to consuming fava beans and, in acute cases, even the inhalation of pollen from the plant. Favism affects individuals with an inherited deficiency of erythrocyte glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD), which is a critical enzyme in the prevention of oxidative damage to erythrocyte membranes. More than 100 million people worldwide have this genetic deficiency. The vicine and convicine in the beans are capable of damaging erythrocyte membranes in G6PD-deficient individuals. The result is sometimes acute hemolytic anemia with pallor, fatigue, dyspnea, nausea, abdominal and/or back pain, fever and the skin turns a bright vivid yellow. The only treatment is immediate blood transfusion. Fava beans are part of the fraught exchange between the French and MicMac and the coastal agricultural nations at Chouacoet and most European ships had dried beans on board. After years of unpredictable, deadly raids and subsequent food insecurity and shortage, perhaps the fava beans are finally consumed by G6PD deficient natives with fatal results or the beans or pollen were introduced into a communal cook pot.

Metal fume fever is an occupational condition that also presents with the same symptoms used to determine the cause of the unknown plague as does arsenic poisoning and antimony poisoning. If the affected populations were attempting to craft better weapons or cast their own bullets using the traded copper kettles with tin alloys, they may have been exposed to copper metal fumes and subsequent metal fume fever or severe hemolytic anemia. They may have adapted or attempted to copy munitions found on the captured French ship. They may have received trade goods like enamelware, found in some excavations, lined with tin and may leach out antimony salts depending on the acidity of foods consumed in the vessel, such as sumac berry tea or dried corn meal with blueberries or strawberries. This type of poisoning existed into the 1930’s with lemonade served in enamelware drinking containers. Lloyd Bryan Jenson in Poisoning Misadventures (Charles D. Thomas Publishers, Illinois, 1970) writes, “There were many outbreaks in families and gatherings of people served lemonade, rhubarb, orange juice and fruit preparations. Distribution of cases geographically followed the sale of these white to gray enameled ware in Canada, the United States, and Britain.” The unique settlement at Port Royal offered rare access to substances like arsenic sublimate, and access to the minds of professionals in mettalurgy, alchemy and medicine.

Edward Winslow records that the Narragansetts were spared the plague because they ritually destroyed trade items in a fire. He also records that the Massasoit Ousemequin asked for the Pilgrim leaders to tend to him when he was ill, bringing their own food, prepared by their hand, served in their manner and using their healing arts. Winslow himself responds, making a 17th century version of chicken soup and treating the sachem by scraping his tongue. This story has been treated as a quaint cultural exchange but it might be seen as a test of intent. Other leaders in the area, such as Corbitant, sachem of the Pocassets, did not want to welcome the English and was openly hostile but after this exchange, an alliance of mutual support is no longer contested. The colonists expand, native lifeways are altered, and land becomes the only valued commodity, leading to wars and the continued interplay of guns, germs and steel.

Ann Tweedy is an independent researcher, writer and filmmaker. She is obtaining an advanced degree in nutrition and public health. She lives in western Massachusetts with her family and is a first year beekeeper.