Death by Disease

After 1492, diseases - particularly Smallpox - brought by early explorers from Spain and other European countries, and then by blacks imported from Africa, sent the Indian population plummeting in North and South America and the Caribbean Islands, as Native Americans had no natural immunity to them. Repeated outbreaks of smallpox devastated the native population. The smallpox virus was first imported into Caribbean islands by incoming slaves, where whole tribes were quickly wiped out. Half the native population of Puerto Rico was felled by smallpox within a few months in 1519. Later that year, when Spanish Conquistadors Cortés and Panfilo de Narváez encountered the Aztec civilization of Mexico, Smallpox accompanied them. As the disease spread quickly, the natives died in massive numbers. The Spaniards, many of whom had survived smallpox epidemics as children seemed impervious to the illness, a fact that heightened the impression that they had supernatural powers.

The Aztecs soon lost their emperor to smallpox, as well as numerous other leaders who might have defeated Cortés and stopped the Spanish advance. Estimates of Smallpox’s death toll among the Aztecs range from two to fifteen million (out of a total population of less than thirty million), within only a few months.(6) Massive deaths among the Natives continued as Smallpox accompanied the Spanish advance upon the Mayan civilization. Epidemics struck Yucatan in 1520 or 1521, killing half the population. Likewise, the Incas in Peru were devastated a few years later, allowing the small armies of Cortés and Francisco Pizarro to subdue opponents who greatly outnumbered them.(6) What happened to the Native Americans was no different than what has happened to other nations and civilizations around the world throughout history.

Smallpox is believed to have originated in Africa or possibly India. Over time, it spread throughout Africa, Asia and Europe. By the eighteenth century, smallpox was killing an average of 400,000 people per year in Europe. Those who didn’t die became immune.(5)(6) Over the centuries, Europeans had been ravaged by such diseases as bubonic plague and Asian flu that moved west from Asia to Europe.

Syphilis was a Native American disease brought back to Europe by Columbus and Martin Alonso Pinzon. Syphilis was first reported in Europe in 1495 and raged in Europe and Colonial America until the advent of antibiotics.(7)(8) Malaria, another dreaded disease is believed to have originated in West and Central Africa in ancient times and then spread throughout the world. Malaria become the worst killer disease ever suffered by mankind.(9)(10) Ironically, Native Americans discovered the first effective treatment for Malaria. The medicinal properties of the cinchona tree were originally discovered by the Quechua Indians of Peru and Bolivia. The Cinchona Tree is the only natural source of Quinine. It remained the antimalarial drug of choice until the 1940s.

Some people want to place everlasting guilt on Europeans for the diseases they brought to the New World - as if they had a choice. Smallpox, Malaria, the flu and bubonic plague all originated in either Africa or Asia. The Europeans were victims of these diseases just like the Indians. If you insist on blaming someone, blame Africans or Asians. If Asians or Africans had been the first people to explore the New World, they would have brought the same diseases with them.

The early explorers had no way of knowing what diseases their body had built immunity to and that the Indians had no such immunity. Although it is possible that disease was used as a weapon against Indians, there is no absolute proof this happened. Often, indians acquired disease when they attacked white settlers. The indians then spread the disease throughout their tribe. Disease was spread through trade and other interactions with different tribes. What happened was no different then your child going to school with the start of the flu and giving it to other classmates.  

With the discovery of a way to vaccinate people against smallpox in 1796 by English physician Edward Jenner, immunization programs were started. In 1832, the United States government established a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans (The Indian Vaccination Act of 1832). This action stopped the decline of the Indian population from Smallpox.

When large numbers of settlers began moving westward from the east coast of the US, a lot of the land in North America was open land and uninhabited. The Indian population - which had never been large - had been reduced even further by tribal wars and disease. Most of the land that was “stolen” had no one on it. The Indians only used a small percentage of the land mass north of the Rio Grande River.


Sections in this article

The Indians were NOT superior human beings.

Native American population in 1492

Death by Disease (this page)

Desperate people will not be stopped

Selective unforgiveness

Broken Treaties - Indian Reservations


5. The History of Smallpox, The Rise and Fall of a Disease By Heather Brannon, MD

6. Smallpox, The Fight to Eradicate a Global Scourge by David A. Koplow