The Great Dying: New England’s Coastal Plague, 1616-1619
“[How] 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, early American colonist
The popular Pilgrim myth involves a persecuted group of Christian reformers who fled England in order to worship freely in the New World. In a narrative that finds parallels with the Israelite exodus from Egypt, these chosen people were guided by the hand of God in a perilous journey across the Atlantic in search of what would later be described by Puritan leader John Winthrop as “a beacon of religious light, a model of spiritual promise, a city upon a hill.”1 Through heroic struggle and an unshakable commitment to their faith, they were able to conquer the vast New England wilderness, tame the hostile natives and expand the glory and dominion of the Christian God in these new lands.2
In reality, the promised land wasn’t exactly a Canaan that needed to be conquered. The area that would become Plymouth Colony was essentially a ghost town by the time that the Pilgrims stepped foot off the Mayflower. Deserted villages and untended fields dotted the landscape, with caches of crops, tools and other supplies hastily left behind… along with the skeletal remains of the former inhabitants. A few years prior, the entire coastal region had been ravaged by a mysterious disease that wiped out most of the native Wampanoag and neighboring Massachusetts, Pennacook, Nauset, Permaquid and Abenaki populations.
For the English settlers, this was all part of a divine plan. Providence had taken the form of a “miraculous pestilence” that had swept the land clean so a new Christian society could be established. Thomas Morton, an early colonial merchant, praised the epidemic that had recently depopulated the land, leaving it “much the more fit for the English Nation to inhabit in, and erect in it Temples to the glory of God.”3
“He made a path for his anger; he spared not their soul from death, but gave their life over to the pestilence.” – Psalm 78:50
The Pilgrims were not the first Europeans to step foot in these new lands. Since at least the early 16th century, the coastal area between Maine and Massachusetts was being regularly visited by English, Dutch and Portuguese fishermen, Basque whalers, and French fur traders.4 The French in particular had made a number of early excursions into the area. The explorer Samuel de Champlain led a mapping expedition around Plymouth Harbor (which he named “Port St. Louis”) in 1605. While there, he encountered a native settlement called Patuxet, a large cluster of Wampanoag villages that sat where the future Plymouth Colony would be established.5 According to oral tradition and archeological evidence, the Wampanoags had occupied this area for nearly 10,000 years and consisted of a population of around twelve-thousand people by the time of Champlain’s explorations.6
A second expedition to the area – this time with an eye towards potential French settlement – took place the following year. Declaring their colonial intentions, they posted a giant Christian cross at the entrance to Nauset Harbor (located in modern day Orleans, Massachusetts) and were attacked by the angered native residents. One person was killed, the survivors were driven away, and the cross was promptly torn down.7 But the French would not be discouraged and continued to visit the region. In fact, they are thought by many to have been responsible for introducing the pestilence that struck down the native population.
In the popular lore of the early English settlers, a crew of Frenchmen were said to have shipwrecked along the Cape Cod coast. Their party was taken by the local Nausets and most of them were executed, but not before evoking a divine curse against their native captors. According to Thomas Morton, “in a short time after, the hand of God fell heavily upon the Nausets with such a mortal stroke that they died on heaps as they lay in their houses.”8 The Puritan minister Cotton Mather later embellished on Morton’s account in his “ecclesiastical history” of New England, adding an even more pronounced sense of manifest destiny to the biblical narrative. Just prior to death, one of the French sailors is said to have “[warned] those tawny pagans, that God being angry with them for their wickedness, would not only destroy them all, but also people the place with another nation”.9
Although the Morton/Mather version of events is largely religious fiction, there is some basis of truth. There is a record of a French vessel running aground on Cape Cod in 1614, and some of the crew members were indeed taken captive and enslaved by the Nausets. But when the two remaining survivors were ransomed to the English captain Thomas Dermer the following year, they made no mention of disease among their former crew members (or acts of Old Testament retribution against their captors).10
However, further north along the Maine coast, where natives had more sustained contact with French traders, some of the earliest reports of disease outbreak were made. In 1616, Father Pierre Baird, a French Jesuit missionary, noted: “[the Abenaki] are astonished and often complain that since the French mingle and carry on trade with them they are dying fast, and the population is thinning out.”11 That same year Captain Richard Vines, an English explorer, wintered on the Maine coast and noted that the local natives “were sore afflicted with the Plague, for that the Country was in a manner left void of inhabitants.”12
Soon the mysterious disease spread throughout the coastal region – following the trade routes of the Abenaki, who traded furs for corn and other provisions from the tribes to the south13 – and turned the loose confederation of Algonquian villages that dotted the area into an apocalyptic wasteland. Thomas Morton offers a vivid account of the landscape left behind: “For in a place where many inhabited, there hath been but one left a live, to tell what became of the rest, the living being (as it seems) not able to bury the dead, they were left for the Crowes, Kites and vermin to prey upon. And the bones and skulls upon the severall places of their habitations, made such a spectacle after my coming into those partes … it seemed to mee a new found Golgotha.”14
“The woods were almost cleared of those pernicious creatures, to make room for a better growth.” – Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana
In 1618, at the height of the epidemic, a strange comet appeared over the skies of New England. The great medicine men of the Wampanoags and Penacooks ominously interpreted this event as confirmation that the terrible sickness would soon overtake the land.15 They were not wrong.
Disease continued to ravage the Massachusetts Bay shoreline, wiping out the native populations by the thousands. Reports from the period indicate that the epidemic covered an area that spanned from the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers of southern Maine to the Narragansett Bay of Rhode Island, with the highest rate of fatalities concentrated around Boston Harbor and Plymouth Bay.16 Sailing along the Massachusetts coast in 1619, Captain Thomas Dermer described the impact on the region, noting that “ancient plantations, not long since populous, now [lay] utterly void; in other places a remnant remains, but not free of sickness.”17
What was it that caused such widespread death and devastation among the coastal native population during those three years?
The Wampanoags called it “The Great Dying”. The early English colonists referred to it alternately as “Indean fever,” “a prodigious pestilence,” “a great sickness,” “a sweeping mortality,” or else, simply, “the plague”. According to medical historian Timothy Bratton, it was a “disease [that] originated in Europe and represented a classic ‘virgin soil’ encounter between Amerindians and alien contagion”.18 But it’s actual identity still remains a mystery.
What little is known about the epidemic is based on the accounts of native survivors (conveyed via serious language barrier), the reports of a few European explorers and missionaries who were present during the time of outbreak, and the testimonies of the early colonists who settled the area soon after. The accepted facts are that it was a disease that had an extremely high mortality rate and symptoms included severe headache, nose bleeding, muscle pains and cramping, yellowing of the skin, lung congestion, hemorrhaging and lingering pockmarks.19
Edward Winslow, who acted as an early delegate between the Pilgrims and surviving Wampanoag tribesmen, described the disease as being “not unlike the plague, if not the same.”20 There were certainly symptoms reported that are consistent with plague infection (headache, nose bleeds, sub-epidermal hemorrhages), and multiple contemporary witnesses noted that the native dwellings were over run by fleas.21 However, the case for plague – either bubonic, septicemic or pneumonic – is unconvincing. For one thing, there were no reports of the tell-tale “buboes” (swollen lymph nodes) associated with plague affliction. The Algonquian community structure also lacked the necessary population density for a plague virus to spread so rapidly and have such a devastating mortality rate. And finally, the New England climate is unsuitable for the Xenopsylla-cheopis flea, the known carrier of Yersinia pestis bacterium.22
Smallpox is another strong candidate. The reported pockmarks on the victims seem to point in this direction. But critics of this theory note that it was uncommon for adult Europeans (who, through generations of exposure, had by this time developed some level of resistance) to contract the smallpox virus, and unlikely that the disease would have survived a six-week sea voyage made by explorers before running its course.23 Large-scale migration of European children would not take place for at least another decade, a factor which contributed heavily to the confirmed smallpox epidemic that ravaged parts of New England in 1633. Also, in studying the Narragansett language, Roger Williams, founder of the Rhode Island colony, interviewed survivors of both epidemics who made a point of distinction between the 1616-19 “plague” and the 1633 “pox” (using two different words in their native tongue to describe two different forms of disease).24
In his study of the Massachusetts tribe, early colonist Daniel Gookin notes that he “discoursed with some old Indians [who were in their youth at the time of the epidemic], who say that the bodies all over were exceedingly yellow, [and described it] by a yellow garment that they showed me, both before they died and afterwards.”25 This has led to the speculation that perhaps the “plague” was, in fact, yellow fever. However, this theory has been largely discounted since the epidemic lasted through the cold New England winters, which would be impossible for a vector-borne disease.26
Other potential maladies that have been raised by medical historians include hepatitis, meningitis, typhus, chickenpox, trichinosis, influenza, and most recently, leptospirosis.27 But as of yet, all attempts to identify the nature of 1616-19 epidemic remain inconclusive.
“There hath, by God’s visitation, reigned a wonderful plague [that has resulted in] 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, The Great Patent of New-England
Whatever the mysterious coastal disease was, it nearly wiped out the Algonquian tribes of eastern Massachusetts and southern Maine – and the English were quick to capitalize on native ruin. European entrepreneurs had their sights set on the New England coast for years. There were settlement attempts in the decades prior to the Mayflower landing, but would-be colonists had always been unable to secure a foothold in the area due to the hostile native presence. This would all change following “the miraculous plague” of 1616-19.
Sir Ferdinando Gorges – the “father of English colonization in North America” – had chartered several of the earlier expeditions to the region. He knew of the strange epidemic and it’s catastrophic impact on the native population, noting “their vulnerability to European microbes and power.”28 Gorges considered the land up for grabs and, seeing the potential for great profit, sought a charter for the territory through the newly formed joint-stock Plymouth Company. Share holders would provide a ship for a wandering sect of radical Protestant-Christian separatists who sought passage to the New World, under an agreement that their settlement would belong to the company for seven years (thereby establishing a stable base of operations for further colonial ambitions).29
The iconic 1620 Mayflower voyage was a miserable one. After two months at sea, the Pilgrims reached present-day Cape Cod – sickly, starving and unprepared for the oncoming winter. Descending on an abandoned Nauset village like a pack of feral dogs, they ransacked the homes, fields and graves of the recently deceased inhabitants looking for food caches. 30 They found a few bushels of stale corn and sailed on, eventually landing at what would be claimed as “New Plymouth”. From here they would endure a harsh winter, losing half their numbers to tuberculosis and pneumonia. Then, as the ground thawed, the survivors would begin to explore the eerily quiet area surrounding the new colonial outpost – and discover that God’s guiding hand had brought them to settle on top of a massive graveyard (“The ground was strewn with the skulls and bones of thousands of Indians who had died and none were left to bury them”).31
Plymouth’s colonial governor, William Bradford, recorded his initial scouting expeditions, noting “the good soyle, and the people not many, being dead and abundantly wasted in the late great mortalitie which fell in all these parts about three years before the coming of the English, wherin thousands of em dyed; … ther sculs and bones were found in many places lying still above the ground, where their houses and dwellings had been; a very sad spectackle to behould.“32
As “the chosen people,” the Pilgrims would interpret the macabre reality around them as celestial design: “Christ (whose great and glorious workes the Earth throughout are altogether for the benefit of his Churches and chosen) not only made roome for his people to plant; but also tamed the hard and cruell hearts of these barbarous Indians, insomuch that halfe a handfull of his people landing not long after in Plimouth-Plantation, found little resistance.”33
“In their sickness, [they avowed] that the Englishmen’s God was a good God; and that, if they recovered, they would serve him.” – John Winthrop (1633)
Depending on the village, the epidemic is thought to have claimed the lives of 75-90% of the native population – with reports that in several places all of the former inhabitants had died.34 There were some survivors. But for those who remained, the psychological trauma of The Great Dying ran deep. As historian Jill Lepore notes, “a whole village might have two survivors, and those two survivors were not just like any two people. They were two people who had seen everyone they know die miserable, wretched, painful – excruciatingly painful – deaths.”35
What remained of the native infrastructure along the coast was also left in complete ruins, as “economic networks crumbled and trade routes faltered; political boundaries and military fortunes changed overnight as the relative strength of tribes fluctuated.”36 With the added drop in fertility rates among survivors, it would prove to be impossible for the native population to recover from these losses.
The English settlers had their religious interpretation of the mysterious pestilence that cleared the land for their arrival, and so did the surviving Algonquian people. The Wampanoags saw the epidemic as a combination of spiritual forces working against them. They believed that they had angered their god Hobbamock, a deity associated with death and disease.37 There was also a fear that their kin who fell to the disease and were denied a dignified burial during the height of the epidemic had cursed the land.38 Additionally, they attributed great spiritual power (“manitou”) to the English, fearing that the epidemic was something that the colonists had brought with them, manipulated, and could inflict on the native populations again at will.39
The fact that the English appeared to be immune to the deadly affliction only furthered this fear. According to William Bradford, “by the marvelous goodness and providence of God, not one of the English was so much sick or in the least measure taunted with this disease.”40
The Wampanoag population was nearly decimated by the epidemic, but the survivors still outnumbered the Pilgrims and could have easily wiped out Plymouth Colony in its infancy. But no attack ever came. As colonist Robert Cushman observed, “[the natives] that are left, have their courage much abated, and their countenance is dejected, and they seem as a people affrighted. [Even though they] might in one hour have made a dispatch of us, such a fear was upon them … that they never offered us the least injury in word or deed.”41 It was from these “affrighted” ranks – who were not only weakened by disease, but also at risk of being overtaken by the hostile Narragansetts to the south – that a diplomatic mission was organized by Massasoit, the leader of Wampanoag Confederacy, and peaceful relations were established with the English settlers.
With the growth of Plymouth Colony now left unchallenged and an influx of new European migrants coming to the shores of New England each year following, the shrouded figure of pestilence would continue to visit the region’s native communities – the “Great Smallpox Epidemic” of 1633, the “Universal Sickness” of 1645, the “Plague and the Pox” of 1650-51, and the “Bloody-Flux” of 1652.42 As each new generation succumbed to disease, traditional culture became more fractured – and the future outlook more fatalist. The Algonquian tribes held few end time beliefs of their own. In an attempt to understand the catastrophic impact of “The Great Dying” (and the epidemics that followed), survivors found resonance in the eschatological Christian narrative held by the European settlers who brought the pestilence to their shores.43
Disillusioned by their traditional belief system, an increasing number of Algonquian people also began to look to the Christian God for spiritual guidance. The “severe disruption of their social and natural worlds gave the Indians an immediate, existential understanding of the Puritan notion of alienation from God and his universe” – and they were ready to believe.44 This new found faith was readily exploited by Puritans like John Eliot, a pastor with the first Church of Roxbury who translated Christian texts into the Massachusetts’ language and set up a number of missionary “Praying Towns”. Among other things, Eliot taught that traditional prayer and powwows were “[a]worshiping of the Devil, and not of God, and … among the greatest of sins,” for which misled natives had been punished.45 Trauma-stricken by the mysterious affliction that had brought their people to the brink of extinction, it was not difficult for the native converts to accept these Puritanical teachings as spiritual truths.
In addition to subjugation by armed force, religious conversion proved itself a useful tool for English colonial rule. Eliot hoped to spread his model of pacification through prayer, stating “the work which we now have in hand, will be as a patterne and Copie [for other Indians], to imitate in all the Countrey”.46 By the time King Philip’s War (New England’s bloodiest native uprising) broke out in 1675, over 1,100 natives lived in fourteen Praying Towns, and six “Indian churches” – serving a combined total of 350 baptized members and a praying population of 2,000 people – existed in eastern Massachusetts.47
Another comet would blaze across the sky in 1680, two years after the catastrophic defeat of King Philip’s native uprising. Reverend Cotton Mather hailed its passing as “a sign in heaven … that the Lord [is prepared] to pour down the Cataracts of his wrath, ere this Generation… is passed away.” It was compared to the comet of 1618, “which appeared above three score years ago, [when] God sent the Plague amongst the Natives of this land [and] cast out the Heathen before this his people, that the way might thereby be prepared unto our more peaceful settlement here.” Mather concluded his sermon with a warning to the Christian faithful, “that we may never provoke [God] to doe unto us, as he hath done unto them.”48
1. John Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” The American Puritans, ed. Perry Miller (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956)
2. Joseph Ronald D’Argenio, “Building a Pilgrim Utopia: Identity, Security and the Contradiction of Cross-cultural Affairs at New Plymouth, 1620-1640,” Thesis and Dissertations, Lehigh University, 2004, 37.
3. Thomas Morton, New English Canaan (Carlisle, MA: Applewood Books, 2011), 20.
4. Billee Hoornbeek, “An Investigation into the Cause or Causes of the Epidemic Which Decimated the Indian Population of New England, 1616-1619,” New Hampshire Archeologist, no. 19 (1976-77): 38.
5. Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 54.
6. Janey Levy, The Wampanoag of Massachusetts and Rhode Island (New York City: Rosen Publishing, 2005).
7. Alyson J. Fink, “Psychological Conquest: Pilgrims, Indians and the Plague of 1616-1618,” Thesis (M.A.), University of Hawaii at Manoa, 2008, 18.
8. Morton, 19.
9. Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana: or, The ecclesiastical history of New-England from its first planting in the year 1620 unto the year of Our Lord 1698 (New York City: Russell & Russell, 1967), 49.
10. Thasseus Piotrowski, The Indian Heritage of New Hampshire and Northern New England (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008), 55.
11. Billee Hoornbeek, “An Investigation into the Cause or Causes of the Epidemic Which Decimated the Indian Population of New England, 1616-1619,” New Hampshire Archeologist, no. 19 (1976-77): 38.
12. Gorges Ferdinando, A Briefe Narration of the Originall Undertakings of the Advancement of Plantations into the Parts of America (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1837), 19.
13. Matthew Kruer, “A Country Wonderfully Prepared for their Entertainment: The Aftermath of the New England Indian Epidemic of 1616,” Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council (Spring/Summer 2003): 86.
14 Morton, 19.
15. Nathaniel Morton, New-England’s Memorial (Boston: Croker & Brewster, 1826), 4.
16. Sherburne F. Cook, “The Significance of Disease in the Extinction of the New England Indians,” Human Biology, vol. 45 no. 3 (September 1973): 489-90.
17. Edward T. O’Donnell, “Of Plague and Pilgrims: How a Devastating Epidemic Shaped the First Thanksgiving.” Web. http://inthepastlane.com.
18. Matthew Kruer, 87.
19. John Marr & John Cathey, “New Hypothesis for Cause of Epidemic Among Native Americans, New England, 1616-1619,” Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 16, no. 2 (February 2010).
20. Edward Winslow, Good News From New England (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 20.
21. Cook, “The Significance of Disease in the Extinction of the New England Indians,” 490.
22. Kruer, 87.
23. Dean Snow & Kim Lanphear, “European Contact and Indian Depopulation in the Northeast: The Timing of the First Epidemics,” Ethnohistory, vol. 35, no. 1 (Winter 1988): 26.
24. Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America, or an Help to the Language of the Natives in that Part of America, called New England (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1997)
25. “Historical Collections of the Indians of New England,” reprinted in the Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, vol. 1: 148.
26. Cook, “The Significance of Disease in the Extinction of the New England Indians,” 487-89.
27. Marr & Cathey
28. Neal Salisbury, Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500-1643 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 108.
29. Kruer, 91-92.
30. Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War (New York City: Penguin Books, 2007), 61-62.
31. Howard Simpson, Invisible Armies: The Impact of Disease on American History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1980), 6.
32. William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, Volume 1 (Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010), 220.
33. Edward Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence (Andover, MA: Warren F. Draper, 1867), 41.
34. Sherburne F. Cook, The Indian Population of New England in the Seventeenth Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976), 31.
35. “We Shall Remain: After the Mayflower,” Documentary film, American Experience, http://pbs.org.
36. Kruer, 85.
37. Peter Tower, Hockomock: Place Where the Spirits Dwell (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2014), 62.
38. Ian K. Steele & Nancy L. Roden, The Human Tradition in Colonial America (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 1999), 28.
39. Neal Salisbury, “Religious Encounters in a Colonial Context: New England and New France in the Seventeenth Century,” American Indian Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 4 (Autumn 1992): 50.2
40. Bradford, 254.
42. Roger L. Nichols, The American Indian: Past and Present (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 2008), 40.
43. Craig White, “Cross-Cultural Apocalypse in the Contact Generation of Native America and New England,” Journal of Millennial Studies (Winter 2000): 2.
44. Neal Salisbury, Red Puritans: The “Praying Indians” of Massachusetts Bay and John Eliot (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2013), 50-51.
45. D’Argenio, 42.
46. Henry Whitfield, Strength out of Weaknesse; Or a Glorious Manifestation of the Further Progresse of the Gospel among the Indians in New-England (New York: Joseph Sabin, 1865), 171.
47. Robert James Naeher, “Dialogue in the Wilderness: John Eliot and the Indian Exploration of Puritanism as a Source of Meaning, Comfort, and Ethnic Survival,” The New England Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 3 (September 1989): 346.
48 Cotton Mather, “Heaven’s Alarm to the World” (1681).