Sad Debris of Tribes


What always amazes me was how fast the diseases travelled after Europeans arrived in North and South America. It is remarkable how that happened. It seemed impossible; it was not. We have all learned something similar  in 2019-2020 with the incredible speed of COVID—19 that shocked us all. But that was done with the aid of modern transportation that allows planeloads of people from Asia to arrive in North America in a day. Yet the speed of diseases after first contact between Europeans and indigenous people was even more amazing than that, without any such modern transportation. See my earlier post on the speed of European diseases.

As Professor White pointed out,

“The first wave of diseases often arrived ahead of Europeans: it seemed a disaster without immediate cause. Later epidemics came directly, spread by contact with the Europeans, and the infected went to their graves knowing the source of the pestilence that killed them.”

The effect on the “lucky ones” who survived was demoralizing. Their world was shattered. It was as if not just their lives but their cultures were obliterated! It is hardly surprising that the effects cascaded through the generations after that. The people were crushed. And all of us still feel the effects.

It is difficult for us to comprehend how diseases can destroy whole peoples. COVID-19 is a pipsqueak pandemic compared to what happened in North America after Europeans arrived and found people who had no natural immunities to the diseases they carried often without incident.

Professor White described the advance of diseases this way:

“They died in staggering numbers. In 1698 the French missionary Father St. Cosmé reported that in the villages of the Quapaws of the Mississippi there were now “nothing but graves.” In 1738 smallpox struck the Missouri, and where there had been “32 populous villages of Arikara” there were in 1803 but three formed from what the French-Canadian trader Pierre-Antoine Tabeau called the “sad debris” of tribes that had formed the larger Arikara confederation.

Remember this was long after the first arrival of Europeans in 1492. This was 300 years later and it was still going on! We who have recently experienced COVID-19 hope that it will go away after a couple of months! Diseases don’t always play by the rules. They certainly don’t play fair. As

White said,

“In the late 1700s and early 1800s the new epidemics were still sweeping over the Pacific Coast. To the early European explorers, it seemed that they had stumbled on a vast necropolis. When he sailed into Puget Sound in 1792, George Vancouver described deserted villages, the houses in collapse, the buildings and surrounding woods filled with human bones. Theodore Parker wrote similar descriptions of this trip down the Columbia River in 1835. In the 1840s John Sutter and other white travelers in the Sacramento Valley saw collapsed houses filled with skeletons and old village sites littered with skulls and bones.”

I don’t want to belabor the point, but I want it to sink in. This was nearly 350 years after Columbus arrived on the continent and about 100 years before I was born. This is not ancient history.


Leave a Reply