Virgin Soil Epidemics
Although it seems as if we are living through uncharted times, epidemics are not something new in this world. Throughout history, as travel to other countries became the norm, diseases were spread from nation to nation, and epidemics reigned because the indigenous populations had no previous contact with these foreign diseases and therefore could not combat them. Hence the term, Virgin Soil Epidemics, which was coined by Alfred Crosby, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. When a population has not had any previous contact with a disease, they have no immunity to it, and it passes quickly from one to another. Disease spread like wildfire over these lands that had not been previously stricken by them.
This type of epidemic first occurred when Europeans brought diseases to the conquered lands of the Americas, Australia and the Pacific Islands.
Christopher Columbus was one such intrepid explorer who opened the world to conquest with his voyages of discovery. Modern globalism began in the 1400s and was led by the Portuguese and the Spanish.
Diseases introduced into the Americas by European colonizers and their African slaves included smallpox, yellow fever, malaria, measles, typhus and influenza. These diseases were particularly devastating to the Native population. Every person was susceptible even if they hadn’t had direct contact. An epidemic of smallpox in 1520 devastated many tribes. In 1616 and lasting for three years, a plague of some sort, possibly bubonic, ravaged the east coast from Cape Cod and north, killing nine out of every ten persons exposed to the virus. During the 1630s, a wave of smallpox killed half the population of the Iroquois and Huron tribes in the Great Lakes region. In 1738, another outbreak of smallpox destroyed half of the Cherokee nation. And in 1759 the Catawba nation was cut in half by the same illness. Smallpox is blamed for killing off half the Piegen nation during the Revolutionary War and later devastated the population of the Omahas. Again, in 1837, smallpox returned to the Native tribes in the plains, destroying about half of the population.
One might conclude that Native Americans were genetically predisposed to smallpox and that would account for the staggering loss of life. But during the Civil War, a smallpox outbreak roared through the troops fighting various battles, and killed 38 percent of those who contracted the disease, laying to rest the theory of a genetic malfunction among the Natives. It is estimated that the population of Native Americans declined by 90 percent by these diseases over the years. Part of the reason these diseases were so quickly spread throughout the campsites was because the Native American ways of treating disease perpetuated the problem instead of countering it, since sitting in a sweat house surrounded by others was one of the treatments. They also were suspicious of any outside treatments, so spurned any medical assistance. Couple the denial of outside help with the tribal loyalty to stay together, and you had a perfect recipe for disaster.
The Superior of the Jesuit Missions to the Indians of New France wrote of the abundance of epidemics in his journals. “Since the Faith has come to dwell among these people, all things that make men die have been found in these countries.”
What can be gained from looking back at these pandemics is that proper medical care combined with social distancing is the best way to flatten any curve. We all need to do our part in order to hasten the end of this deadly pandemic of our own.
If you’re in the mood to read about epidemics other than the one we’re in now, here are a few examples, all available on Amazon:
And, if you’re in the mood to read about how couples can still find love during a pandemic, here’s an anthology of short stories that will lift your spirits:
Although Becky Lower prefers to rub imaginary elbows with the men and women who helped form America, she occasionally tiptoes into this century. Look for her sweet romance in Love in the Time of Corona, Volume 2. Choosing My Own Bananas is a story about two senior citizens who meet during Senior Hour at the grocery line. You can order your copy on April 22, 2020.