Bringing disease to the Native American Nations

As the Europeans began to expand in their explorations, they brought disease to all of the indigenous peoples that they came in contact with.

These people were not equipped to fight infections that were common in Europe and often killed off the populations in significant numbers.

This is commonly known as the “virgin soil effect,” and involved such diseases as bubonic plague, smallpox,  cholera, chickenpox, the common cold, diphtheria, influenza, malaria, measles sexually transmitted diseases, scarlet fever, typhoid, typhus, pertussis, and tuberculosis. For Native Indians, the diseases destroyed many of the tribes.

Europeans arrived in the New Worlds as part of the expansion of land ownership for the various royalty as well as looking for an alternative route to replace the Silk Road.

While Europeans eventually developed immunities for the diseases of the East, Native Indians were not physically prepared to fight them, and epidemics broke out and spread in the Native Indian communities.

  • Tracking the outbreaks of diseases wasn’t easy because very few records were kept. Some information says that some of the illnesses could have been brought by the colonists of the 1500s that came with Columbus on his 1493 second expedition. As 1494 ended, almost 2/3 of the Spanish settlers had died of disease and starvation.
  • The first recorded smallpox epidemic in the natives was documented in 1518 with the Lakota Indians. They called it “the running face disease.”
  • Part of the Native Indian culture includes visiting the sick, and this probably led to spreading the diseases to the entire tribe. They also believed that disease and sickness were caused by some religious beliefs in spirits and relied on their shamans to try to cure them.
  • The wide-spread effect of some of the diseases in Native Indians may be because in low dose exposures, the host can develop an immune response. Still, in higher dose exposures where lots of people are concentrated, no immune response can happen.
  • One of the first biological warfare occurrences happened during the 1763 Pontiac War when the British gave Native Indians gifts that were actually from a smallpox infirmary so that they could come down with the disease.
  • From 1837-1870 the Plains tribes experienced four known disease epidemics and called them the “white man’s diseases.” They tried to avoid trading with white people and contact them, but the goods offered by the white colonists were too attractive, and they spread diseases to their villages.
  • Successive epidemics in Mexico cause the deaths of 8 million indigenous natives in around fifty years. Some tribes experienced deaths as high as 25-50% of their population.
  • Historians have compared the spread of disease by the Europeans to the greatest genocide in the history of man. An example of the genocide is shown in 1700 when there were less than 5,000 Native Indians in the U.S. Southeastern coast. In 1520 there were 700,000 Native Indians in Florida, and by 1700 there were only around 2,000.
  • The smallpox epidemic that hit the Huron Native Indians in the Great Lakes area killed almost half of their population. The same thing happened to the Iroquois Native tribe.
  • The West Coast Native Indians lost 30% of their population in the 1770s due to a smallpox outbreak. There was no way to calculate all of the deaths, but it is believed that around 17,200 of the Missouri River Native Indians were killed due to diseases.
  • The loss of so many Native Indians had a direct effect on those that survived. They no longer had the number of people needed to keep a thriving society together, and there was additional loss of life as well as culture.


What is the name of the effect of one group of people invading and bringing diseases to another group that has never been exposed to the diseases?
virgin soil effect

What have historians called the results of the Europeans brought diseases to Native populations that it killed so many?
the greatest genocide in the history of man

Name at least two of the diseases that the Europeans brought to the New World?
bubonic plague, smallpox,  cholera, chickenpox, the common cold, diphtheria, influenza, malaria, measles sexually transmitted diseases, scarlet fever, typhoid, typhus, pertussis, and tuberculosis.

What is believed to be the loss of life in the West Coast Native Indians in the 1770s due to disease?

What did the Native Indians call the diseases that the Europeans brought with them?
the white man’s disease

What did the Lakota Indians call smallpox?
the running face disease