How big a part did diseases play in the Jamestown story?
(Page started 10/28/2018) I've wondered about this question a lot, but the evidence for a good answer has been hard to come by. This page will likely take me a while to complete, as I'll have to find and acquire source material for reliable information. Meanwhile Wikipedia has some decent information related to the more general question of how disease impacted Native Americans across the continent. For that, look at Wikipedia's:
The following paragraphs will have little organization as I look for references in each of the source books that I have. Hopefully, there will be some coherence here someday soon.
From Helen C. Rountree (2005), Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown
On expected life span "In both cultures [Powhatan & English] thirty-year-olds were middle-aged, and some of these women were grandmothers. Many women died in childbirth, so that women;s life expectancy was lower than men;s (that was worldwide until recently). So many people lost a wife, mother, or daughter in childbed that a young woman;s death -- like Pocahontas at age twenty-one -- was not so great a tragedy as it is today, except for those closest to her." Rountree, p. 11,
My comment: Rountree puts it somewhat indelicately, but it seems reasonable that during a period when life expectancy was around 40 years old (various sources for that figure, with variations) that a death after successful childbirth might appear to be a modest victory. Still, dying at 21 would have been at the presumed mid-point of a life, which is fairly tragic. Also, we should note that both Powhatan (Wahunsenaca) and his brother or half-brother, Opechancanough, lived far longer. Powhatan lived to be roughly 72 (exact age unknown), and Opechancanough lasted until roughly the age of 92! (Also, for comparison, John Rolfe 37 years; John Smith 51 years, Thomas Rolfe 65 years)
Comparison to Mayan and Inca culture mortality "Pre-Columbian Virginia was not a disease-free environment, but the people's living conditions were far healthier than those in English cities, so that epidemics of alien diseases could not wreak nearly the same havoc that they did in urban Mexico and Peru, which endured an estimated 90 percent mortality. (7) Corroboration comes from archaeology in Virginia, where no mass burials of articulated skeletons (i.e., people who have just died) have been found. If anything, the foreign invaders, coming from unhealthy living conditions and meeting new 'bugs' in Virginia, would suffer a higher mortality." Rountree, p. 11
My comment: I'm with Rountree on the dissimilarity of Powhatan society to Mayan and Incan urban societies. However, I have doubts about that last sentence about greater likelihood of early death among the English. Certainly, the early settlers to Jamestown fared poorly, for a variety of reasons, but the experience of the Indians in New England in The Great Dying makes it clear that European diseases could be devastating to east coast tribes. Also, the lack of archaeological evidence of mass burials in Virginia to date is not proof of their absence.
On the healthy lifestyle of Powhatan Indians when living in their traditional manner "Powhatan people preferred to live in smallish hamlets, most of them with houses -- and therefore latrines -- scattered among gardens and groves of trees. (10). Contrast that with the densely crowded, filthy European towns and cities of the time. The native people in Virginia also bathed every day, (11) while their contemporaries across the ocean considered bathing unhealthy *and reeked accordingly). Finally, the Powhatans dispersed out of their towns for two seasons each year, instead of inhabiting them year-round." Rountree, p. 11, 12 [Rountree's sources for footnote 10 are Smith (1612), Strachey (1612) and Edward Wright Haile (1998).Her sources for 11 are White (1608?) and Haile (1998).]
My comments: These are all good points, but we'll still see evidence of illnesses, and very quickly, Powhatan tribes were prevented from living their traditional lifestyle as the population of settlers increased.
On the effect of 'lean times' on Powhatan Indian health "That choice [the culture of small scale gardening] meant that a limited amount of food was available in hard times such as early summer, after the spring fish runs had subsided but the year's crops had not yet ripened. Even less food was available in really hard times, such as the dry years that are known to have afflicted the region in 1562-71 and 1606-12. (21) Hard times made people thin. John Smith wrote, 'It is strange to see how their bodies alter with their diet, even as the deer and wild beasts they seem fat and lean, strong and weak.' (12) Lean people have fewer reserves to live on if they get sick or if the food runs out. If they are malnourished, they are more likely to get sick. Very lean women often have a harder time conceiving; if they are malnourished, they will have more difficulty carrying fetuses to term. Annual hardship would take its toll on the birthrate, along with other cultural practices that kept husbands and wives apart, such as not sleeping together the night before a deer hunt or for several nights before going to war. Therefore Virginia's human population had never grown as dense on the land as the English one was. And the Powhatan's territory would be seen by the invaders as 'empty,' even though in their own traditional way the native people were using every square foot of it." Rountree, p. 14, 15
My comments: According to Rountree, Powhatans faced increased likelihood of disease during lean times even when left to their traditional lifestyle. Those lean times must have increased dramatically when settlers took over their hunting grounds, stole and burnt Powhatan corn, and generally disrupted their traditional practices.
Not Jamestown, but nearby ...
From James Horn (2010), A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke
On epidemic reported during first Roanoke expedition of 1584-86 [During the first expedition to Roanoke (1584-86), a colony was established on Roanoke Island in 1585. While some soldier-settlers remained in Roanoke, an expedition captained by Philip Amada departed to explore the Chesapeake Bay.] "Relations between the English and the Secotans had deteriorated rapidly during the three or four months that Amada's expedition was away. Tensions arose owing to the continuing dependence of the colonists on the Indians for food, which during the winter months was increasingly difficult to supply. Yet the most important reason for the souring of relations was the terrible toll inflicted on the Secotan population by European diseases since the beginning of the fall. Epidemics, perhaps smallpox or influenza, swept through the region and claimed many lives. Thomas Hariot later reported in his account to Raleigh the deadly impact of the outbreak. As the English moved from town to town, 'the people began to die very fast, and many in short space; in some towns about twenty, in some forty, in some sixty, and in one six score, which in truth was very many in respect of their numbers.' With no natural immunity to the diseases and no means of curing them, Indian priests could do little other than pray to their gods for relief and hope the sickness would pass." Horn, p. 89-91
The strange truth about smallpox and Native Americans (June 15, 2019) from Stephen Carr Hampton,Memories of the People Not specifically about East Coast Indians, but an interesting summary of smallpox among Indian tribes and its use as a weapon by the English and American military.