***A picture of a hand with smallpox is on this page. This picture may be disturbing.***
Microscopic view of smallpox virus
Germs that brought disease had a huge impact as a result of the Columbian exchange (Walbert, 2008). Europeans brought smallpox and other diseases to the New World and diseases eventually killed off as much as 90 percent of the native population (Walbert, 2008). Smallpox was just one of the many deadly diseases brought to the New World by travelers from the Old World (Walbert, 2008).
Although the smallpox vaccine has eradicated the disease, it was once a deadly disease that brought destruction to the native population in the New World (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). The first recorded smallpox epidemic in the New World was in 1518 when it spread to Mexico and through South America (Mann, 2011). The epidemic killed a third or more of the population in just a few months (Mann, 2011).
Because the smallpox epidemic killed so many, no one wanted to take the blame for spreading it (Mann, 2011). Even though Spaniards were fighting in Mexico when the epidemic hit, they did not want to be seen as the cause (Mann, 2011). Spaniards blamed their enslaved Cuban Indians and African slaves as the cause (Mann, 2011).
In the 1630s, a smallpox epidemic hit what is now Massachusetts (Crosby, 2007). After this epidemic, other smallpox epidemics would hit native tribes and kill off half the population (Crosby, 2007). William Bradford wrote of the effects of smallpox and claimed that victims died and lost strength so quickly that victims could not bury their own dead let alone light a fire or fetch water (as cited in Crosby, 2007). Missionaries and traders who traveled inland in America told the same horrifying stories when the Cherokee, Catawba, Omaha, and Mandan Tribes were hit with the disease (Crosby, 2007). Smallpox was a devastating disease to native tribes in the New World, because they had never developed immunities to the disease.
Europeans were not as susceptible to smallpox (Mann, 2011). Europeans saw smallpox as an illness almost every child has while growing up (Mann, 2011). Because many Europeans had once had smallpox or were at least around it, they developed immunity (Mann, 2011). This immunity helped Europeans to be uninfected when smallpox epidemics occurred in the New World (Mann, 2011).
Historians and scientists now better understand the effects diseases like smallpox have on entire populations. During the time when travelers were first coming to the New World, Europeans did not fully understand how diseases were spread or contracted, but they did understand the importance of quarantine (Walbert, 2008). Europeans did not know how devastating their diseases, like smallpox, were to entire populations until they saw the deaths. Lord Jeffrey Amherst purposely gave infected smallpox blankets to Native Americans as a way to lessen the native population during the Seven Years War (Walbert, 2008). This was the only documented case of a disease used purposely to kill a native population in the Americas (Walbert, 2008). Most Europeans saw the effects of disease on native populations as God’s divine work showing European settlers God was on their side (Walbert, 2008). Unfortunately, survival of the fittest occurred when the Old and New Worlds were connected. The Europeans had immunity to some diseases and were not wiped out as native populations were.
History could have a different course if diseases had not spread across the Atlantic Ocean. The native population in the New World could be massive if diseases like smallpox had not decimated them. Hard to imagine what the New World would be like without the effects of disease but look at how influential the Columbian exchange has been to the spread of disease. The spread of disease left tribes without leaders and tribes with less warriors to fight off Europeans coming to live in the New World. The effects of smallpox have a lasting effect on history.