By Cheryl Morgan
The indigenous peoples were mostly very healthy and had long lives. When the Norsemen came to the eastern shores, they brought their germs with them. The Norsemen who fished the Atlantic Maritimes brought disease in 1001 A.D. The death rate was very high, and 70 to 90% of the people died. The explorers and missionaries also brought disease and, through their contact with the native peoples, caused great devastation among the Native Americans.
Immigration brought much illness, famine, and hardship, along with the grieving of the loss of their loved ones. The Europeans also suffered from disease and epidemics. In the Lakes region of Michigan in the heat of summer, myriads of mosquitos and poisonous insects, miasmatic vapors of decaying soil, and fetid bogs caused a malarial fever and dysentery.
The Eastern Seaboard and the Maritimes were the first areas to suffer the consequences. Through their contact with other indigenous peoples and the White Man. The Anishinabe people of the Northwest at the time were greatly affected. Whole villages and peoples were wiped out. So many died, and the people rushed away from outbreaks that the dead were not buried at times. A once very numerous people were reduced time and again in very large numbers. Many of their great leaders and many, many family members were lost, causing untold suffering.
The native peoples had no immunity to these diseases and germs brought amongst them. The medicines and the Medicine Men had no effect for the curing of any of these new plagues and epidemics. Smallpox, cholera, diphtheria, scarlet fever, chicken pox, whooping cough, measles, mumps, consumption (tuberculosis), scarletina, typhoid, and dysentery wreaked havoc and ravaged through the land.
Cholera is an acute infectious disease characterized by watery diarrhea and vomiting. It is spread by eating or drinking water contaminated with the bacterium. People can die within hours of infection from dehydration. It usually occurs when human feces from a person who has the disease seeps into a community water supply. It also lives in warm, brackish waters.
Smallpox is an infectious disease known as pox or red plague. It causes a huge rash and blisters. It also causes blindness. It had a very high rate of death in Native Americans, as there was no immunity. The incubation period is around 12 days. Once inhaled, it invades the body like a viral disease, bringing muscle pain, malaise, headache, and prostration. The digestive tract is often involved; fever, nausea, vomiting, and backache often occur, lasting two to four days. By the twelfth to fifteenth day, lesions looking like red spots appear in the mouth and throat. These lesions rapidly enlarge and rupture, releasing large amounts of the virus into the saliva. A rash develops over the body, and some forms bleed into the skin.
Trachoma blindness was among the Indian diseases; it is caused by the bacterium chlamydia trachomatis. It is an infection of the eye and, left untreated, can lead to blindness.
Following is nearly every instance of these epidemics that affected the Great Lakes Indians, though this will not cover all the sickness that the people suffered.
1617: The Great Plague falls on the Ohio Valley tribes.
1634: European diseases killed half of the Hurons. They had no immunity to these new biological weapons.
1635-1640: “smallpox, influenza, and measles brought misery to the Huron traders and Wyandot Middlemen; half of the peoples were lost to the diseases” (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Ojibwe History, www).
1639: Smallpox ravaged the Hurons.
1677: “an epidemic hit the Great Lakes tribes thought to be a flu virus” (Tanner).
1681: “smallpox again strikes Sault Saint Marie, New France” (Metis Timeline, Canadian History a Distinct Viewpoint, info/metis.aspx, www).
1751: “smallpox swept the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley” (Dickshovel, Huron History).
1752: M. De Longueuil wrote of the smallpox commits ravages; it begins to reach Detroit. Over eighty Indians died of the disease at adjacent villages, including Chief Kinousaki, who was much attached to the French.
1757-1758: “smallpox came among the people and many were lost. It was brought back from the New York, Iroquois Peace Treaty to the villages. It swept through the Great Lakes in the winter” (Tanner).
1764: At Fort Pitt, the Indians were given blankets infested with smallpox. As a result, it raged through the Delaware, Ottawa, and Ojibwe camps all summer into 1764.
1766: “smallpox again brought devastation to the Great Lakes peoples” (Tanner).
1780: Smallpox ravaged the whole of New France.
1793: A smallpox epidemic swept through the Lake Simcoe communities. After the American Revolution, mass immigration began. Ten thousand refugees (United Empire Loyalists) and soldiers came to upper Canada of which Michigan was a part at that time.
1813: An epidemic of whooping cough and typhoid attacked the Great Lakes people.
1832: A great cholera epidemic started at Detroit and moved with the soldiers sent to the Black Hawk War.
1834: “cholera was brought among the People” (Tanner).
1836 and 1837: “in the Saginaw Basin Country, smallpox ravaged the people. Two-thirds of the Ojibwe numbers were lost” (Tanner).
B.O. Williams describes the results of the 1837 smallpox as follows:
Thus, whole villages and bands were decimated, and during the summer and fall many were left without a burial at the camps in the woods, and were devoured by the wolves. I visited the village of Cheassining (Big Rock Village) now called Chesaning, and saw in the summer camps, several bodies, only partially covered up and not a living soul could I find except one Old Squaw that was convalescent. We afterwards sent some flour and other provisions to the few that remained. Judge Dexter, of the Village of Dexter, gave me ten dollars to assist them to flour. Most of the adults attacked died and it is a remarkable fact that no White person ever took the disease from them, although in many instances the poor, emaciated creatures, visited White families while covered with pustules and scabs. (Emmert/Williams, Shiawasee County, MHC, vol. 47)
The disease broke up the bands, some fled to Canada and others to the West. Some remained in the area living on what they could find in their wanderings or begging. A number of Indians, remained in the villages in South Saginaw County and occasionally came into Shiawassee County. (Emmert, MHC, vol. 47)
1870: “Smallpox again struck the tribes” (Tanner).
1870s and 1880s: The Indians living at Lake Nepessing, near Lapeer, were struck, and most of them died, wiping out the whole village. These were the Black River peoples.
1880s: More disease claimed the people through smallpox and diphtheria.
1889 and 1890: “an epidemic of influenza or La Grippe was common in the country and in Michigan in the winter and spring months of the years 1890-1891 and 1891-1892. Over a thousand deaths occurred from the influenza in 1890, 1891, and 1892” (25th annual report, MI, Secretary of State, Lansing, Robert Smith & Co. 1893).
1903: “smallpox struck near Detroit” (Farmer).
1918 and 1919: “influenza killed thousands worldwide” (Farmer), and “the Spanish Flu took its toll on the Reservation at Sarnia, Ontario” (Canada West Last Frontier).
“Death and Warfare became a major part of Anishinabe life in the woods and lakes of our land” (Diba Jimooyung, Zibiiwang, Saginaw Chippewa). In Metis History, www it is said that smallpox raged fiercely. The pretext of trade was used to open doors for trade and disease.
The Black Robes at Huron, when “Echon”, Jean De Brebeauf, the Jesuit, set foot in the Huron Country. he said, “I shall be here, so many years, I shall cause many to die. And then go elsewhere to do the same, until I have ruined, the whole land”. Echon is the most famous Black Robe sorcerer or Demon, it was a Genocide Policy of Biological Warfare.
The Huron informed the Neutrals, that the Black Robes were sorcerers and imposters come to take possession of their country”. Metis History, www
For Europeans, any illness also befell them. The most common was the ague and fever of a swampy country. Whiskey was the great medicinal element of backwoods life, a sovereign remedy for all prevailing ills. Malaria, ague, and bilious fever were common ailments.
The practice of bleeding was common; the priests shared this with the Indians. All physicians used bleeding at times. Some Native Americans were given vaccines for smallpox, but most were not.
“Flint blades were surgical instruments. The blades were so thin that the incisions made could not be duplicated until the advent of laser surgery. The indigenous peoples performed surgery and kept wounds sterile with botanical antiseptics. Syringes of bird bones and animal bladders were used to administer plant medicine. The indigenous people were the pioneers of using plant breeding genetics. Many pharmaceuticals came from traditional medicine of the indigenous peoples” (K. Porterfield, “10 Lies about Indigenous Science”). “More than two hundred drugs derived from plants for pharmacological uses were discovered by American Indians” (James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told me).
“Syringes and hypodermic needles from bird bones were attached to small bladders to inject medicines. There were large and small syringes for enemas, to irrigate wounds and clean ears. The bird bones – Nanandawi iwe winini – used for tube sucking were small hollowed bones two inches long” (Plain, 1300 Moons).
“There were over 2,500 uses for medicinal plant species. There were oral contraceptive plants.
“Pest controls were made from tobacco and other plants. Petroleum collection and extraction pits were used for ceremonial fires and lotion on skin. For baby bottles and formula, [the] washed, dried, and oiled intestines [were used, to contain milk] with a bird quill for a nipple” (10 inventions that changed the world. Indian Country Today, Media Network www).
“In 1682, (and before), Spruce Sap Beer was used for scurvy” (Metis Timeline, Canadian History, A Distinct Viewpoint, metis-history.info/metis.aspx, www).
John Wesley noted that “the Indians had exceedingly few diseases; their medicines are quick and generally infallible”. Furthermore, “Cotton Mathers wrote, Indian healers produce many cures that are truly stupendous” (Canadian History, a Distinct Viewpoint, www). “The Mediwiwin, native physicians, were very effective in their treatments of any ills. But the European diseases, they had no remedy for.”
Check back soon! Cheryl will be covering reserves and Indian lands in her next article.
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This book came about after a visit to the library where I could not find local Indian History. I grew up in the St. Clair and Black River area of Michigan, fishing on all the area waters with my father and brothers. I loved books, libraries, horses and puzzles; I was not a tech person. I love to cook, garden, travel, and camp. I was determined to find and share the truth. This has been a difficult journey in every way. I give you, the reader, the truth and blessings I also reaped. Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl Morgan lives near Port Huron, Michigan with her husband Tom and dog Fred.
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