27 December 2007

“America was not a disease-free paradise”

Ecological Indians

In the chapter “Eden” in his meticulously documented The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999), Shepard Krech III takes issue with the indigenous population figures of Henry Dobyns and those that rely upon his work, especially Lenore Stiffarm and Phil Lane. He assesses work on demography in the effort to reconcile modern knowledge and colonial observations.

Krech observes the tendency through several centuries of “European and European-Americans discover[ing] the Garden of Eden somewhere in North America” (75). The first Europeans found a bountiful land. Krech cites several descriptions among which George Percy’s first view of Virginia in 1607 easily could find a home:
[W]ee could find nothing worth the speaking of, but faire meddowes and goodly tall Trees, with such Fresh-waters running through the woods, as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof.
Percy, “Observations gathered” In Purchas his Pilgrims, 1686
On the other hand, Native American Indians often had to relocate their villages because they had depleted basic resources—trees, soils, and animals. Descriptions of pristine land “are not easily reconciled” (76), Krech argues, with knowledge produced by archaeologists regarding the frequency with which American Indians were forced to relocate. Citing scholarly monographs and articles in such journals as Ethnohistory, he notes the ecology of slash and burn agricultural practices, depletion of soils and fuel wood, and patterns of village relocation—every ten to twelve years for the Iroquois, for example. In addition, deforestation may hold the key to the disappearance of the Anasazi, on the one hand, and of the residents of Cahokia, on the other. These densely settled urban centers generated needs that outstripped supply.

“Perhaps demography is an important key to solving the paradox of paradisaical plenitude despite human exploitation” (77), Krech offers, noting the ideological stakes: “estimating numbers has become sharply politicized” (83-84). With a few notable exceptions, he suggests, the “few numbers [of indigenous Americans] trod so lightly as to leave bounty for European eyes everywhere” (78).

Impact of Epidemic Disease

Krech finds “no debate over what must have been the sheer terror of each major epidemic” (80). He cites Yanktonai winter counts for descriptions of the effects of smallpox that devastated the upper Missouri River beginning in the summer of 1837. The disease was carried upriver by a deckhand on the St. Peters, an American Fur Company steamer that left St. Louis in April 1837. By the time the symptoms were clear enough for diagnosis, others had been infected and the disease was spreading. Many died from the disease, others from starvation. Mató-Tópe, a Mandan warrior painted four years earlier by Karl Bodmer, became crazy with grief after his entire family died.
On the greater Plains, the tragedy was beyond description. The Mandan practically disappeared. Three-quarters of the Blackfeet, one-half of the Assiniboine and Arikara, and one-quarter of the Pawnee died. In all, perhaps seventeen thousand people perished.
Krech, Ecological Indian, 82.
Krech notes how “desires for trade and beliefs about illness” (83) rendered the Indians prone toward activities that aided the spread of this devastating smallpox outbreak. It seems reasonable to imagine “that the population of North America must have been very large prior to the arrival of virgin-soil epidemics” (83).

Inasmuch as estimates of the North American population have ranged from one-half million to eighteen million, Krech focuses attention on the highest estimates. In 1966, Henry Dobyns estimated that ten to twelve million Indians lived in North America before Columbus arrived, then revised his estimate upwards to eighteen million. He reviews the central points from Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival (1987); David Stannard, American Holocaust (1992); and Lenore Stiffarm and Phil Lane, “The Demography of Native North America: A Question of American Indian Survival,” in The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance (1992). The endnotes mention all of the standard studies that I listed in “Depopulation and Demography,” plus a few more not included there.

Questioning Dobyns

The core of Krech’s “Eden” details pertinent data from three regions of North America—Northeast, Southwest, and Canadian Subarctic. This data, he argues, contests the highest estimates, which assume:
…that diseases arrived early, spread widely, and were invariably fatal; that populations did not recover between epidemics; and that diseases can actually be identified, a necessary step in order to say anything with confidence about their behavior.
Krech, Ecological Indian, 85.
Krech’s own “The Influence of Disease and the Fur Trade on Arctic Lowlands Dene, 1800-1850,” Journal of Anthropological Research (1983) serves as a principal source for this section of the essay. A table lists thirty-one outbreaks of one or more diseases through a period of sixty years, each affecting one to eight indigenous groups. Some, such as “the pox” and “stomach complaint” are difficult to diagnose from the historical sources, and not all proved equally deadly to subarctic peoples. Some, such as whooping cough—“typically mild and confined to children today”—produced hunger among peoples dependant upon hunters that relied on stealth in hunting (89-90). Measles was one of the most common, and it killed plenty, but the survivors were immune from the next outbreak. Despite abundant reasons to believe that the nearly annual run of illnesses could have plunged “the population in the Mackenzie River region into a free fall” (91), Krech notes that both the first available census (1829) and the second (1858) show the population “virtually unchanged at between two thousand and three thousand people” (91).

Having rejected the highest estimates of Henry Dobyns, Krech suggests that four to seven million are the “most sensible figures” (93). Europe was far more densely populated.
The Old World environment compared to the New World one was also obviously far more heavily changed and depleted of resources, and it was Europe’s transformed landscapes that formed (with attendant demographic pressures) a comparative backdrop for the North American paradise. From the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, powered by demands, designs, and technology, Europeans profoundly altered their landscapes. They transformed entire sections of the countryside. Woodcutters in search of fuel and farmers after arable land assaulted forests on a broad front.
Krech, Ecological Indian, 95.
The immigrant population from overcrowded Europe where lands had been dramatically transformed, Krech tells us, “occupied widowed—not virgin—lands” (99) that they altered to meet their needs as they had done in Europe through the preceding centuries. The term “widowed,” as he acknowledges, was popularized in Francis Jennings’ seminal The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (1975).

Using The Ecological Indian

Shepard Krech’s The Ecological Indian appears to offer a convenient citation for scholars that find the somewhat popular population estimates of Henry Dobyns incredulous. The book is careful and conservative, and it challenges the assumptions of overly pro-Indian apologetics masquerading as serious scholarship. Hence, it come as no surprise that no less than three citations to Krech appear in Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, A Patriot’s History of the United States (2004).

Their first citation is thematic: “Virginia was hardly a ‘disease-free paradise’ before the arrival of the Jamestown English” (17). This two word quotation, and the only footnote reference in the paragraph in which it appears, refer to a sentence in Krech’s essay, “Eden”: “America was not a disease-free paradise before Europeans landed on its shores” (79).

Preceding this phrase from Krech, Schweikart and Allen emphasize the severe decimation of the original Jamestown colonists by malnutrition and malaria: they “were leveled by New World diseases for which they had no resistance” (17). A minority survived. The authors had emphasized earlier in A Patriot’s History, “not all diseases came from the Old World to the New” (6), mentioning syphilis there and then again in the sidebar about which I’ve written on several occasions already (8). Now, they mention malaria as a New World disease, offer the quote from Krech, and follow with the almost tardy acknowledgment that “microbes transported by the Europeans generated a much higher level of infection than previously experienced by the Indians” (17). This paragraph concludes with the assertion, “warring Indian tribes spread the diseases among one another when they attacked enemy tribes and carried off infected prisoners” (17).

A Patriot’s History versus its Sources

No doubt warfare spread disease in the manner described in A Patriot’s History, but Krech’s The Ecological Indian emphasizes trade rather than war as a primary avenue of transmission from one tribe to another. Indian commerce is an infrequent visitor in the narrative put forth in A Patriot’s History, although the French found “an indigenous population eager to trade” (13). Warring Indians appear more often.

As for the malaria that struck down the helpless Europeans lacking immunities, Krech mentions this disease twice in his essay “Eden”. Malaria appears in a list detailing “a virtual viral, bacterial, and protozoal assault” that “killed not dozens but hundreds and thousands of [Indian] people” (80). Then, in disputing Dobyns’s allegation regarding the extent of the spread of illness that spread outward from the Spanish conquest of Mexico, “far to the south, measles and perhaps dysentary, typhoid, malaria, and typhus ravaged Nayarit and Sinaloa on the Pacific Coast in the 1530s to 1540s” (86). If malaria originated in the New World, Krech does not see fit to mention it.

In the paragraph from which Schweikart and Allen get their phrase from Krech, he mentions two New World illnesses, treponematosis (the source of syphilis) and tuberculosis. Treponematosis “affected many who lived in densely settled farming communities along the mid-Atlantic seaboard and in the south,” while tuberculosis was present “in Peru and perhaps elsewhere” (79). Schweikart and Allen mention syphilis and tuberculosis in their depopulation sidebar:
Some suggest that Indians may have had a nonvenereal form of syphilis, and almost all agree that a variety of infections were widespread. Tuberculosis existed in Central and North America long before the Spanish appeared, as did herpes, polio, tick-borne fevers, giardiasis, and amebic dysentary.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 8.
Thus, we see that the story in A Patriot’s History differs in quite a few particulars from the story in The Ecological Indian, despite their judicious use of Krech’s observation that America was not a “disease-free paradise”. Krech’s text seems to adorn their narrative, rather than informing their facts and analysis.

Indeed, the two other references to The Ecological Indian are little else. Describing common life among eighteenth century Euro-Americans, they write,
British-Americans cleared heavily forested land by girdling trees, then slashing and burning the dead timber—practices picked up from the Indians, despite the myth of the ecologically friendly natives.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 41.
The back cover of The Ecological Indian offers sufficient evidence for that insight, but Krech’s essay “Eden” has more to say regarding the practices of deforestation in Europe before the colonists sailed west.

I fail to comprehend the remaining citation to Krech at the end of the sentence, “[t]heir [Puritans] moral codes in many ways were not far from modern standards” (29). The page there referenced contains Krech’s listing of several Edenic observations of Europeans through the centuries, including one by sixteenth century immigrant Thomas Morton.

Morton was an Anglican in New England that in 1628 suffered an attack from troops led by Myles Standish when he engaged too much in celebrations of the earth’s cycles with the local Indians, as Nathanial Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” (1836) depicts it. However, Alan Heimart and Andrew Delbanco, editors of The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology (1985), assert that the actual provocation was his selling of firewater and firearms to the Indians, disrupting the valued fur trade (48). In any case, this fascinating story of New England’s notorious Wannabe is present neither in Krech nor A Patriot’s History. The footnote hints at ideological underpinnings that are made explicit elsewhere, but it fails to inform readers of the source of the assertion.


Steve Sailer said...

I just want to say thanks again for your trove of "depopulation" postings, which are the best introduction to the topic I've seen.

James Stripes said...

Thank you.

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