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Growth through Natural Increase: Deaths, Disease and Death in Early America

Native American nations, high death rates, scarlet fever, permanent settlements, malnourishment

The small groups of people who migrated to the Americas from Asia thousands of years ago brought few germs with them. Although accidents and malnourishment were always possible, few infectious diseases were present in the Americas. When explorers and settlers arrived from densely populated Europe, they introduced diseases such as smallpox, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, whooping cough, scarlet fever, malaria, and gonorrhea. Africans brought smallpox as well, along with yellow fever, dengue fever, and malaria. Most Europeans and Africans had stronger immunities to the common diseases of their homelands, and Africans had discovered how to inoculate themselves against smallpox. Native Americans had no immunity to these imported diseases, and they died in large numbers. One estimate indicates disease was responsible for reducing native populations by 25 to 50 percent (in comparison, warfare reduced native populations by about 10 percent during the 18th and 19th centuries). Some Native American nations became extinct. Starvation and dislocation lasting into the 20th century also contributed to high death rates among Native Americans.

The earliest European settlers in the 17th century experienced high death rates. In Virginia, only about a third of the 104 people who came from England in May 1607 survived eight months after arriving. By 1624, about 7,000 settlers had come ashore, but only about 1,200 remained alive. The emphasis on searching for gold and quick profits meant that these first colonists paid little attention to producing food, building houses, or establishing permanent settlements. Starvation, exposure to the elements, and war with the native peoples caused large numbers of deaths. Half of the first settlers in New England did not survive the first winter, in 1620. However, the death rate decreased sharply in the north as colonists arrived in family groups and quickly created farms and towns to provide economic support. As a consequence of the low death rate, the population in the north grew rapidly without the need for many additional immigrants.

At first more European men than women lived in the south, and the southern population grew more slowly than the northern population. Deaths matched or surpassed births. The hotter climate in the south bred diseases such as malaria and dysentery, and European laborers frequently died of these and other semitropical diseases. Africans, who were imported to labor in the fields, were susceptible to lung diseases, but had some protection against malaria and yellow fever, and against smallpox if they had been inoculated in their homelands. African slaves shared their knowledge of smallpox inoculation during the 18th century, and the English discovered a vaccine against smallpox in the early 19th century. Even so, most diseases remained untreatable because the causes of illness were not understood.

Another source of disease emerged when large cities grew up around northern ports in the 17th and 18th centuries. These early cities were dirty places that grew haphazardly, without provision for clean water or sewage disposal. They served as ports of entry not only for travelers and immigrants but also for the diseases these voyagers brought with them. Epidemics of smallpox, yellow fever, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, and influenza frequently swept through the cities, while the isolated countryside was often spared these devastating illnesses. Among the worst of these was a series of yellow fever epidemics that hit Philadelphia in the 1790s. Ten percent of the population died in 1793, and smaller epidemics occurred in New York, Harrisburg, and other cities.

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