Smallpox created such chaos in the Inca Empire that Francisco Pizzaro was able to seize an empire as large and populous as Spain and Italy combined with a force of only 168 men (Mann, 2002, 43). By the time imported diseases were done with Native Americans, according to Dobyns, 95 percent of them had died, the worst demographic collapse in recorded human history (Mann, 2002, 43). All across America, "Languages, prayers, hopes, habits, and dreams, entire ways of life hissed away like steam" (Mann, 2002, 46).
Henry Dobyns has estimated that the population of Mexico declined from between 30 and 37.5 million people in 1520 to 1.5 million in 1650, a holocaust of a severity unknown in the Old World (Dobyns, 1966, 395–449). Even if one argues that Dobyns' figures are too high, cutting them almost in half, to 20 million in 1520, would produce a mortality rate in 130 years of 92.5 percent (Driver, 1969, 457).
A second theme in Native American historical demography is cultural and biological mixing, called in Spanish mestizaje and in French mestissage. This entailed not only biological mixing with peoples from Europe and Africa, but also sociocultural mixing.
A comprehensive overview of Native American historical demography is not possible in this article, but it can introduce the major topics that scholars have discussed and debated in recent years, including research focused on the Native Peoples of the American Southwest, northern Mexico, and the Andean and Rio de la Plata regions of South America, as well as studies of the demography of peoples drawn into missions established by the Franciscans, Jesuits, and Dominicans on the fringes of Spanish America. The sources available for the study of Native American population trends include early conquest accounts, censuses, baptismal and burial registers, government reports, and other types of documents. This entry also examines epidemiology through a discussion of epidemics as well as how demographic patterns among Native Peoples compared to contemporary European populations. It also considers the topic of miscegenation or biological and cultural mixing and passing.
Today a general consensus exists that the Americas sustained large populations when Europeans first established sustained contact after 1492 and that the Native populations experienced drastic declines in numbers after 1492. Instead of engaging in a numbers game, trying to make educated guesstimates of contact population sizes, this entry explores the dynamics of population decline. There is one fundamental assumption made in the model of "virgin soil epidemics" that Native populations in the Americas were more susceptible to epidemics of highly contagious crowd diseases such as smallpox introduced after 1492. This may be an overly simplistic assumption that does not take into consideration other factors related to mortality during epidemics and patterns of morbidity and mortality. An examination of contemporary European demographic patterns calls into question the assumption of high susceptibility and the buildup of immunities to disease. A host of maladies routinely killed as many as 10 to 20 percent of children in Europe, and the individuals lucky enough to survive built up some immunity from their exposure as well as from antibodies acquired from their mothers. However, surviving childhood disease did not mean that adults could not become ill from the same diseases a second time.
Until the acceptance by doctors of the germ theory in the late nineteenth century, there were few effective treatments for the maladies introduced into the New World from the Old World. Medical knowledge had a basis in the ancient Greek humoral theory that posited disease to be caused by an imbalance in the four basic elements: earth, air, water, and fire. According to the humoral theory, a fever is caused by an excess of fire, and the proper treatment is to reduce the fire. This gave rise to bloodletting as a common treatment, which, of course, only weakened the patient by depleting the immunological system. The other prevailing theory for the cause of disease was miasma, which held that clouds of noxious gas floating in the air caused disease. The gas originated from rotting vegetation, rotting corpses, and garbage, among other things. Practical responses to the belief in miasma included the clearing of garbage and drainage of standing water, which could be beneficial. Garbage, for example, attracted rats that could carry fleas. Mosquitoes breed in standing water and carry a variety of diseases, including yellow fever and malaria. Doctors also made use of what most accurately could be called folk remedies. A 1797 document distributed throughout Spanish California suggested, among other things, to clean the eyes of smallpox victims with water made from rose petals. This treatment first appeared in a fifteenth-century Spanish medical text.
Smallpox was one of the great killers of Native Americans, and two treatments reached the Americas in the eighteenth century. The first was called inoculation by variolation, and it entailed injecting a healthy person with pus from a ripe pustule from a smallpox victim. The expectation was that the individual inoculated would develop a milder infection, and evidence from the period suggests that mortality rates were lower among those inoculated when compared to people naturally infected. At the same time there was considerable resistance to the use of inoculation when introduced in the eighteenth century, primarily because of the fear that inoculation would help spread the contagion. Doctors in Mexico first used inoculation by variolation during a smallpox outbreak in Mexico City in 1779, and Dominican missionaries successfully inoculated Native residents of several missions in Baja California in 1781.
The second smallpox prophylaxis introduced in the eighteenth century was the cowpox vaccine, first described in the late 1790s by English doctor Edward Jenner. Jenner was a country doctor, and he noted that milkmaids did not contract smallpox, which was still a problem in England. Milkmaids inhaled dry cowpox pustules and became infected with cowpox, which is related to smallpox but not fatal to humans. The milkmaids developed antibodies that protected them from smallpox. In 1803, the Spanish government sent a medical team to the Americas to disseminate the cowpox vaccine. The team transported the vaccine on the arms of infected children and maintained the chain of infection from child to child.
How did epidemics spread among Native peoples? Extensive trade networks existed in the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans, and diseases may have been conducted along them. For example, archaeologists have encountered evidence of trade, including copper bells produced in central Mexico and bird plumes in sites in northern Mexico such as Casas Grandes in Chihuahua, and the native communities of New Mexico. Conversely, turquoise from New Mexico has been discovered in pre-Hispanic sites in central Mexico. When Europeans arrived in different parts of North America and came into contact with Native populations, disease spread to the Natives as a result of the contacts. Contagion spread from one Native community to another, carried in the bodies of merchants or other travelers. Early accounts of European exploration and colonization report the spread of epidemics in advance of Europeans.
It cannot be assumed that disease spread uniformly among Native populations or that rates of morbidity and mortality were uniform from population to population. A number of factors limited the rates of morbidity and mortality. Maladies such as smallpox and measles spread through contact between people sneezing or in other ways of exchanging body fluids. Contagion spreads in dense populations, but not as easily among dispersed populations, particularly among small bands of hunter-gatherers that migrated in search of food within a clearly defined but often extensive territory. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, for example, Spaniards explored and conquered the populations living in western Mexico in Sinaloa and Sonora, and up into what today is the southwestern United States, including Arizona and New Mexico. The first Spanish descriptions of the region described sophisticated tribal states based on compact nucleated communities. In some areas, such as northern Sonora and southern Arizona, this settlement pattern gave way to a more dispersed ranchería settlement pattern characterized by homesteads dispersed over a large area, usually in a river flood plain. Scholars speculate that the more dispersed settlement pattern was an adaptation resulting from the spread of lethal epidemics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Several other factors influenced the impact of epidemics on Native populations. The frequency of epidemics is important, and it is possible to construct tentative epidemic chronologies in some regions of European settlement. For an epidemic to spread among and between populations, there must be enough susceptible individuals not previously exposed to the contagion to maintain the chain of infection. Moreover, pathogens such as smallpox are inefficient in the sense that either they kill the host or the host survives. The pathogen then dies out and the epidemic ends until the next outbreak, which will occur when once again there are enough susceptible hosts to maintain the chain of infection. Generally, a given pathogen finds enough susceptible hosts about once a generation, after a population has recovered and grown following the previous epidemics. However, if a series of epidemics spread through a population with a greater frequency, the possibility of recovery following the outbreak is diminished.
Useful parallels can be drawn between demographic trends among the Native populations in the Americas and contemporary European populations. Two aspects of demographic patterns in Europe are relevant to a discussion of Native American population trends. The first is the culling of the population by lethal epidemics, such as the Black Death in the fourteenth century that killed perhaps a third of Europe's population and its subsequent outbreaks. The epidemics slowed or temporarily stopped population growth, but, following the epidemic episodes, the population recovered. Early modern Europe was a patriarchic society, and the father generally controlled the lives of his children until such time as he decided to let them marry. Moreover, in rural communities, a son generally could not start a family until he had his own land and could establish economic independence. Mortality crises (mortality at three times the normal rate) often caused a redistribution of wealth and enabled sons to marry at a younger age. European populations rebounded or recovered following epidemics as a result of increased birth rates. Discussions of epidemics in the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries focus on reports of horrific mortality, but rarely do they examine whether the Native populations rebounded or recovered following the epidemics.
The second consists of patterns of mortality in nonepidemic years in European populations when maladies such as smallpox and measles became established as endemic maladies that killed as many as 10 to 20 percent of the children every year. Contagion spread and reached epidemic proportions when a large pool of susceptible people had been born since the previous epidemic outbreak. To understand the recovery of larger Native populations, it is necessary to document the patterns of mortality among Native populations in nonepidemic years, when maladies such as smallpox became chronic childhood diseases. Furthermore, it is essential to examine birth rates and the age and gender structure of a population, to show whether sufficient numbers of women of childbearing age survived epidemics to reproduce.
At the same time, other factors also contributed to Native population losses, although all causes for depopulation were interrelated and should not be discussed in isolation. These include war; famine resulting from food shortages and crop losses due to drought, excessive rainfall, frost, locust infestation, and other causes; enslavement; and migration. People died in war, but in the early modern period more casualties resulted from the spread of disease and famine than from actual battlefield losses. Armies on campaign in contemporary Europe lived in filthy conditions and bred disease. The armies then spread disease when they moved from place to place. The same occurred in the Americas. Moreover, armies lived off the land and took food supplies that civilian populations needed to survive. Additionally, armies deliberately destroyed crops to weaken the enemy. This took place, for example, during the Sullivan-Clinton campaign against the Iroquois during the American Revolution. The army systematically destroyed growing crops, and many Iroquois died from starvation during the ensuing winter.
Famine also contributed to mortality, and epidemics frequently occurred in conjunction with it. Some scholars believe that food shortages led to the weakening of the immunological system that then resulted in epidemic outbreaks. However, recent studies have suggested that the relationship between famine and epidemics was the movement of large numbers of people in search of food, who spread disease as they moved from place to place. Studies of historical famines have identified one common phenomenon: the movement of people from the countryside into towns and cities and the discovery of abandoned bodies of famine and disease victims. Priests recorded in burial registers the discovery of the dead on the steps of churches or near cemeteries.
Migration, forced or voluntary, contributed to mortality and population losses as well. The Trail of Tears (the forced relocation of thousands of Cherokee in the late 1830s) is a good example of how mortality contributed to population losses. Causes for mortality during the forced relocation to Oklahoma included accidents, food shortages, and the less than ideal hygienic conditions on the trail. But again the movement of peoples also contributed to the spread of epidemics. The enslavement of Native peoples was common and also contributed to population losses. Slavery removed adults from the population, and the enslavement of women of childbearing age had the greatest consequence. Moreover, the forced movement of people also contributed to the spread of disease.
Did the native populations acquire immunities to smallpox and the other maladies brought to the Americas after 1492? No convincing evidence exists to support this assumption. New insights on this subject come from recent research on historic epidemics in Spanish America that are documented in detail in burial registers and censuses and that recorded the number of deaths or in some instances the actual numbers of victims of contagion during an outbreak. Burial registers exist for Spanish-Americans from the seventeenth century, but records are more complete for the eighteenth century, some two centuries after the Spanish arrived in the Americas. As suggested, the frequency of epidemic outbreaks and the initial size of a population are critical factors in determining epidemic mortality and the short- and long-term consequences of epidemics.
Consider two case studies of eighteenth-century epidemics: one from the Baja California missions established after 1697 in northwestern Mexico and the other from the Jesuit missions of Paraguay. The second example is a bit far afield, but information on patterns of mortality and epidemic mortality is rich and can be applied to understand demographic collapse of Native populations in North America.
Hernan Cortes attempted to colonize Baja California in the mid-1530s, and Spanish colonists and foreign pirates visited the peninsula sporadically over the next 160 years. In 1697, the Jesuits negotiated permission to establish missions at their own expense and in 1697 established the first mission, named Loreto. The Jesuits and later the Franciscans and Dominicans operated missions for about 140 years, and during this period most of the native peoples declined in numbers to virtual biological and cultural extinction. Burial registers and other contemporary sources identify twenty-five epidemics in the missions between 1697 and 1808, a span of 111 years. This works out to an average of an epidemic every 4.4 years. During nonepidemic years there was heavy infant and child mortality in the missions, and generally during epidemics both children and adults died. It was the combination of high infant and child mortality (some 90 percent of children died before reaching age ten) and the frequently recurring lethal epidemics that decimated the Native peoples of Baja California (Jackson, 1981, 347).
A discussion of two of the Baja California missions for which there are complete records from the date of foundation gives a sense of the rapid decline of the native population. For Santa Gertrudis, established in 1751, a 1755 census recorded the population of the mission as 1,586 and as 1,730 seven years later in 1762. This last figure was the highest recorded population for the mission. Over the next four decades the surviving population dropped rapidly. For example, smallpox killed 296 in 1781, and in the following year only 317 survived. In two decades the mission experienced a net decline of some 1,400 people. The numbers continued to drop, and only 137 remained in 1808. A second example is San Fernando, established in 1769 by Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra. In 1775, the population of the mission totaled 1,406, but only 19 remained in 1829 (Jackson, 1981, 370–372).
The Native peoples of Baja California were hunters and gatherers living in small bands. They were fragile populations that could not recover following epidemics because of the frequency and severity of the outbreaks and because of the high mortality among small children. The pool of potential mothers of childbearing age shrank, and each succeeding generation was much smaller than the previous. By the beginning of the twentieth century only two small populations survived in the mountainous north of the peninsula.
The Jesuits established missions among the Guarani in Paraguay and the surrounding areas of Argentina and Brazil after 1610. Unlike the Native peoples of Baja California, the Guarani were sedentary agriculturalists living in clan-based villages, and they moved to the Jesuit missions by the thousands. In 1732, some 141,000 lived on thirty missions, or an average of 4,700 per mission. This was a much larger number than in the Baja California missions. Lethal epidemics spread through the missions, but enough women of childbearing age survived to ensure the reproduction of the population. An analysis of the gender structure shows that the mission populations were generally balanced, with slightly more girls and women than boys and men.
In nonepidemic years the heaviest mortality was among young children, as was the case in contemporary Europe. In 1724, for example, a typical nonepidemic year, 173 young children and 63 adults died at San Lorenzo Martir mission. In 1739, smallpox broke out at the mission, killing 1,026 young children and 1,655 adults in a total population of 4,814. In other words, 55.7 percent of the population died in one year. In 1764, smallpox killed 1,596 Guarani living on the Santa Rosa mission out of a population of 3,292, and during the same epidemic in 1765 1,833 died at the Loreto mission, which had a population of 4,937 prior to the outbreak. These were extreme examples of mortality during the epidemics; smaller numbers of Guarani died at other missions in the region (Jackson, 2005, 350–359).
In some cases, epidemics continued to ravage Native communities for centuries after first contact with Europeans. The Spanish first colonized Paraguay in 1537, and the Guarani had been exposed to smallpox and other diseases for several hundred years. Yet lethal epidemics continued to kill as many as half of the population of a community. The contagion may have mutated, but the evidence strongly suggests a different pattern. Smallpox struck the missions about once a generation, or approximately every twenty years. Epidemics of smallpox have been documented in 1718, 1738–1740, and 1764–1765. In nonepidemic years, as already noted, more children than adults died, but still large numbers of children survived childhood between the major epidemics. The contagion proved to be lethal among the children born after the previous outbreak, who had not been previously exposed. There is one final point to be made regarding the smallpox epidemics of 1738–1740 and 1764–1765: The mobilization and movement of large numbers of soldiers contributed to the spread of smallpox in both instances (Jackson, 2003, 55–56).
Biological mixing and sociocultural passing, known as miscegenation, also contributed to demographic change following the arrival in the Americas of peoples from the Old World. Recent studies of mestizaje and the creation of race/caste categories in Spanish America provide insights that can also be applied to other parts of the Americas. One recent study (Jackson, 1999) compared the race and caste categories on the colonial north Mexican frontier with those in a rural zone in Bolivia dominated by haciendas and corporate indigenous communities. The Spanish caste system created categories that ostensibly delineated degrees of mixture based on the documentation of bloodlines and skin color, but also on the application of sociocultural and economic criteria that shifted over time. Under the caste system the Spanish collapsed all Native American ethnic groups into a single fiscal category of "Indian," based on an obligation to pay tribute and provide labor services. The stereotypical sociocultural and economic criteria used to define Indian status shifted over time and were idiosyncratic. In the Cochabamba region of Bolivia, for example, the Spanish and later the Bolivian government categorized Indians as residents of corporate native communities legally recognized by the Crown. At the same time, residents of those communities could move to the Spanish towns, adopt a European style of dress, learn a little Spanish, and pass as people categorized as being of mixed European and Native ancestry. They also passed from the ranks of tribute payers.
During the nineteenth century, following Bolivian independence, the economy of the Cochabamba region shifted, and in the 1870s the government passed legislation that abolished the corporate Native communities and attempted to force the community residents to take private title to their lands. There was also a growth in the number of smallholders identified by government officials as not being Natives, since the definition of Indian status was linked to residence on corporate Native communities with communal land tenure. As this sociocultural and economic shift occurred, the population defined as being Indian came to be people of mixed ancestry. This change did not include a distinction based on language, since even today Quechua is still the dominant language spoken in the countryside (Jackson, 1999).
A similar creation of a caste system did not occur on the north Mexican frontier, primarily because rigid distinctions between Native and non-Native were not as important. Sacramental registers and censuses did not record or did not consistently record race/caste terms. At the same time the Spanish engaged in the practice of creating new "ethnicities" in an attempt to make order out of the many Native polities and communities that existed in northern Mexico and in what today is the American Southwest. One example is the creation of Apache to identify different bands of Native peoples spread across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and neighboring regions. A second example is the creation of an ethnic group called the Nijoras, Natives who in reality were slaves brought into Sonora by the Spaniards from the Colorado River area, ostensibly as war captives who had been ransomed.
Many Native communities, bands, and polities disappeared in the centuries following the arrival of the Europeans, whereas other groups survived, recovered, and experienced population growth after about 1900. A variety of factors help explain survival and later population growth. A key one was improvement in health care and in the development of medicines to combat disease in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as the mass inoculation of the non-Native populations in the Americas that brought pathogens such as smallpox under control. The control of smallpox in the cities in the Americas meant that there were fewer epidemic outbreaks that could spread to the Native populations. Moreover, in the United States and Canada the creation of reservations managed, and mismanaged, by bureaucracies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs led to public health measures for Native populations. At the same time, the relocation of Native groups to reservations with the sociocultural changes that the bureaucrats attempted to impose created new problems, such as sociocultural disintegration, poverty and marginalization, alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome, and high rates of suicide.
Some Native groups survived by incorporating new members to replace those killed in recurring epidemics. This was the practice among the Iroquois, for example. The Iroquois engaged in wars with neighboring groups and incorporated captives into their communities. The introduction of the horse revolutionized the society and culture of Native peoples who previously had lived on the fringes of the Great Plains. The horse made it possible to live full-time on the Great Plains, following the huge buffalo herds; living in a more dispersed and shifting settlement pattern buffered somewhat the spread of epidemics. Larger Native populations suffered declines resulting from disease and the other factors already discussed, but the degree of decline did not reach a threshold at which the drop in the number of women of childbearing age precluded recovery.
In the twentieth century, Native populations grew in the Americas, as did the number of wannabes. As occurred in the United States in 1970 and 1980, changes in the definitions of census categories could greatly expand the number of people categorized as Indian. The 1990 Census reported that 1.8 million people classified themselves as Native American, more than three times as many as the 523,600 reported thirty years earlier. The 1890 U.S. Census reported 228,000 American Indians. The trend continued in the 2000 Census, in which more than 4.1 million people said they were at least partially Native American, an increase of more than 100 percent in ten years, and thirteen times the official figure of about 300,000 a century earlier. Part of the increase was due to an excess of births over deaths among Native Americans. The census figures must be qualified because they rely on self-identification.
Robert H. Jackson
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