After 1492 the spread of European and African killing diseases spread quickly across North America. Multiple inter-connecting trade routes brought European traders into contact with numerous tribes directly, and then tribes spread it among themselves through their trade connections.

The main illnesses were:

In 1633 measles and possibly smallpox hit the Great Lakes. In 1637 the same area was ravaged by scarlet fever. Smallpox returned in 1639. Altogether thirteen known disease epidemics occurred in the seventeenth century. Smallpox travelled from Texas to New England to Hudson Bay (1738-39), to New England in 1746. Other waves of smallpox spread to the Great Lakes in 1750-52, 1755-60, 1762-66, 1779-83 and 1785-87.

Not only did these imported (largely unintentionally) diseases cause huge loss of life, they had great consequences for the native tribal affairs:

  • populations in some areas collapsed > non-existent,
  • some tribes were forced to consolidate into federations for physical survival,
  • Native military power was decimated and tribes could not resist the westward advance of European colonists,
  • adults were wiped out and surviving children were left with no one to hunt or prepare food, elders, teachers and medicine men died > social bonds were broken and societies were ripped apart. “A long time ago they had wise men who taught the people knowledge, but they are dead and their wisdom is buried with them.”

It should be noted that these diseases were not restricted to native populations. In the earliest eras of European arrivals in North America, these diseases were imported by Europeans and passed to the native populations. As settlement into North America advanced westward, these diseases impacted all populations, native and European alike. The arrival of vaccines, preventative drugs and treatments are a result of “modern medicine”. Living conditions up to the mid 20th century were problematic for everyone, everywhere.