The Europeans who began to colonize North America in the early 17th century firmly believed that God transmitted his wrath through the plague. They brought this belief with them – as well as the deadly disease itself.
Plague caused by early European settlers decimated the native population in an epidemic in 1616-1619 in what is now southern New England. Over 90% of the native population died in the years leading up to the arrival of the Mayflower in November 1620.
It is still unclear what the disease behind the epidemic actually was. But this was the first of many plagues to sweep across Algonquian territory – Algonquian is the linguistic term used to describe a range of indigenous peoples who, among other places, stretch along the northeastern coast of what is now the US.
The New England Charter of 1620, drafted by King James I, listed this epidemic as a reason why God “in his great goodness and bounty to us and our people, gave the land to Englishmen.” Plague supported property rights – it informed the backstory of Plymouth Colony which was founded after the arrival of the Mayflower.
The English believed that God communicated through the plague. But my research argues that the statement “God wanted the plague” only opened rather than closed the debate. Rulers, explorers and settlers in the 17th century had an interest in finding the cause of disease. This was partly because the plague was used to purchase land that was considered empty, and even to rid it of inhabitants.
Many settlers described New England as an “Eden”. But in 1632, early settler Thomas Morton said the epidemic of 1616-1919 had made it “a newfound Calvary”—the skull-shaped hill in Jerusalem described in the Bible as the site of Christ’s death. Most Pilgrims and Puritans viewed the plague as an affirmation of divine favor to the English, in part because few settlers died compared to the Algonquians of New England. Settlers often referred to the bodies of Indigenous peoples as healthier and fitter than European ones, and this sense of physical disparity made the subsequent decline of Algonquians all the more striking.
John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, argued in 1629 that God had providentially removed most of the original inhabitants before planting the colony. A few years later, in 1634, he wrote that God continued to “drive out the natives” and that God was “reducing them as we increase.” The right to own a previously occupied land rested in part on the belief that God had personally removed the original inhabitants. Arguments similar to those of Winthrop sprinkle the landscape of early colonial reflections.
Yet the responses to the epidemic are much more complex than a simple land acquisition story. Some thought that God was afflicting the Algonquians and that it was their duty to try and save their lives and souls. In a 1633 account, acts of compassion for those affected coexisted with gratitude that God was clearing the land—however mutually exclusive those two emotions may seem.
Some Algonquians associated the plague with the English and their God. According to Edward Winslow’s Good Newes of New-England in 1624, some believed that the English had buried the plague in their storehouses and could use it against them at will. The English tried to dispel the idea that the plague was a weapon they wielded.
Additional plagues swept through different Algonquian regions at different times throughout the 17th century. These waves of disease disrupted the native balance of power and contributed to the Pequot War of 1636-1638 – a conflict between the English and their Mohegan allies and the Pequot that resulted in the massacre and enslavement of the Pequot.
After the war, the English took a more active role in “civilizing” and evangelizing Algonquians, for example establishing an Indian College at Harvard in the mid-1650s. The incorporation of Algonquians into Christianity seemed to contradict the settlers’ earlier view that God had driven them from the land by an epidemic. Some now argued that American Indians are descended from Israel and that their conversion would usher in God’s kingdom on earth.
Decades of illness also affected Native American spirituality. The trauma of recent decades – the plague was only one factor – made some Algonquians receptive to evangelistic efforts. Some shifted their loyalty (at least in part) to the English and their God, and their shared loyalties undermined traditional authority structures and exacerbated tensions with the English.
English attitudes to land acquisition varied from contract to conquest. Most English thought it was wrong to take land from Algonquians, but over time land transactions gave way to conquest.
It was the emptiness of the land due to the plague that justified the first settlements – and over the decades the English bought additional land that was occupied. But over the decades this arrangement proved insufficient and tens of thousands of immigrants from Europe wanted more and more land. Roger Williams—a native defender and founder of Rhode Island—criticized what he called the growing worship of “God Land.”
The early settlers saw themselves mainly as passively drawn by God into a void left by the plague. Over time, they began to see themselves as more actively involved in fighting off Algonquians, clearing the land of inhabitants with God’s help.
King Philip’s War in 1675-78, a conflict involving nearly all European and native New Englanders, was disastrous for the English victors and far worse for the defeated Algonquians. After the earlier Pequot War, many settlers had come to believe that their fate was tied to the well-being of Native Americans. But after King Philip’s War, fate seemed to pull them apart.
The growth of racial theories coupled with the recent conflict fueled the belief that the English and Algonquian could not coexist. This belief in turn gave rise to the myth of the “disappearing Indian” – the native population declined through plague and war as God strengthened the English. Evangelism declined. Slavery increased.
The expulsion of Native Americans from their lands became widely accepted after the mid-1670s. The English increasingly saw themselves as expelling American Indians, with divine approval. This shift would have profound implications for the long and deadly history of white expansion in North America.
Throughout the 17th century, the plague invisibly altered the relationship between colonization, “civilization,” evangelism, and racism behind the scenes. In doing so, it played an important role in changing America’s political and religious landscape.
By Matthew Patrick Rowley, Honorary Visiting Fellow, University of Leicester
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.