Evidence suggests that the early economic and political success of the English in Plimoth Colony is due to the introduction of European diseases into coastal Massachusetts during the late sixteenth century. Building upon Alfred Crosby’s 1972 publication The Columbian Exchange, modern environmental historians and cultural historians recognize the important interconnection between parasitism, disease, and historic trends. It is now fairly well recognized in both the science and humanities disciplines that any study of the political and economic development of European settlements and colonization of the Americas correlates with studies and research about the introduction of foreign diseases, as well as the introduction of new plant and animal species. The successful political and economic English history of Plimoth Colony is directly related to the decline of the Wampanoag population as a result of plagues and epidemics brought to the New World by European explorers and settlers during early years of exploration of New England. Although the diseases that existed in North, South, and Central America before 1492 were epidemiologically insignificant to the indigenous populations living in the New World, those diseases brought into the Americas by early European explorers spread rapidly throughout the continent. Most diseases in pre-contact North America were endemic, not epidemic. When a disease has been prevalent in an area for an extended period of time and the inhabitants are regularly in contact with the pathogen(s), a disease is considered endemic in that area. If foreign diseases were introduced to an area it would act in an epidemic nature for mortality and sickness during times of high prevalence in a targeted location. Put simply, European diseases reached the Wampanoag living in the region now recognized as Plymouth Massachusetts long before English colonization in Massachusetts during the seventeenth century. Yet, the idea that the Natives of New England were somehow destined to be destroyed by diseases that pre-date English settlers is often misinterpreted and relieves the English themselves of responsibility for the mass death of Native peoples in New England. This thesis argues that the key to the successful English colonization of coastal Massachusetts was not just the onslaught of plagues and epidemics that affected the Wampanoag in coastal Massachusetts from 1616 to the mid-seventeenth century, rather, the success is due to how English explorers and colonists crafted racial and religious perceptions about these disease ridden Wampanoag populations, and how these perceptions empowered the English to perceive themselves as a culturally superior power further enabling them to become the colonizer and the Wampanoag the colonized.
Brian Payne (Thesis Director)
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Original document was submitted as an Honors Program requirement. Copyright is held by the author.
Peck, Sarah. (2015). Plague and Perception: The English Interpretation of Plague in Massachusetts. In BSU Honors Program Theses and Projects. Item 124. Available at: https://vc.bridgew.edu/honors_proj/124
Copyright © 2015 Sarah Peck