A Lesson for Today

By Dr Noeleen McIlvenna

As we all learn more than we ever wanted to about pandemics, historians of America and especially of the colonial era can help set COVID-19 in context. Stories from the tragedy of the Native holocaust upon the arrival of new viruses in the sixteenth century remind us of the terror and devastation that might befall us. But they also teach us that the end result need not be Mad Max or The Walking Dead scenarios. In fact, the past shows more signs of cooperation than conflict.

We learn that social isolation is really important. The rate of infection and death was much worse among the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan and Incas of Cusco, where people gathered closely in large cities, than among groups further to the north, where smaller communities with annual nomadic patterns suffered much less. Yes, some groups raided others; we have come to understand that a quest for beaver furs did not provoke the Iroquois to war on Algonquin peoples in the 1630s and 1640s. These were instead Mourning Wars. The Iroquois focused on stealing people, not killing them, to replace those they had loved and lost to disease. They took women and children, mostly, but not to enslave them as the British stole people in Africa. The Iroquois adopted their captives, to love them and thus to make more Iroquois. Resiliency was key. The most common consequence of all was the creation of coalescent communities. Small groups bonded together for survival, fusing cultures and languages into something new. Anthropologists have paid more attention to this than historians, and it is imperative that we examine in detail how peoples managed to overcome differences and realize they needed one another for the long haul, not just in the midst of an epidemic. For one epidemic would be followed by another, perhaps twenty years later.

We must also counter the prevailing idea, however, that as soon as Europeans arrived, the Indigenous people died and an empty continent gradually became a melting pot for immigrants, voluntary and involuntary, from around the globe. Indians did not evaporate. They were weakened by disease, but not extinguished. They fought for their territory, from Metacomet to the Pueblos in the seventeenth century, from Pontiac to Blue Jacket in the eighteenth, from Tecumseh to Crazy Horse in the nineteenth. All these warriors built pan-Indian alliances and all had initial success against Europeans. In other places, Indians developed cooperative business relationships with newcomers. From a European capitalist perspective, the Choctaw in Mississippi seemed wealthy compared to settlers, due to their lucrative trade in deerskins with the French. In the Great Plains the horse culture developed after Spanish contact and flourished for three hundred years. Despite high rates of fatality, Native Americans preserved their cultures and languages. American government warfare and policies, not viruses, led to horrific conditions at reservations like Pine Ridge.

If anything positive comes out of this 2020 pandemic, it should include a closer study of American Indian history. More historians and scientists can scour what records exist, documentary and material, to teach us of the many potential solutions American Indians tried – those strategies that served best and those that failed. (Conversion and prayer to a Christian God did nothing to protect anyone from viral infection.) And in doing so, modern American society, indeed the whole world, might finally learn to appreciate, respect and mourn what we lost.


Dr Noeleen McIlvenna is Associate Professor of History at Wright State University and is the author of Early American Rebels: Pursuing Democracy from Maryland to Carolina, 1640-1700 which will be released by UNC Press in May 2020.