Ironically, the most destructive pandemic in human history occurred in a region being hard hit by the coronavirus today.
The region is the Sunbelt States of the Southeastern United States. Roughly, the states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.
Coronavirus is running wild in those states now. For example, the Florida Department of Health reported 15,299 fresh coronavirus cases on 12 July 2020. Consequently, Clickorlando estimates 11.25% of Floridians tested positive for COVID-19 on 12 July 2020.
In addition, there were 321,242 coronavirus cases and 3,889 COVID-19 deaths in Texas as of 18 July 2020, The New York Times estimates. Frighteningly, The Times estimates Texas authorities detected 71,284 fresh coronavirus cases in the seven days ending on 18 July 2020.
Thus, America’s Sunbelt has become the epicenter of a pandemic that could destroy the region’s economy and political order. Frighteningly, a similar but far worse catastrophe struck the Sunbelt States almost 500 years ago.
A Lost Civilization
Half a millennium ago, a far greater pandemic wiped out an entire civilization in the Sunbelt States.
Incredibly, few people today realize that civilization was there. Until recent decades, even most historians and archaeologists failed to grasp the extent of the catastrophe.
The historical record, however, is clear; tens of thousands of people, and hundreds of communities; including many sizable towns vanished in just over a century.
In 1539, the conquistador Hernando De Soto made one of the first explorations; or invasions, of what is now the United States. De Soto landed a small army at Tampa Bay and began exploring the region.
In its wanderings through nine states, De Soto’s army found many sizable towns or compact cities with public plazas, large temples, and monuments. In Texas and Arkansas, De Soto met the Caddo, a civilization that constructed elaborate temples and towns.
Archeologist Timothy K. Perttula estimates the Caddo population at the time of De Soto’s visit at around 200,000.* De Soto’s expedition left the area after finding no gold there. The record, however, is clear De Soto and his men founding a thriving civilization and many sizeable towns in today’s Mississippi Valley.
The Empty Land
There were no recorded European visits to the region for almost 150 years.
Then in 1682, a French nobleman named Rene Robert Cavieler, Siuer De La Salle took a boat trip down the Mississippi. In contrast to De Soto, La Salle found an empty land.
La Salle did not see a human settlement for 200 miles when he sailed through Caddo country. Some of the richest farmland in America, which had formerly supported a thriving civilization, was empty.
Between La Salle and De Soto’s visits, an entire civilization had vanished. People, communities, and buildings disappeared.
The Spanish were not responsible because they had not returned since De Soto’s expedition. Instead, the cause of the Caddo’s disappearance is obvious.
The Pandemic that Depopulated America
The probable suspect in the Caddo’s disappearance; and the collapse another indigenous civilization, the Coos in Georgia, was history’s most destructive disease: smallpox.
Smallpox was endemic in 16th Europe and 16th Century America. Historians think smallpox devastated the Roman Empire in the Antonine Plague and the Plague of Cyprian in the Fourth and Fifth centuries AD.
Smallpox reached America with the conquistadors. In fact, De Soto was part of Francisco Pizarro’s army in Peru, when a great smallpox epidemic devastated the Inca Empire. Thus, De Soto himself could have brought the smallpox to the Southeastern US.
Moreover, De Soto’s expedition brought hundreds of animals that could spread smallpox along. Writer Charles C. Mann reports that De Soto had 200 horses and 300 pigs when he landed at Tampa Bay.*
How DeSoto’s Pigs Devastated America
The Spanish relied on the horses for transpiration and the pigs for food. Remember, there was no refrigeration or canned military rations in the 16th Century. Hence, the Spanish had to bring livestock, usually hogs, if they wanted meat.
In addition, 16th Spanish soldiers brought many dogs with them as pets, attack dogs, and guard animals. In fact, conquistadors deployed huge mastiffs as living weapons on the battlefield. Some Spanish war dogs even had their own armor.
One obvious way, natives caught the Spanish diseases was from the European animals. When the Indians saw how useful horses, pigs, and dogs were, they adopted them. Unfortunately, the handy Spanish animals were walking disease factories.
Hence, there were dozens of ways for De Soto’s army to spread smallpox and other European diseases to which Native Americans had no immunity. In the final analysis, De Soto’s army was a walking biological weapon.
How Smallpox Made America
Nor was De Soto the only source of diseases. The Spanish had been in Mexico for 30 years by 1539. In fact, a smallpox epidemic decimated the Triple Alliance (Aztec) Empire at the time of Hermando Cortez’s conquest in 1519.
Thus smallpox would have eventually spread north to the Coos and Caddo over trade routes, without De Soto’s expedition. Moreover, there were short-lived Spanish, French, and English settlements on the East Coast before 1600. Plus, European sailors, fishermen, and pirates were visiting American shores all the time in the 16th Century.
For example, the British privateer Sir Francis Drake visited California on 17 June 1579. In fact, Drake claimed Marin County for Queen Elizabeth I. Hence there were many contacts between disease bearing Europeans and Native Americans in the 16th Century.
Disease could spread because an extensive network of trade routes connected North America’s peoples. For instance, a smallpox pandemic that began in Mexico City in 1779 spread throughout the Western United States over the next year, historian Elizabeth A. Fenn discovered.+
Smallpox or variola, was the most destructive disease in human history because it kept coming back. To elaborate, small pox kept returning every few decades, or generations, and devastating Native American societies just as they recovered from earlier pandemics.
How Smallpox Kills Societies
Smallpox pandemics are vicious and destructive, because the variola virus leaves survivors weak and injured. Hence, smallpox victims are susceptible to other diseases.
In addition, smallpox destroys societies and economies by killing a large percentage of the population. Consequently, people starve because farmers and hunters die, so there is no food. Moreover, children die because small pox kills their parents.
Plus, small pox kills soldiers and leaders, leaving societies vulnerable to enemy attack. For instance, barbarians overran the Western Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries AD because smallpox killed most of the empire’s soldiers.
Likewise, Native American peoples were defenseless against European invaders because smallpox killed their soldiers and generals. For instance, smallpox made Cortez’s conquest of Mexico easy by killing the Triple Alliance’s emperor and many of its soldiers.
European Disease Conquers America
Smallpox was not the only European disease the natives had to fear. Native Americans lacked immunity to measles, chicken pox, plague, pneumonia, and many other European diseases.
A related problem is that viruses can mutate fast. A recent scientific study found that the coronavirus or COVID-19 is already mutating, though it has been widespread for under a year. Thus newer and nastier versions of old diseases can suddenly appear and spread.
A greater problem was the lack of science. Since there was no germ theory in the 16th Century neither side understood what was happening. The Spanish blamed the native deaths on God, while the natives blamed magic, the Spanish God, or their gods. A common belief was that God was punishing the Native Americans for rejecting Christianity.
Without modern science and technology, the only means of controlling pandemics were quarantine and social distancing. Unfortunately, the natives were unaware of the notion of quarantine, which Europeans had been practicing since the Black Death three centuries earlier.
There is one certainty about the Great American Pandemic of the 16th Century. The death toll was frightening, Perttula estimates the Caddo population fell from 200,000 to 8,500 in around a century.*
The Post Apocalyptic Wasteland
Hence a pandemic; or series of pandemics, depopulated North America in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Thus, the virgin wilderness the French fur traders, British colonists, and American settlers found in the 17th and 18th Century was actually a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The people were all dead, and only tiny bands of survivors remained in some areas. For instance, the Pilgrims found empty villages and cleared fields ready for the plow when they arrived in Massachusetts in 1620.
The depopulation enabled the Puritans to build a thriving colony with cities and growing population in New England. By the time indigenous peoples recovered from the plagues, the Puritans were too numerous and too strong to drive out.
The first serious native attempt to drive the Puritans out; King Phillip’s War (1675-1676), failed because the colonists fielded an army large enough to crush the indigenous forces. The natives did not attack the Puritans earlier because pandemics weakened them.
Similarly, native weakness enabled the Dutch to settle what is now New York State and found a settlement that became New York City. The Dutch could settle in New York because pandemics had emptied that region.
Hence, pandemics made two large Northern European settlements in the Northeastern United States possible. Those settlements became the most important region of the United States and the base from which Europeans conquered North America.
How Ignorance could Destroy America
Pandemics have devastated and depopulated America before. Moreover, ignorance of disease and lack of medical science made an earlier American civilization vulnerable to pandemics.
Hence, the fate of Native Americans makes today’s anti-science zealots more frightening. Native Americans died because they had no medical science. Modern Americans could die because fools reject medical science.
Americans need to learn those lessons and take coronavirus seriously if the United States is to survive and become great again.