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The "Viral Fury" of the 1620s & 1630s

[Ed Note: The following was mostly excerpted from Changes In The Land: an ecological history of New England, by Yale and University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon pubished in 1983. Groton references added.]
     During the 1620s and 1630s all the southern New England Indian villages, including the region we now call Groton, experienced serious outbreaks of disease. In 1633 these areas were visited by smallpox, the most lethal of European killers. The 1633 epidemic saw mortalities in many villages reach 95 percent.
     Earlier, the epidemics had been mostly confined to coastal regions. Later villages in the interior had fallen victim to the viral fury as much as those closer to the coast, perhaps being an indication of how much trade connections had expanded since 1616. John Tinker’s trading post on the Nashua River in Groton might have spread disease to Indian populations.
     There was little Indians could do to protect themselves from the epidemics. Measles, typhus, dysentery, and syphilis all became endemic and contributed to the general decline in Indian populations.
     As a result, in the first seventy- five years of the seventeenth century, the total number of Indians in New England fell precipitously from well over 70,000 to fewer than 12,000. In some areas, the decline was even more dramatic. New Hampshire and Vermont were virtually depopulated as the western Abenaki declined from perhaps 10,000 to fewer than 500.
For hundreds of generations, Indian babies grew to adulthood with no experience of European illnesses, so that Indian mothers transferred none of the antibodies to their infants, which might have provided some measure of immunity.
     As a result, European diseases struck Indian villages with horrible ferocity. Mortality rates in initial onslaughts were rarely less than 80 or 90 percent, and it was not unheard of for an entire village to be wiped out.
     From the moment of their first contact with an Old World pathogen, Indian populations experienced wave upon wave of epidemics as new diseases made their appearance or as new non- immune generations came of age. A long process of depopulation set in, accompanied by massive social and economic disorganization.
     Indian depopulation as a result of European diseases made it easier for Europeans to justify taking Indian lands. If the English believed that cornfields were the only property Indians had improved sufficiently to own, the wiping out of a village and the subsequent abandonment of its planting fields-eliminated even this modest right.
     Over and over again, New England towns made their first settlements on the sites of destroyed Indian villages. Plymouth, for instance, was located "where there is a great deale of Land cleared, and hath beene planted with Corne three or foure yeares agoe"planted, in fact, just before the 1616 epidemic broke out.
      More than fifty of the earliest settlements had similar locations, thus saving their inhabitants much initial work in clearing trees. To Puritans, the epidemics were manifestly a sign of God's providence, "in sweeping away
great multitudes of the natives ... that he might make room for us there." John Winthrop saw this "making room" as a direct conveyance of property right: "God," he said, "hath hereby cleared our title to this place."
     Groton, being one of the first 50 towns incorporated in Masachusetts, a similar fate must have befallen Indians living in this area. There are hints of this in early town records.
     A pettion dated May 14, 1656 from the proprietors of Groton addressed to the General Court sought tax relief for three years, saying the land ‘continueth unpeopled.’ Records of the early division of land in Groton implys that large swaths of so- called ‘intervale’ were prevelant in the area. ‘Intervale’ was a word for open meadows that could only have been created and maintainted by Indian villagers using traditional controlled burning practices.
     It therefore, seems likely that Groton was attractive to early English settlers, in part, because Indian management of the natural enviorment had made it both beautiful and productive for agriculture and hunting.
     Epidemics disrupted most of the Indian networks of kinship and authority that had previously organized their lives. When Bradford described a village in which "the chief sachem himself now died and almost all his friends and kindred," he was depicting a phenomenon that took place in many Indian communities.
     Squanto, for instance, later to become the Pilgrims' interpreter, was the only survivor from his village at the end of the 1616-19 epidemic. A man without a community, "whose ends," as Edward Winslow wrote, "were only to make himself great in the eyes of his countrymen, by means of his nearness and favor with us," he consciously sought to undermine the authority of the neighboring sachem Massasoit.
     One of his devices for doing this was to convince other Indians that the colonists "had the plague buried in our storehouse; which, at our pleasure, we could send forth to what place or people we would, and destroy them therewith, though we stirred not from home." But the mere fact of depopulation promoted conditions of turmoil which enabled new leaders to emerge in the ensuing political vacuum.
     This depopulation and disruption of authority may also explain why it was easy for Groton residents to convince the few remining local Indians into selling rights to their tribal lands.
     As Indian villages vanished, the land on which they had lived began to change. Freed from the annual burnings and soon to be subject to an entirely different agricultural regime, the land's transformations were often so gradual as to be imperceptible. But a few changes were directly attributable to the depopulation caused by the epidemics.
     Fields which had still stood in grass when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 were rapidly reclaimed by forest by the time of the 1630 Puritan migrations to Massachusetts. William Wood spoke of places "where the Indians died of the plague some fourteen years ago" that were covered with "much underwood ... because it hath not been burned."
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