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The Great Dying

Abbe : Research: Wabanaki: Timeline: The Great Dying


The introduction of European diseases to the Wabanaki was devastating. The years from 1616 to 1619 are known as the "Great Dying." During this time, a deadly disease swept coastal New England from Cape Cod through Maine. In Massachusetts, the death rate among Native people was as high as 90-95%. Among the Wabanaki, even with a more spread out population, the death rate was more than 75%. The specific agent responsible for this epidemic has not been specifically identified, but it may have been plague, small pox or viral hepatitis. At the end of the Great Dying, many coastal villages were entirely abandoned, and the land was left virtually empty of its original inhabitants.


In 1634, Maine Native people were hit by another epidemic, this time of small pox, which began at Plymouth Colony the preceding year. Small pox struck again in 1639, and in 1646 the Wabanaki were overtaken by an epidemic disease which has not been identified but which caused its victims to vomit blood. Smaller epidemics and outbreaks of infections and often fatal diseases continued throughout the rest of the 1600s, and small pox epidemics reoccurred in the 1730s and 1750s.


There is also evidence of deliberate distribution of blankets infected with smallpox to Native communities. For instance in a series of letters to Colonel Henry Bouquet, Commanding British General Jeffrey Amherst, for whom the town of Amherst, Massachusetts is named, talked about infecting Native people with smallpox through gifts of blankets exposed to the disease, as a way to end the 1763 Native revolt known as Pontiac's Rebellion.


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