Genocide: American Indians vs. Jews

The only public figure I’ve heard making a serious attempt to assert that there are more original natives now in America than before European settlers arrived is that bastion of archaeological knowledge and general factual reliability Rush Limbaugh. (Snerk.)

From Asteroide:

It did. With a vengeance, starting with Columbus’s original contacts in the Caribbean. Without the help of disease, especially smallpox, the Spanish conquests would not have been possible.


Well, it did.

For example, Cortes’ initial assault on Tenochtitlan was done while smallpox was still on the fringes of the Aztec empire. When he made his second assault on the capital, smallpox had wiped out so many of the Aztecs (including the emperor) in the city that he had to postpone things for a few months for the bodies to naturally decompose enough to make the city habitable.

Huge numbers of Incas were slaughtered by the disease, as well. Even sparking the civil war that happened to be occurring when the Spanish conquered the empire - making things that much easier for them. Entire cities were completely annihilated by the disease.

Your cite makes a somewhat different point : “Therefore, one direct consequence of mass smallpox infection was the subjugation and subsequent exploitation of native Americans and Mexicans by the Spaniards.”

This is very different from saying that the population was exterminated by disease.

Even if we accept the unsourced statement that “During the time of the Spanish conquest in the New World it is estimated that more than one-third of the total native population had been killed by smallpox viruses.” we’re still not close to the 95% death rate proposed for the native populations of North America.

Comparing the ethnic mix in the population of present day Latin America to the mix in North America, it’s apparent that something quite different took place. I think some skepticism is warranted with regard to the theory that disease was the main factor in the genocide of the North American natives.

I’d be interested to see any data which supports this hypothesis.

Primary sources can be hard to come by on the web, but a couple of books that support the high disease mortality throughout the New World:
[ul][li]Born to Die : Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650[/li][li]Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies [/li][li]Plagues and Peoples [/li][/ul]I believe that you’ll find that the mass die-off in the New World is the standard historical view now, and to the best of my knowledge is not seriously questioned by any meaningful number of scholars.

This is the statement I’m contesting.

While I appreciate that there were massive epidemics brought about by the arrival of colonists in the new world, I 'm less convinced that this was the primary cause of the quasi-disappearance of the native population from the area which now comprises the US.

It seems to me that this hypothesis is a convenient piece of historical revisionism, on a par with holocaust (shoah) denial.

I think we’re failing to differentiate between the collapse of native cultures throughout the Americas, which was largely driven by disease, and the quasi-extermination of the native population in the area which now comprises the US.

The answer is easy : it happenned too in Mexico and south-america.

I wouldn’t know if the death rate was 95%, though. Seems a very high estimate to me. But I wouldn’t know for sure.

Any particular reason? Or just a desire to paint the European colonists in the worst possible light (not that even their best possible light is anything to be proud of, mind you.)

Except it’s not a revision. It’s pretty much the standard hypothesis.

Except the only ones who have provided any cites to back up their positions are the people agreeing with me. Some more:

From Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel:

“What gave the Spaniards a decisive advantage was smallpox, which reached Mexico in 1520 with one infected slave arriving from Spanish Cuba. The resulting epidemic proceeded to kill nearly half of the Aztecs, including Emperor Cuitlahuac. Aztec survivors were demoralized by the mysterious illness that killed Indians and spared Spaniards.”

“When Hernando de Soto became the first European conquistador to march through the southeastern United States, in 1540, he came across Indian town sites abandoned two years earlier because the inhabitants had died in epidemics. These epidemics had been transmitted from coastal Indians infected by Spaniards visiting the coast.”

“De Soto was still able to see some of the densely populated Indian towns lining the lower Mississippi. After the end of his expedition, it was a long time before Europeans again reached the Mississippi Valley, but Eurasian microbes were now established in North America and kept spreading. By the time of the next appearance of Europeans on the lower Mississippi, that of French settlers in the late 1600s, almost all of those big Indian towns had vanished.”

“In countless cases, whites were actually there to witness the destruction occurring when the germs arrived. For example, in 1837 the Mandan Indian tribe, with one of the most elaborate cultures in our Great Plains, contracted smallpox from a steamboat traveling up the Missouri River from St. Louis. The population of on Mandan village plummeted from 2,000 to fewer than 40 within a few weeks.”

From this site:

"Visitations of the disease in North America were no less devastating. In 1617-1619 smallpox wiped out nine-tenths of the Indian population along the Massachusetts coast. The epidemic fortuitously cleared a place for the first Pilgrims. Seven years earlier, the Narragansetts alone were said to be able to muster 3000 warriors, whereas Miles Standish and his companions found only a few straggling inhabitants, innumerable burial places, empty wigwams and some skeletons when they arrived at Plymouth in 1620. Surveying the aftermath Standish was frank in his appraisal “Smallpox was the blessing in disguise that gave (us) an opportunity to found the State.”

From this site:

"Lewis and Clark learned, for example, that smallpox had almost wiped out the Arikara Indians. They heard from the Mandans that smallpox and Sioux attacks had left them with two villages. The Clatsop Indians told Clark that smallpox had destroyed their nation.

The smallpox epidemic of 1775 to 1782 was an “absolutely enormous episode of pestilence,” Fenn commented.

“It was the first continent-wide epidemic that we can document in historical records,” she continued. “By examining the 18th century West through the lens of this horrific episode, we can see how vastly things changed in the century before Lewis and Clark.”

By the time Lewis and Clark showed up, the West was already transformed, she added. The explorers encountered the silence of abandoned villages and the stillness of forsaken encampments."

The archaelogical evidence of extreme population crashes in places where there wasn’t a significant European presence in North America in so many different places is pretty much overwhelming. It’s not even seriously debated in any academic literature I’ve seen that by far the largest cause of Native American death was unintentional disease epidemics.

Ah, well in the U.S. the numbers are even more uncertain.

The greatest death tolls appear to have been in Mesoamerica, where if we take a mid-range population estimate of say 25 million in 1519 ( which may be conservative ), we see a decline of ~90% in the first 40 years to 2.65 million in 1568 and then a further drop of ~60% to 1.1 million in 1605 ( going by rather rough Spanish census figures ). By contrast in Peru we see a ~70% drop in the first 35 years from perhaps 9 million in 1532 ( again a conservative, mid-range estimate ), to about 2.5 million in 1560, then another drop of ~40% to 1.4 million in 1590 ( and just as smallpox made possible the capture of Tenochitlan earlier in the century, it was smallpox that greatly facilitated the conquest of the neo-Inca state at Vilcabamba in 1571 ). Or in otherwords Peru in 1600 probably had roughly the same population as Mesoamerica, despite starting out from what was almost certainly a much smaller base in 1500. My initial explanation for this was that perhaps it had to do with the nature of the diseases penetrating the Americas - the big killers like measles, cholera, and especially smallpox were transmitted primarily through a human-to-human communicability chain that functioned much more efficiently in densely populated Mesoamerica with its widespread independent trade network, than in the Inca empire where communities tended to be more self-sufficient and geographically spaced ( the ayllus of the mid-elevation Andes and the riverine communities of the coast that together formed the bulk of the Inca state ). Not only would the diseases spread more slowly in the Andes to begin with, but as populations died off and gaps opened up, this spread would slow even further, perhaps even impacting ultimate mortality as quarantining and the like became more effective. Maybe.

But anyway population figure and densities for the “lower 48” are even more controversial. Obviously if you accept the higher-end figures you have to assume that excess population went somewhere and disease is the obvious answer, based on the first-hand observations from Spanish America :).

Hardly. Holocaust denial has virtually no basis on fact, whereas these disputes are based on actual peer-reviewed research in respected publications. It might be wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is all just just some PC bleating.

  • Tamerlane

Actually I should say smallpox ( introduced to mesoamerica c.1520 ), measles (c. 1530 ) and influenza ( c. 1558 ). I believe cholera was a much more recent introduction.

  • Tamerlane

I would say Hitler was more effective in killing off the Roma and Sinti (percentage wise) than Jews or the Natives in the Americas.

not to diminish the suffering inflicted on any group, of course. But the gypsies get forgotten in these discussions way too often.

The Holocaust was a focused attempt by the Nazis to eradicate every single Jew in Europe within a short period of time. There was never a deliberate policy to eradicate every last Native American - even within the United States. The Native American instead suffered from a complex mixture of assimilationism, exclusionary policies, forced expulsions, benign neglect, and welfare dependancy over several hundred years.

“Anglos” and Native Americans certainly did mix. The main difference between the United States and Latin America is that here a mixed blood generally is included in the Native population, whereas in Mexico or Peru, a mixed person is seen as mestizo and certainly not “indio”.
Also the peoples of Mesoamerica and the central Andes were a settled people. The Spaniards and Latin Americans had very similar experiences to “frontier” Americans in Chile with the Araucanian or Mapuche.

but the native Americans suffered under restrictions and reprimands for at least 200 years. there may not have been a concerted offort to kill them outright, but they were removed from their basic rights which did alot more to reduce their numbers over the long haul, than the Jews under Hitler were.

Can’t seem to find my original cites for some of the above figures, but pawing around my large drawer full of photocopied stuff ( anybody interested in the post-fire uptake of nutrients by diverse ephemeral herbs in chamise chaparral? no? okay :stuck_out_tongue: ), but I did find a copy of a tangentially related article by Linda Newson, entitled The Depopulation of Nicaragua in the 16th century ( Journal of Latin American Studies, 1982. 14[2], pp. 253-266 ). It should be easy enough to find in better libraries as an illustrative example of this sort of research ( though actually this is as much a survey article as anything ).

Without going into detail she ultimately estimates a population in pre-Colombian Nicaragua of 825,000 ( based on varying soil qualities, farming and gathering practices in different regions and resulting population density estimates, as well as examining contemporary observations and later research ) and concludes that by 1581 it had been reduced by between 92 percent and 94 percent to between 50,000 and 65,000…It has been suggested that the Indian population in the east of the country was reduced by one-half to two-thirds during the sixteenth century. The Indians in areas that came under Spanish control and administration experienced a more dramatic decline of 97.5 percent, which is a depopulation ratio of 1:40. This is one of the highest depopulation ratios calculated for colonial Spanish America, and if calculated to the population nadir, which was in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, it would be even higher.

She attributes the drastic decline to a number of factors, including devastasting epidemics, but most particularly in the first half of the sixteenth century, slaving ( exported to other parts of Latin America already depopulating from disease - for example an account written in 1527, which noted that it was necessary to introduce slaves to Panama City, Nata and the port of Honduras because smallpox had killed off the Indians there ), with perhaps 200,000 to 500,000 being exported to Panama and Peru between perhaps 1529 and 1549 ( the vast majority of whom died on the way or shortly after arrival, according to contemporary accounts ). Apparently Nicaragua had a large sedentary Indian populations, which, in the absense of rich mineral deposits, were surplus to local needs; they were also well located for shipment to the areas of demand in Panama and Peru.

  • Tamerlane

Well, yes, under Hitler. Do we count the almost 2000 years of oppression and persecution in Europe that preceded him?

One of the big differences, was that there werent many Germans who complained what was happening to the jews, and certainly no german leader complained.

Plenty of americans sided with the indians, including the famous Davy Crockett.

Obviously you have never been to Foxwoods or the Mohican Sun in Connecticut.

Tamerlane, Neurotik, kelly5078 and others all seem to be on the same page regarding the idea that disease was by far the primary cause of the die-off of Amerinds during the early colonial period - so I guess a little ignorance has been eradicated here (mine).

This still leaves me with a couple of questions though.

Is it then the current orthodoxy that there was never a concerted effort to run-off / eradicate the native people from what is now the US?

By the time of the 19th century ‘Indian Wars’, had the native population been somewhat reconstituted, or did the epidemics continue to account for the demise of the Indians?

How do we account for the disparity between present day Amerind population in the US versus eg Mexico? Does this have more to do with social policies than genocide?

Social politics might have something to do with it. When the Europeans arrived, the population of modern-day Mexico was more or less united under the Aztecs, while the population of today’s U.S. was divided into many nations, which often warred with one another. My theory (pulled out my ass as I type this) is that this enabled Mexican Indians to feel more culturally unified, while the surviving U.S.-area Indians were almost as likely to marry Europeans or Africans as they were members of other tribes. Thus, a greater percentage were absorbed into the cultural mainstream (how many Americans who identify as white or black have a Cherokee or Seminole great-grandmother?), while Mexican Indians became the cultural mainstream.

But keep in mind that there were always more Indians in what is now Mexico. While estimations of the Precolumbian population of the Americas vary wildly, most experts seem to be in agreement that the bulk of the population lived in present-day Mexico, Columbia, and the points in between. One estimate of a 100 million Precolumbian population states that 25 million lived in Mexico. Another estimate, of a total population of 40 million, states that less than 4 million lived above the present Mexican/U.S. border.

If more Indians lived in Mexico than the U.S. before the epidemics, then, after the population was severely reduced, there would still be more Indians in Mexico than in the U.S.


I believe that you are circling into a significant difference.

The case of the Native Americans was an intentional run off the lands and exploition of the work force for the benefit of colonial corporate interest. If they happened to be killed off in the process (by over-utilization, starvation, or disease), well so be it, if that’s the price of profit.

HaShoah was focused on the elimination of a people as its goal.

Other the points bear repeating.

I, like others in this thread, have discomfort with placing HaShoah as a unique event outside of history. I see it as a particulary horrific example of industrial efficiency brought to bear upon the goal, but something that we must recognize is within the continuing capacity of humankind. Placing it as “my blues are special” impedes our understanding the means to prevent the next genocide upon another “other” another time. I think we can fight the deniers without diminishing the significance of the suffering of others (including the Romani). At the same time, the context of HaShoah as a zenith of two millenium of Jew-hating that is not done with yet must not be dismissed either.