Chapter 5. Aboriginal Canada in the Era of Contact

5.3 The Widowed Land

In 1519, the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés entered the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, awed by its splendour. It was, he reported, “so big and so remarkable [as to be]…almost unbelievable, for the city is much larger than Granada and very much stronger…with many more people than Granada had when it was taken…[It] is as large as Seville or Cordova.” [1] Cortés, however, was not an indifferent tourist eager to see the sights and then be on his way.

The Fall of Mexico

Despite their advantages, the Spanish did not defeat the Aztec coalition outright; rather they experienced a resounding defeat at the hands of the Aztecs in 1520 and were forced to flee the capital city. Those Spaniards who were captured were sacrificed at the pyramid of Huitzilopochtli; this occurred on the night of June 30-July 1, 1520, called La Noche Triste (the Sad Night) by the Spaniards. But this defeat was only a temporary setback for the Europeans, who received aid from two sources. The first of these was a massive Aboriginal army raised among the dissatisfied tribute-paying nations whose territories lay along the road from Veracruz to Tenochtitlan. The second was much more subtle.

In 1521, smallpox struck Tenochtitlan. The disease had been introduced into the city by a Spanish slave, left behind when the Europeans retreated. An Aztec account of events (compiled 30 to 40 years later in the Florentine Codex) portrays the magnitude of what followed:

After the Spaniards had left the city of Mexico, and before they had made any preparations to attack us again, there came amongst us a great sickness, a general plague. It began in the month of Tepeilhuitl. It raged amongst us, killing vast numbers of people. It covered many all over with sores: on the face, on the head, on the chest, everywhere. […] Nobody could move himself, nor turn his head, nor flex any part of his body. The sores were so terrible that the victims could not lie face down, nor on their backs, nor move from one side to the other. […] Many died of the disease, and many others died merely of hunger. They starved to death because there was no one left alive to care for them. […] The worst phase of this pestilence lasted sixty days, sixty days of horror … then it diminished, but it never stopped entirely…. And when this had happened, the Spanish returned.[2]

Those struck by the disease were too weak to move, and even if they survived, were in no condition to cultivate food. The inhabitants of the city were literally starving to death.

On August 21, 1521, the Spanish re-entered the city, overwhelmed its last defences, declared victory, and accepted the surrender of the remaining Aztec military. The conditions they encountered were horrifying. Bernal Díaz del Castillo (ca.1492-1584), a conquistadore and eyewitness, wrote some years later that the Spaniards “found the houses full of corpses, and some poor Mexicans still in [the houses] who could not move away…The city looked as though it had been ploughed up. The roots of any edible greenery had been dug out, boiled and eaten, and they had even cooked the bark of some of the trees.”[3]

Smallpox was the real conquistadore in Mexico; Cortés and his small army simply mopped up. The collapse of the most powerful indigenous empire in North America in this manner was a foretaste of events that would follow in the territories that eventually became Canada and the United States.

Exotic Diseases

The Americas gave the rest of the world the basis of life: easily grown carbohydrates complemented with beans, squash and, of course, chocolate. The rest of the world gave the Americas death. Unchecked by extant immunities, diseases like smallpox, typhus, measles, bubonic plague, cholera, malaria, mumps, yellow fever, pertussis (whooping cough), and influenza were responsible for the destruction of large segments of the Caribs, Arawaks, Beothuks, and Meso-American empires. These diseases worked their way across the whole of the continent. The last of the great smallpox epidemics in Canada took place on the West Coast as recently as 1862-63, claiming around 20,000 lives. That sad episode is considered in Chapter 13, but it is a number worth pondering for a moment here: 20,000 dead in the space of less than a year represents a lot of communities utterly destroyed and huge numbers of corpses with no one to bury them. Generally, attacks of exotic diseases were worst for island-based societies like the Beothuk of Newfoundland and perhaps the Pentlatch of Vancouver Island insofar as their ability to retreat was limited by geography and the ocean.

These “new” diseases that Europeans brought to the Americas were dangerous both at home and abroad, but they were devastating in the New World, where they killed thousands. Europeans had built up varying levels of immunities over generations, which the people in the Americas had not. Europeans had had the advantage of being exposed to domestic animals, which put them at constant risk of some trans-species epidemic. (Even today we worry about “swine flu” or “bird flu,” both of which may be transmuted by contact with living animals or by eating improperly prepared meat.) More importantly, millennia of exposure to these illnesses produced physical immune responses, either through first exposure to the virus, by being passed across generations via mothers’ milk, or through “chance inoculation,” as was the case with milk maids who were constantly in contact with cowpox (a close relative of smallpox), which gave them a greater degree of immunity to the smallpox virus.

People in the Americas had none of these advantages. Because they had few domesticated animals they had little exposure to cross-species viruses, and large urban settlements like Tenochtitlan or crowded islands like those in the Caribbean were perfect environments for smallpox to thrive. Historians do not agree on the magnitude of the devastation — there is no way to know with absolute accuracy how many people were here before the virgin soil epidemics and no way to know how many perished — but there is consensus that the mortality rates were astonishingly high with no parallels in the history of humanity.

Scholars currently generally agree that there were approximately 50 million people living in the Western Hemisphere in 1492. Of that number, some 6 million were living in the Aztec Empire, another 8 million in the Mayan States, 11 million in what is now Brazil, and 12 million in the Inca Empire. What is now Canada is reckoned to have had a pre-contact population of about 500,000, although high estimates run to as many as 2 million. The impact of exotic epidemics on Meso-America and the Caribbean provides a benchmark for the effects on the population as a whole because the Spanish were in a position to observe some Aboriginal communities as they passed through the catastrophe: the lowest estimates are of an astonishing 90% death toll by the end of the 17th century. Warfare between the European invaders and the locals claimed many lives as well. Island populations fared especially badly, some disappearing entirely. On the mainland, however, it was not much better: the last three decades of the 16th century saw the population of present-day Mexico drop from 6 million to about 1 million people. According to some estimates, it has taken nearly 500 years for the Maya population to rebound to its late 15th century level. In what is now Brazil, the indigenous population declined from a pre-Columbian high of an estimated 4 to 8 million to some 300,000. These three areas alone lost more than all of Europe during the Black Death.[4]

Some scholars estimate that between 50% and 90% of the North American population died in the wake of the Spanish voyages. Spanish explorers like Ponce de León raced back and forth across the Florida peninsula with a small herd of pigs to feed his troops: his principal legacy was a massive die-off of indigenous humans. In 1618-1619, smallpox killed 90% of the Native Americans in the area of the Massachusetts Bay. Historians believe many Mohawk in present-day New York became infected after contact with children of Dutch traders at Fort Orange (Albany, New York) in 1634. Disease swept through Mohawk villages, reaching the Onondaga at Lake Ontario by 1636.

Many of these epidemics occurred in the proto-contact period, after contact but ahead of sustained relationships. In some cases, the viruses were passed along inland to people and communities who would, in essence, never see a European with their own eyes. In other words, there are no European eyewitness accounts. One can easily imagine this situation from the perspective of New France in the 1640s: no one from that colony had ventured farther west than Georgian Bay, and therefore they couldn’t know what was happening beyond Lake Huron. It is also possible that European fishing fleets introduced exotic diseases before Cartier, perhaps before Cabot. [5] If that is the case, one may speculate on how much of the natural landscape of North America was, indeed, already a land widowed for a century before resettlement began. Perhaps  bison herds grew to their enormous numbers because the number of humans preying on them had fallen. Perhaps the lushness of the eastern hardwood forests was due to human neglect.[6]

Smallpox in Canada

Smallpox may have been the chief culprit behind the disappearance of the St. Lawrence Iroquois. From 1535 to 1542, Cartier was an occasional guest in two significant centres: Stadacona and Hochelaga. By 1600 both were gone, as were the many smaller, related settlements that lined the north shore of the river. Historians thought, for many years, that  their Algonquin and/or Montagnais neighbours sent them packing or that the Five Nations League assimilated them. Archaeologists have traced St. Lawrence Iroquois women to Wendake (Huronia) after 1615 on the strength of their distinctive pottery; the absence of St. Lawrence Iroquoian men’s artifacts — specifically clay pipes — is taken as evidence that the Wendat killed the men and took the women  as captives.[7] It is possible, too, that climate change in the late 15th century affected the St. Lawrence peoples. On balance of evidence, however, the likelihood is greater that they were raided out of existence. Keep in mind that Hochelaga was surrounded by a triple palisade, which the Hochelagans certainly did not build for its looks. No explanation for the disappearing Iroquoians, however, is as convincing as the prospect of an epidemic, which would have scoured the valley clean (leaving it conveniently available for resettlement by the French).

Historians know this is a possibility because of what happened in Wendake (Huronia)  from 1634 to 1639. In those years smallpox laid waste to the towns of the Wendat Confederacy, claiming half the Wendat population. It is not known if the route taken by smallpox passed through Mohawk lands to Wendat fortress villages or whether it came via the early settlements at New France. Regardless, the high rate of fatalities caused breakdowns in Aboriginal societies and disrupted generational exchanges of culture. For the Wendat this meant that a rising cohort of young warriors were lost and so too were the elders whose knowledge of the culture and diplomacy were never more needed. A decade later Wendake (Huronia) was no more. It is entirely possible that a similar scenario befell the Stadaconans, the Hochelagans, and their neighbours a century earlier.

For Aboriginal communities, the disease epidemics caused, at the very least, confusion. The unfamiliar symptoms of smallpox and measles — fever, severe weakness, rashes, pustules — would have been frightening. Aboriginal healers responded to the exotic diseases as they did to any other injury or indigenous ailment (like poisoning, parasites, gallstones, or tumours): they understood them as the work of an aggrieved or malicious spirit and would convene a healing ceremony in the victim’s longhouse with relatives nearby for support. Of course, this response was akin to setting up a campfire in a gunpowder mill. Smallpox spreads principally through droplets expelled by breathing and coughing; offering an infected person spiritual support at close quarters was a fatal error.

The Wendat tried to determine what had changed in their world to cause the disease, and the answer was the French. In particular, many blamed the Jesuit missionaries they had hosted at the villages since the early 1630s (and on whose records we rely heavily for this information). The Wendat were partly right in determining that the epidemic came from the Europeans, although which ones we cannot say for sure in most cases. Despite the mistrust, some of the Wendat nevertheless turned to the Jesuits for spiritual answers, which resulted in villages fractured between traditionalists and converts.

The one response to the smallpox epidemic that could have helped stem the spread was quarantine, but the Wendat never attempted that. In their culture, illness was something through which people were marshalled by their shamans and their kin; leaving someone to die alone in fear and isolation would have been unforgivable. However, this laudable ethos resulted in hundreds of thousands of people dying.

The Haudenosaunee response to the 1630s smallpox epidemic was to attack Wendake (Huronia), which made sense in the light of  the Mourning Wars that continued during these years. There was ample opportunity for attack as the Wendat were weakened by disease (and divided over the presence of the Jesuit missionaries). The Iroquois had economic goals in mind, too, as they hoped to improve their position in the fur trade economies of both the French and the Dutch colonies or at least act as spoilers who could undermine the success enjoyed by their rivals. Perhaps most importantly, it was common practice among the Iroquois (and many other peoples) to adopt into their communities captives taken in military campaigns, especially when a loss of population at home had left them low in numbers. Attacking the Wendat presented the opportunity for revenge, victory, profit, and adoptees to replace those Mohawk lost in the epidemic of 1634.

All of these factors would continue to play a role in Haudenosaunee military campaigns across the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes for the rest of the century. Epidemics had the effect of clearing important pieces from the chessboard. With the Wendat Confederacy out of the way by 1649, there was little to stop Haudenosaunee influence from spreading west. Within 30 years the Iroquois were on the (abandoned) doorstep of Cahokia; a generation later they were in control of the whole Ohio Valley. The so-called Beaver Wars were partly about controlling the flow of goods to the Europeans, but they were also driven by a separate Iroquoian agenda.

Arrows showing movement from the south side of Lake Ontario across to the north side of Lake Ontario
Figure 5.5 Expansion of Five Nations Territory during the Beaver Wars.

Epidemics continued to work their way across the continent. There is simply no way to know how far and how fast they spread. At least once a century there was another pandemic that shellacked Aboriginal populations. An epidemic in 1702 covered most of the Great Lakes region and another in 1736-38 arrived on the Plains, in what is now southern Manitoba. Disease, as is often the case, followed troops into the field during the Seven Years’ War: from the 1750s through the 1780s smallpox turned up like a fire that could not be fully extinguished. In 1781-82 smallpox appeared on the northern Plains, in this case originating in New Spain and carried north along the horse-trading network. In remarkably well-documented accounts from York Factory and Cumberland House in what is now northeast Saskatchewan, the HBC traders applied what little they knew of quarantine practices to isolate their Aboriginal partner populations from the infected. The Cumberland House Journal, written by William Tomison, indicates that inherited immunities protected the European population entirely while every single infected Aboriginal person died.

In the midst of the grim and tragic conditions that prevailed, there were a few acts of genuine compassion: “In their primitive and already crowded quarters at Cumberland House, Tomison’s Caucasian HBC servants, under his direction, took in the dying Indians, provided them with food, shelter and 24 h care (nearly a century in advance of the arrival of Grey Nuns in the northwest), and then, in most instances, dug their graves in deeply frozen ground in midwinter.” Some of the horrors are recorded in the Cumberland House Journal:

15th Tuesday. Late in the Evening a Distressed Woman and her Child came here, these are all that is alive out of one Tent, and has not yet been ailing. The News she brings is still more and more alarming … the small pox rageing amongst them with its greatest fury, and carrying all before it, they chiefly Die within the third or fourth Night, and those that survive after that time are left to be devoured by the wild beasts.[8]

Aboriginal peoples on the Plains in particular were caught in the crosshairs of disease vectors. Ships from Britain entering Hudson Bay ensured that there was a regular supply of measles and influenza outbreaks heading west along the Saskatchewan River system; the York/Columbia Express (see Chapters 8 and Chapter 13) made it possible for infected Europeans to reach deep into the country and pass along their illnesses; likewise infectious diseases worked their way west from Montreal along trading corridors, with the two lines meeting in the north-central Plains. And then there were epidemics from New Spain that rushed north on horseback. Having acquired British or Canadian products for trade into the Aboriginal economy, the Cree, Assiniboine, and Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) were moving within a vector of death in which there was no question of “if,” only “when.”

Similarly, the 1780s Prairie epidemic may have collided in what is now British Columbia with smallpox introduced from the Pacific coast. Some historians and archaeologists believe that Pacific Northwest populations crumbled by as much as 90%. The numbers are uncertain because there are only abandoned village sites and conflicting oral accounts to rely on. More reliable is the evidence of the impact of smallpox in the 1830s on the Plains and its destruction of the Mandan-Hidatsa farm villages and trademarts on which the Iron Confederacy (Cree, Assiniboine, Anishinaabe) largely depended. Measles likely first came ashore on Haida Gwaii at about the same time, taking 30% or more of the population.[9]

The mechanics of demographic change are important to this story. Like all societies, Aboriginal nations depend on growth by having more births and immigrants than deaths. Historical demographers believe that pre-contact mortality rates in Native societies were no better than they were for pre-contact Europeans: life expectancies were not especially high and infant mortality rates may well have been crippling. The difference between the two cultures, however, was that the fertility rate among Aboriginal people appears to have been lower than it was in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The lack of domesticated dairy animals meant that Aboriginal women likely nursed their children for two or more years, effectively dampening their fertility. Any sudden acceleration in mortality levels, then, could only be smoothed out over a longer period of time. And in the years of contact and increased conflict with neighbours, time was a commodity in short supply. Immigration from neighbouring or related First Nations — voluntary or involuntary — drew in new populations to some Aboriginal communities but it did so at the price of other societies, a zero-sum proposition for the aggregate indigenous population.

Once again, the Columbian Exchange seems to have been uneven. The only affliction that Europe suffered after contact and that is thought to have its origins in the Americas is syphilis. At its worst, syphilis is a dreadful, disfiguring, and miserable illness, not something to be taken lightly. Although the origin of syphilis has been widely debated and its exact origin is unknown, Europeans like Bartolomé de las Casas wrote that the disease was well known among the Amerindians of the Caribbean in the early 1500s. Skeletal remains of Native Americans from this period and earlier suggest that here, in contrast to other regions of the world, the disease had a congenital form. Lesions on the skull and other parts of the skeleton are a feature associated with the late stages of the disease. A second theory that has received a good deal of support in the 21st century is that syphilis existed in Europe prior to the voyages of Columbus, but that it was unrecognized until it became common and widely spread in the Italian Wars that followed the discovery of the New World. Certainly the timing is suspicious: the Americas are encountered in 1492 and syphilis spiralled out of Italy and across France in 1494. The conquistadore Cortés, the man whose expedition introduced smallpox into the heart of Mexico, was himself a victim of syphilis, which he contracted in Haiti.

Key Points

  • Exotic diseases introduced by the Europeans had disastrous consequences for Aboriginal communities.
  • The speed with which exotic diseases cleared out as much as 90% of the indigenous population in the Americas made this “New World” appear to the newcomers to be a “vacant land.”
  • Nothing in the Columbian Exchange was as pivotal as smallpox and the virgin soil epidemics.
  • Exotic diseases played a critical role in the early history of New France.
  • Losses to epidemics provoked community responses from Aboriginal peoples that included consolidation, adoption, conquest, and migration.


Figure 5.5
Iroquois Settlement on the north shore of Lake Ontario 1665-1701 by Junction416 is used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

  1. Quoted in Ray Hutchison, Mark Gottdiener, Michael T. Ryan, The New Urban Sociology, 5th ed. (Toronto: Westview Press, 2014), 38.
  2. Quoted in Ronald Wright, Stolen Continents: The “New World” Through Indian Eyes Since 1492 (Toronto: Viking, 1992), 45.
  3. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. John M. Cohen (London: Penguin, 1963), 407.
  4. The field of contact-era demography changed dramatically in the 1960s with the publication of Henry Dobyns’ 1966 study, "Estimating Aboriginal American Population: An Appraisal of Techniques With a New Hemispheric Estimate" in Current Anthropology 7 (1966): 395-416. Previous estimates of one million people north of the Rio Grande were suddenly increased to 9.8 - 12.25 million. Scholars have since revised this number upward and, sometimes, downward. Some of the key and relevant studies are: Alfred W. Crosby Jr., The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, NC: Greewood Press, 1972); William M Denevan, ed., The Native Population of the Americas in 1492 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976); Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987); and Douglas H. Ubelaker, “North American Indian Population Size: Changing Perspectives,” in Disease and Demography in the Americas, eds. John W. Verano and Douglas H. Ubelaker (Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1992).
  5. Cornelius J. Jaenen, Friend and Foe: Aspects of French-Amerindian Cultural Contact in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1976), 98-99.
  6. On the topic of environmental changes coupled to population crises, see William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1983).
  7. Marcel Moussette, "A Universe under Strain: Amerindian Nations in North-Eastern North America in the 16th Century," Post-Medieval Archaeology 43, issue 1 (2009): 39.
  8. C. Stuart Houston and Stan Houston, "The First Smallpox Epidemic on the Canadian Plains: In the Fur-Traders' Words," Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases 11, no.2 (March/April 2000): 112-115.
  9. Roderic Beaujot and Don Kerr, Population Change in Canada, 2nd edition (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2004), 22-3.


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5.3 The Widowed Land by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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