Typically, the second chapter of American History texts cover 16th Century exploration. Columbus gets his cash from Queen Isabella, and sails off in command of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Making landfall somewhere in the Bahamas, Columbus initiated the 1492 hemispheric transaction known as the Columbian Exchange.
In my classroom I strayed a bit from the “discovery” aspect of European conquest, opting instead to focus on the consequences of imperial contact. In particular we examined the exchanges between the Old and New World: precious metals, agricultural goods, livestock, and infectious diseases. For example, corn and potatoes crossed to Europe, while horses and barley were introduced to the Americas.
Other things, both seen and unseen, passed between the conquistadors and the native peoples, forever redefining both. Religion, racism, rape and disease set the narrative for hundreds of years.
From Dias, to Magellan, to Cortez, ocean routes linked far-flung corners of the globe back to Spanish ports. Though the voyages were perilous, mortality rates high, and the impact upon indigenous people fearsome, vast fortunes were realized, and Spain grew wealthy.
It is hard to pinpoint which explorer first grasped the deadly impact of small pox on native populations. What is known is that Hernando deSoto, in particular, recognized the dynamic quickly. Leading his band of mercenaries, complete with packs of dogs, deSoto tromped through what is today the Gulf States. His band of conquerers passed through native villages, and recrossed them again, searching for riches. Upon retracing their steps desolation greeted the Spaniards, of dead and dying men, women, and children-all from small pox. deSoto, a quick study, deliberately weaponized the pestilence, spreading virus wherever his war party advanced.
This disease literally scorched North America, extinguishing life in its path. By the time the Declaration of Independence (1776) was signed in Philadelphia, small pox had already exterminated countless coastal peoples from Puget Sound to Cook Inlet in the Gulf of Alaska.
In what is present-day New Mexico, the Pueblo people inadvertently protected themselves against the virus for ten years. In Pope’s Revolt, a decisive 1680 battle against Spanish forces, the inhabitants defeated the invaders and preserved their lives from contagion for a time.
The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic didn’t actually begin in Spain. One story tells how the virus began among Doughboys training at Fort Riley, Kansas once America entered World War One.
Soldiers swapping microbes in military camps is nothing new. During the Revolution General Washington took measures to see his army inoculated for smallpox. Washington ordered a rolling rotation of inoculations, so that only a portion of his troops were ill at one time. When his army finally came out of winter camp in Morristown, New Jersey, they were armored with immunity to English-borne germs. (By the way, inoculations required a small cut in the skin, followed by wiping live pus into the incision.)
During the Civil War “camp fevers” were a persistent problem. In Ken Burns “Civil War,” one account describes the coughing of waking soldiers drowning out reveille. The truth is more Rebs and Yanks died from communicable diseases than bullets.
In the case of the Spanish Flu the viral cocktail sailed aboard troop ships to England. One theory holds that an encampment situated on a rail stop ignited the spark that led to millions dead worldwide. British soldiers had established gardens dating from the beginning of the war in 1914. Not only were vegetables available from these patches, but also swine and poultry. The viral combination from Fort Riley and further transference from pigs at the rail stop exploded into a rare strain of contagion.
All too soon these exposed soldiers were shipped across to France, and into the trenches. German veterans later accused the Americans of unleashing germ warfare upon them, forcing the November, 1918 Armistice.
In the end all are still pawns to the Columbian Exchange. As New World tomatoes, and Old World wheat make pizza, microbes swirl and mutate, rendering deadlier fare. The passage of time makes no difference to our fragile susceptibility to disease. Though viruses travel by fuselage today, rather than wooden ships, there is no alteration to the deadly outcome.
Gail Chumbley is a history educator, and the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle.