Writing in 1634 from Boston, less than 4 years after the city had been founded, John Winthrop (1588-1649), the 1st governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, & the chief figure among the Puritan founders of New England, described a population of 4,000 settlers. The American Indian population did not fare as well. Epidemic diseases introduced by European fishermen & fur traders reduced the population of New England’s coastal tribes by about 90 percent by the early 1620s. Their numbers continued to dwindle after Winthrop’s colony arrived in 1630, a development he took as a blessing: “For the natives, they are near all dead of the smallpox, so the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess.” This sentence—the last in this letter mostly about the weather & crops—reveals a belief in divine providence that would shape relations with Native peoples.
Abenakis couple. The Abenaki (Abnaki, Alnôbak) are a Native American tribe & First Nation. They are one of the Algonquian-speaking peoples of northeastern North America. The Abenaki lived in Quebec & the Maritimes of Canada & in the New England region of the United States. Along the Maine coast, where natives had sustained contact with French traders, some of the earliest reports of disease outbreak were made. In 1616, Father Pierre Baird, a French Jesuit missionary, noted: “[the Abenaki] are astonished & often complain that since the French mingle & carry on trade with them they are dying fast, & the population is thinning out.” In his 1658 A Briefe Narration of the Originall Undertakings of the Advancement of Plantations into the Parts of America, Gorges Ferdinando recorded that same year Captain Richard Vines, an English explorer, wintered on the Maine coast & noted that the local natives “were sore afflicted with the Plague, for that the Country was in a manner left void of inhabitants.”
Soon the mysterious disease spread throughout the coastal region – following the trade routes of the Abenaki, who traded furs for corn & other provisions from the tribes to the south – & turned the loose confederation of Algonquian villages that dotted the area into an apocalyptic wasteland. Thomas Morton's 1637 New English Canaan offerd a vivid account of the landscape left behind: “For in a place where many inhabited, there hath been but one left a live, to tell what became of the rest, the living being (as it seems) not able to bury the dead, they were left for the Crowes, Kites & vermin to prey upon. And the bones & skulls upon the severall places of their habitations, made such a spectacle after my coming into those partes … it seemed to mee a new found Golgotha.”
Plymouth’s colonial governor, William Bradford, recorded in his 1620-1647 History of Plymouth Plantation, “the good soyle, and the people not many, being dead and abundantly wasted in the late great mortalitie which fell in all these parts about three years before the coming of the English, wherin thousands of em dyed; … ther sculs and bones were found in many places lying still above the ground, where their houses and dwellings had been; a very sad spectackle to behould."
From the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2nd Series, vol. 8 (Boston, 1892-1894). The writer is unidentified.March 15, 1631To my loving father William Pond, at Etherston in Suffolk give this...My writing unto you is to let you understand what a country this New England is where we live. Here are but few [Indians], a great part of them died this winter, it was thought it was of the plague. They are a crafty people & they will...cheat, & they are a subtle people, & whereas we did expect great store of beaver here is little or none to be had. They are proper men...many of them go naked with a skin about their loins, but now sum of them get Englishmen's apparel...Watertown, New England, Unsigned