Diseases for which the Indians had no acquired immunity took a devastating toll among the Algonquians. The major epidemic killers were smallpox, typhus, measles, influenza, and chicken pox. Some of the Jamestown settlers died of smallpox, a likely source of transmission to the native population. Other diseases directly connected to settlement and the environment also plagued native populations.
Estimates vary of the pre-invasion population vary, but scholars believe the population along the east coast may have been reduced by as much as ninety percent during the first century of contact. Trade among the Indians and invaders may have also spread diseases.
The actual population may never be known. Gabriel Archer estimated forty to fifty per village or town. Many towns were on rivers. John Smith identified about 200 river towns, signaling a population of roughly 8,000 to 10,000 Virginia Indians.
In 1585, English explorer Thomas Harriot reported how European visits to Indian villages along the North Carolina coast killed Indians:
“but that within a few dayes after our departure from everie such towne, the people began to die very fast, and many in short space; in some townes about twentie, in some fortie, in some sixtie, and in one sixe score , which in trueth was very manie in respect of their numbers. This happened in no place that wee coulde learne but where wee had bene… and… they neither knew what it was, nor how to cure it.“
The first great wave swept over Algonquians in New England in 1616. One English observer, Thomas Dermer, reported how along the coast in 1619 once populous areas were now devoid of people. In 1634 another epidemic wreaked havoc in New England.
The Algonquian response to disease and death varied. Some believed death to be a sign of the god’s displeasure; others that the apparent resistance of the invaders proved they were favored by the gods. Most were likely unsure and placed hope in shaman (priest) trances or the presumptive curative benefits of tobacco and plant medicines.
Diseases associated with the environment, such as dysentery, typhoid fever and malaria may have been even more prevalent. Cattle, pigs, fowl, and goats that Jamestown settlers brought with them served as vectors for disease. Animal waste contaminated nearby rivers where Indian towns were located. In times of drought (see Climate Change), the accompanying malnutrition gave these diseases special force. Later in the century, the involvement of Indians and settlers in the slave trade spread epidemic diseases along the trade routes from Virginia to Florida and westward to the Mississippi River.