Before the arrival of the Europeans to coastal Massachusetts, Cape Cod and the southeastern portion of the state was occupied by people called the Wampanoag. Wampanoag means "People of the First Light." Unfortunately for them, they were also the "People of the First Contact." In 1617-1619 an epidemic, or perhaps a series of diseases, thought to have been brought by early European explorers spread through coastal Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and southern Maine. Local mortality ranged close to 90%, causing dramatic social change.
The population of Plymouth, known to the native Americans as Patuxet, was reduced from over 2000 to almost zero. By the time the Mayflower arrived the village had been completely abandoned. The Mayflower passengers felt that God had prepared this place for them, with its decent harbor, high ground, cleared land and fresh water.
..yersinia pestis (plague)
No one is sure what the diseases were that raged through the population. Some assume it was small pox, which struck the New England natives again in the 1630s. Others suspect bubonic plague, as there are descriptions of sores on some of the affected individuals. And some even suspect a hepatitis virus. Whatever it was, it was a virgin soil disease to which the Americans had no immunity.
I've been listening to an audio version of Sarah Vowell's book The Wordy Shipmates as I work on this series of prints. Early in the book, Vowell describes a moment when she is standing in a museum in front of a map about these waves of epidemics that says "From 1492 to 1650, contagions claimed as many as nine [native] lives out of ten." Vowell writes:
Standing in front of that map I let those numbers sink in. Nine out of ten. I learned to count by singing that old minstrel song turned nursery rhyme, "Ten Little Indians." Now I have that melody stuck in my head and I'm picturing seven little, eight little, nine little Indians struck dead by smallpox.This next print I'll be working on is Called Ten Little Nine Little. Counting down.