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  • David Bainbridge

Epidemics Then and Now

Updated: May 18, 2020

The Corvid 19 epidemic offers an important lesson in history. The disruption, and at times panic, from a relatively mild disease with low mortality should help us imagine what is was like for the First Nations on the West Coast of the United States.

More than 100 epidemics occurred on the Pacific Coast from 1765-1840.  Mortality rates were locally often 50% and as high as 90%. 

The malaria epidemic of the 1830s is a good example. Estimates of deaths are problematic, because so little is known about many of these tribes before they were gone or severely affected. The San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys once full of life became valleys of death. 

As George Yount later recalled,

The bodies of untold thousands lay whitening the plains and fertile valleys…. Deserted and desolated village sat tenantless all over the valleys…” 

Jonathan Warner remembered,

The banks of the Sacramento River, in its whole course through the valley, were studded with Indian villages, the houses of which, in the spring, during the daytime were red with the salmon the aborigines were curing… On our return, late in the summer of 1833, we found the valleys depopulated. From the head of the Sacramento to the great bend and slough of the San Joaquin, we did not see more than six or eight live Indians, while large numbers of their skulls and dead bodies were to be seen under almost every shade tree, near the water, where the uninhabited and deserted villages had been converted into graveyards.

Hudson's Bay Company brigade leader John Work thought 9/10ths of the native people in the Valley had perished. Some suggest as many as 50,000 people died from the epidemic in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys and possible as many as 100,000 in the West.  For more see LESSON PLANS.

When I taught cultural geography I would do a count 1-10 to create groups of students and have them all stand - then call out numbers of those who died until only the 1s were left. It left an impression!

With the ease of modifying DNA with the gene editing tool Crispr, it is very likely a catastrophic pandemic could be engineered. The failures of the CDC show how vulnerable we are and would be.


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