William Bradford on the Great Sickness Among New England Indians (1633)


William Bradford was a leading English settler and Governor in Plymouth colony.  He wrote the passage below in 1633.


I am now to relate some strange and remarkable passages.  There was a company of people [Indians] lived in the country up above in the River of Connecticut a great way from their trading house there…About a thousand of them had enclosed themselves in a fort which they had strongly palisadoed about.  Three or four Dutchmen went up in the beginning of winter to live with them, to get their trade….But their enterprise failed.  For it pleased God to visit these Indians with a great sickness and such a mortality that of a thousand, above nine and a half hundred of them died, and many of them did rot above ground for want of burial.


This spring also, these Indians that lived about their trading house there, fell sick of the small pox and died most miserably; for a sorer disease cannot befall them, they fear it more than the plague.  For usually they that have this disease have them in abundance, and for want of bedding and linen and other helps they fall into a lamentable condition as they lie on hard mats, the pox breaking and mattering and running one into another, their skin cleaving by reason thereof to the mats they lie on.  When they turn them, a whole side will flay off at once as it were, and they will be all of a gore blood, most fearful to behold.  And then being very sore, what with cold and other distempers, they die like rotten sheep.  The condition of this people was so lamentable and they fell down so generally of this disease as they were in the end not able to help one another, no not to make a fire nor to fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead.  But would strive as long as they could, and when they could procure no other means to make fire, they would burn the wooden trays and dishes they ate their meat in, and their very bows and arrows.  And some would crawl out on all fours to get a little water, and sometimes die by the way and not be able to get in again.


But those of the English house, though at first they were afraid of the infection, yet seeing their woeful and sad condition and hearing their pitiful cries and lamentations, they had compassion of them, and daily fetched them wood and water and made them fires, got them victuals whilst they lived; and buried them when they died.  For very few of them escaped, notwithstanding they did what they could for them to the hazard of themselves.  The chief sachem himself now died and almost all his friends and kindred.  But by the marvelous goodness and providence of God, not one of the English was so much as sick or in the least measure tainted with this disease, though they daily did these offices for them for many weeks together.  And this mercy which they showed them was kindly taken and thankfully acknowledged of all the Indians that knew or heard of the same. 



·        What happens to someone if they’re exposed to smallpox?

·        How did Native Americans react to the diseases; how did the English?

·        According to this document, why did the Indians die from diseases while the English were spared?

·        How reliable is this source for learning about relations between settlers and Indians in New England?