Saturday, October 27, 2012

Decimating the Native Americans

After I posted my review of Paul Offit's Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, I tweeted about the review, and one tweet that got some attention was I when quoted the book -
"When European settlers brought smallpox to North America, they reduced the native population of seventy million to six hundred thousand."
Someone asked whether that statement was true, or perhaps exaggerated. So I decided, on a lark, to do some digging around.
I first looked at the book's "Notes" section, and saw that it references a book by Johnathan Tucker, "Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox". So, next I looked up this book on Google Books as well as on Amazon. "Scourge" on its part cites a book by Russell Thornton, "American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492 (Civilization of the American Indian Series)"; specifically pages 36 and 90. So I then searched for this book in the hopes of finding a preview that had these two pages. I was in luck. I stopped at this point, but to summarize - "Deadly Choices" references "Scourge", which in turn references "American Indian Holocaust". This book in turn cites the US Census Bureau and other sources, which I have not looked up. In short, the number cited in "Deadly Choices" has not been picked from thin air, but seems to have been in circulation for some time, and has not been challenged. Furthermore, it seems to have been based on at least some amount of research by scholars. As best as numbers such as these, half a millenia old, can be, it is reasonable to take them as educated approximations to actual numbers, which we most certainly cannot discern now.
However, I cannot claim that I have validated this statement by tracking it down to its most source.

Page 11 from Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox

Page 12 from Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox

Source Notes from Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox

Page 36 from American Indian Holocaust and Survival

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.