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The Virgin Soil Pandemics in Wendake

April 25, 2022

A Map of Wendake, from Kathryn Magee Labelle, Dispersed But Not Destroyed

The sudden emergence of the COVID-19 virus has dominated lives across the globe for practically two years now. But imagine if it was not one pathogen, but many, and if society had no scientific understanding of how to get it under control.

When Europeans first began travelling across the Atlantic in large numbers, they brought with them many conditions that native North Americans had never been exposed to, hence had not had the chance to evolve greater immunity. As they stepped onto this “New World,” they unwittingly unleashed what was likely the most terrible combined pandemics in human history. Within a generation, smallpox, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, the bubonic plague, typhus and malaria were all ravaging the Americas. Smallpox proved to be the deadliest.

Despite having been exposed to these afflictions for centuries, Europeans by no means immune. Until the twentieth century when vaccination became a social norm, most children would be infected with at least one of these conditions, often before the age of 5. In the nineteenth century, a little under half of children did not live to be adults. With the advent of vaccines, today we take for granted that practically all kids will have the chance to grow up.

While most of us are growing tired of the pandemic and the lockdowns after two years, the viruses causing the virgin soil pandemics lasted for centuries—they continued to cause countless deaths until mass vaccination became possible in the twentieth century. And while COVID-19 has killed about 0.1% of the Canadian population, the virgin soil pandemics decimated native North Americans—the death rate is impossible to accurately enumerate, but is often estimated between 60-95%.

While COVID-19 spread basically instantly as people jetted around the world, the virgin soil pandemics took generations to span the Americas. It seems that they reached southern Ontario in the seventeenth century. Then the Wendat (Huron) resided in Wendake (Huronia, located west of Lake Simcoe and south of Georgian Bay—their villages had been in the Kawarthas a few centuries before). Consisting of four or five nations—the Attignawantan (Bear Nation), Arendaeronnon (Nation of the Rock), Attigneenongnahac (People of the Cord), Tahontaenrat (People of the Deer), and perhaps including the Ataronchronon (People of the Marsh), they lived in about 20 to 30 villages, organized into 12 matrilineal clans. Prior to the pandemics, the total population was about 20,000-40,000 people.  

The first records of the pandemics reaching Wendake date from 1633, with a major outbreak beginning the following year. The Jesuits in the community were not sure if it was measles or smallpox, but it began with a high fever, leading to diarrhea and a rash that manifested itself differently than the European observers were accustomed to seeing back home. Practically everyone was stricken. It subsided over the winter, and the following year an inordinate number of deaths continued once again. Another wave came in 1636, which was worse than the first, rendering its hosts bedridden, until they died or eventually recovered. Because of the illness, many people were not able to provide for themselves by planting corn or gathering food—the death rate was estimated at about 20%. The next year brought more illness (possibly Scarlet Fever). By 1840, perhaps 60% of the Wendat had perished. It was an overwhelming experience for both the communities and their resident missionaries.

The Wendat were traditional allies of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) and enemies of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). War campaigns consisted of summer skirmishes that focused on securing captives, who would commonly be adopted into their new community—often to replace someone who had died. Hundreds of warriors would surprise their enemies, and at times it was not safe for women to work out in fields alone. It is not entirely certain why, but just as the pandemics decimated Wendat communities, warfare intensified.

The Wendat made some successful attacks, but the Haudenosaunee overran several villages in 1648 to 1649. The Haudenosaunee attacked at night, with over 1,000 warriors, and had far more guns. One village was burned with the occupants still present. To make matters worse their enemies took corn seed and winter provisions—so they now faced starvation. Unable to fend off their attackers, decimated by disease, coming to terms with how perilous survival had become, they abandoned their villages. They retreated to Gahoendoe (Christian Island, Georgian Bay), where they spent one hungry winter, but the attacks continued and they decided to disperse—and the migrations would last for generations. Some went east, forming a new Wendake (near Quebec City), while others ended up in Oklahoma, Kansas and Michigan, having been forced to leave many other homes along the way.

The pandemics were catastrophic for the first generation, then they became endemic. While in the first generation it killed a majority of the population, as decades passed survival rates increased substantially. As in European society, it gravitated towards being childhood illness, contributing to high child mortality rates that lasted into the twentieth century. 

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