Contact and Contagion: The Roanoke Colony and Influenza
Topic: Corroborating historical and archaeological evidence for depopulation
Authors: Peter B. Mires
Summary: A comparison of the writings of Thomas Hariot, leader of the ill-fated Roanoke colony, and John Smith, founder of the first successful British settlement in North America, reveals that the Roanoke colonists were the vectors of epidemic disease. The disease was probably influenza, and it was especially lethal to the American Indians whom the Roanoke colonists contacted. Thomas Hariot recorded direct observations of the progress of the epidemic, including symptoms, mode of transmission, and virulence. John Smith, upon his arrival in the Chesapeake Bay region, heard stories of a devastating epidemic that had ravaged the Accomac, one of the groups visited by the Roanoke colonists during the winter of 1585/86. This article critically assesses the historical evidence surrounding this epidemic and proposes influenza as the probable pathogen. Depopulation of American Indians in the vicinity of the Roanoke colony, specifically the Accomac, is placed within the wider context of European epidemic disease in the New World. One implication of this historical record is the identification of Virginias Eastern Shore as an area likely to contain archaeological resources relevant to the research problem of American Indian demographic change during the Contact period.
Continent: North America
Country: United States
Keywords: Culture contact, Native American, Health, Disease, Epidemics, Demography, Smallpox, Influenza, slavery