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Disease & Death in New Mexico

According to a recent study by researchers at Harvard University, the Native population in North America was estimated between 2 and 18 million prior to the 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus. By the end of the 19th century that population had dwindled to about 530,000. In New Mexico in a period of sixty years, from 1620 to 1680, the population of the eighteen Indian Pueblos had gone from around 6,500 to fewer than 900 inhabitants.

Demise of the Native Population

The demise of the Native population was a byproduct of this nation’s first European settlement in New Mexico, one of the earliest points of contact in the United States. Along with bringing livestock and tools that were new to the region, the Spanish colonists introduced Old World diseases to the unsuspecting native population. Prior to colonization, the native people did not suffer from smallpox, measles, chickenpox, influenza, typhus, diphtheria, cholera bubonic plague, scarlet fever, whooping cough or malaria. Virtually 95 percent of the Native American population was decimated in the first 150 years following 1492.

Smallpox and Other Deadly Diseases

In a period of two years, from 1780-82, a smallpox epidemic wiped out 50 percent of the Pueblo population of northern New Mexico. The following century outbreaks of cholera gravely afflicted the region due to lack of sufficient sanitation systems. And by the early part of the 20th century, the 1918 worldwide influenza of 1918, which killed twenty million, found its way to New Mexico. The wrath of this epidemic did not discriminate and impacted the entire state.

Communities Shut Down

During the epidemic schools, public buildings and churches closed. There were no funerals for the dead. Men with cloths wrapped around their faces came to the pick up the remains, placing them in sacks. With the large number of deaths there was a shortage of coffins and no time to make new ones. There were so many deaths in such a short period of time that communities had to resort to mass burials. When winter came the illness had finally run its course and people welcomed the cold weather believing that it was the snow that had killed the virus.

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