Historians have responded to the current coronavirus pandemic in a number of ways. For most, the furthest back we look is the Spanish flu, which represented the deadliest pandemic in modern history. It killed as many as 100 million people in a world with a much smaller population than we have today. But what was it like in the early 17th century for the settlers of Jamestown, Virginia?
We already know caucasian settlers colonizing the New World brought back a ton of germs, viruses, and diseases to which the Native Americans had no immunity. Those illnesses killed around 90 percent of the native population.
While COVID-19 won’t kill 90 percent of us, it does inspire other questions that need answering: what could a disease like this do in an ancient society with little medical knowledge? The ancient planters didn’t have respirators, for example.
Truth be told, there is little information on record to support the idea that dangerous epidemics wiped out a large percent of the early settler population — although we can infer that they probably did occur and that they probably did kill many, many people.
We can infer this because around 80 percent of the population was wiped out in the early years of Jamestown settlement — from about 1607 to about 1625. They died from disease and starvation during long, brutal winters, but also from Native American attacks and conflict from within. Because so many perished during this timeframe, exact records are difficult to find. They died from disease in large numbers to be sure, but we don’t know how large.
An easier epidemic to nail down occurred between 1679 and 1680. During the long winter that year, smallpox roared through the Jamestown settlement. Another smallpox epidemic occurred in 1696.
Smallpox was characterized by fever, vomited, and terrible sores around the mouth in addition to a skin rash. What made it so deadly, though, was simply the numbers of people it could infect.
A reproduction rate gives us an idea of a virus’s potential to spread throughout the population. For example, the reproduction rate of the seasonal flu is about 1.3; the Spanish flu, 1.8; and the coronavirus, 2.3. This means that those infected with each ailment are likely to infect 1.3, 1.8, and 2.3 others on average, respectively. By comparison, smallpox had a reproduction rate of 3.5 to 6, making it massively more infectious than most diseases. It could rip through a population and kill very quickly — which is what it did to the Native Americans.