Ethnohistory, Volume 51, Number 1, Winter 2004, pp. 45-71 (Article)
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Avoiding the Smallpox Spirits: Colonial Epidemics
and Southeastern Indian Survival
Paul Kelton, University of Kansas
Abstract. Current scholarship on the impact of epidemics on American Indians is
inadequate to explain how Indians survived. Too often Indians are given no credit
for being able to combat emergent diseases, and too often epidemics are depicted
as completely undermining native religious beliefs. This article, however, examines
the response of Southeastern Indians to disease and shows that Native Americans
were capable of successfully retarding mortality rates and curtailing the spread of
contagions.Through their innovative responses to epidemiological crises, spiritual
leaders reinforced tribal customs as well as their leadership position.
In the1830s, Daniel Buttrick, a Protestant missionary, asked several Chero-
kees to discuss their ancient religious traditions. One of the ceremonies he
learned about, however, was not as ancient ashe thought.The attentive mis-
sionary recorded a description of the Itohvnv, or what he called the ‘‘Small-
pox Dance.’’ Given that smallpox was not present in the Americas prior to
European contact, the Cherokees must have created this special ritual dur-
ing the recently passed colonial period to deal with the deadly virus that
periodically threatened them.
According to Buttrick’s informants, the Cherokees performed the
Itohvnv whenever supernatural beings above the earth let loose evil spirits
known as Kosvkvskini. Sent to punish them for breaking tribal laws and
for failing to perform religious ceremonies correctly, Kosvkvskini aﬄicted
Cherokees with smallpox.These evil spirits ‘‘prowled in [a] wide and open
public way,’’ making it unsafe for Cherokees to travel. Instead, they re-
mained in their villages and performed the Itohvnv in order to purify them-
selves from past transgressions and to obtain divine pardon. Members of
Ethnohistory 51:1 (winter 2004)
Copyright © by the American Society for Ethnohistory.
46 Paul Kelton
a village gathered at the Council House and consumed medicines pre-
pared by the Ooleestooleeh, or priest, who presided over the Itohvnv. A
specially consecrated medicine man, or Teekanawghistee, led dances and
prayerful songs to ‘‘exorcise’’ the village of impurities. For seven days,
women, men, and children dutifully performed various rituals. The occa-
sion was most solemn, and the Cherokees could leave the Council House
‘‘only to gather needful food at hours when the Small Pox spirits were not
abroad.’’ Kosvkvskini rested only at midnight, and even then Cherokees
traveled by wayof ‘‘by-paths’’ inthewoodstoavoid an unfortunate meeting
with evil spirits.
Although the missionary who recorded the description of the Itohvnv
probably did not realize the ritual’s historical signiﬁcance, the Smallpox
Dance represented how one particular American Indian group responded
toone of the most important processes in colonialhistory.When Europeans
of pathogenic microbes that Native Americans had never before experi-
enced. Lacking acquired immunity to many common illnesses, Indians
suﬀered from virgin-soil epidemics of many diseases, including measles,
yellow fever, and most important, smallpox. Countless deaths resulted,
leading some scholars to label this historical phenomenon a ‘‘holocaust.’’
The debate continues as to the degree of population decline, but scholars
agree that virgin-soil epidemics exacted horriﬁc casualties and created a
‘‘widowed’’ land for Europeans to take with ease.
Demographic loss was not the only problem associated with epi-
demics. As many scholars have argued, Indians faced tremendous social
and cultural disruptions. Unprepared for the new diseases, infected Indians
panicked, ﬂed to neighboring villages, and spread contagion even farther.
With everyone succumbing to infection, basic social services broke down;
sick individuals were left without food, water, and care, making survival
even more diﬃcult. In addition, the novelty and destructive power of the
diseases aﬀected the spiritual life of Indians. Unable to cure individuals
or impede epidemics, Indian religious leaders became discredited; their
followers abandoned them, and tribal ceremonial life suﬀered irreversible
damage. Some Indians even became vulnerable to acculturation, adopting
the beliefs of the colonizers, whose gods might bring salvation from the
terrible epidemiological crisis.
The nightmare of epidemic spared few if any native groups, and the
Cherokees and their southeastern neighbors, the Creeks (or Muskogees),
Choctaws, and Chickasaws—the Four Nations as they were collectively
called—were no exception.
In the sixteenth century, new diseases may
have had an impact on all the Southeastern Indians, possibly spreading by
Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival 47
way of Spanish exploration or by aboriginal trade routes that linked the
region with Mexico and the Caribbean.
In the seventeenth century, virgin-
soil epidemics certainly erupted in Florida and could have aﬀected Indi-
ans living in the interior.
While their remote locations and limited con-
tact with Europeans may have protected them from early epidemics, the
Four Nations did not escape disease after establishing signiﬁcant trading
relationships with the English and French in the late seventeenth century.
Eight major epidemics of smallpox, for example, erupted among one or
more of the Four Nations between 1696 and 1783.
Colonial epidemics certainly posed serious demographic problems for
the Four Nations, but their victimization from disease should not lead
scholars to overlook what the missionary Buttrick learned from his Chero-
kee informants. Native Americans were capable of responding creatively to
epidemicsand avoiding completephysicaland spiritual destruction.Ethno-
historical evidence makes this especially clear in regard to the Southeast-
ern Indians. They explained diseases in such a way that traditional tribal
beliefs were reinforced during times of potential catastrophe. Their reli-
gious leaders, moreover, played an enduring and eﬀective role in meeting
challenges that could have been overwhelming. They acted as priests, con-
ducting village ceremonies designed to gain divine favor and to ward oﬀ
sickness; they served as counselors, predicting whether an illness or other
danger was in the future and advised others about the potential epidemio-
logical consequences of tribal actions; and last, they were healers, impro-
vizing practices to curtail infection and treat individuals.
Had these posi-
tive actions not been taken by tribal religious leaders, the Four Nations
would have suﬀered higher mortality rates from colonial epidemics and
would have had a more diﬃcult time maintaining stability during the epi-
demiological holocaust that threatened to destroy them.
Explaining the causes of epidemics certainly proved a diﬃcult task for
American Indians. The diseases that Europeans introduced were far dif-
ferent from and more deadly than indigenous ailments and aﬄictions that
traditional native medicine aimed to relieve. Nonetheless, members of the
Four Nations came up with a variety of creative interpretations.
According to Southeastern Indian mythology and folklore, an array of
intermediary agents created illness.The most common intermediaries were
animal spirits. Animals, according to Cherokees, created diseases to defend
themselves against human predators. Humans had multiplied rapidly and
invented bows, knives, blowguns, spears, and hooks that increased their
hunting yields. Animals conferred and ‘‘began then to devise and name so
many new diseases, one after another, that had not their invention at last
48 Paul Kelton
failed them, no one of the human race would have been able to survive.’’
Plants, however, remained friends of the humans. Plants heard of the ani-
mals’ ‘‘evil designs’’ and decided to furnish medicine that would cure the
resulting various ailments.
Cherokeesalso believed thatbyaskingforgive-
ness they could escape some diseases that animals created. For example,
Little Deer, the powerful and invisible chief of the deer tribe, kept watch
over all his species, and when a human shot a deer, he immediately knew
it. He listened for the hunter to ask for forgiveness, and if such a request
occurred, Little Deer forgave the hunter. If not, Little Deer followed the
hunter home and aﬄicted him with rheumatism that lasted forever.
Creek medical folklore also associated illness with certain animals.
Unlike the Cherokees, Creeks did not record in their myths that ani-
mals created illness to punish human predators. Instead, Creeks named
their illnesses afteranimals whose characteristics resembled the symptoms.
Deer, bison, bear, rabbits, dogs, squirrels, and many other animals, Creeks
believed, were associated with a variety of ailments, including fevers, intes-
tinal disorders, respiratory troubles, rheumatism, virtually every health
By connecting illness with animals, the Southeastern Indians were not
unlike other native groups in North America. Nevertheless, it does not fol-
low that members of the Four Nations blamed indigenous animals or their
spirits for virgin-soil epidemics. Indians had associated various ailments
with certain animals well before European contact, indicating that such
beliefs most likely preceded the arrival of the Europeans. The diseases that
Europeans brought with them called for diﬀerent explanations. Instead of
animals, members of the Four Nations appear to have attributed intermedi-
ary agency of epidemics to other spirits, and these new spirits were par-
ticularly mysterious and malevolent.
The Cherokee explanation of smallpox as deriving from the evil spirit
Kosvkvskini is the clearest association of malevolent spirits with an epi-
demic disease. According to some Cherokees, Kosvkvskini physically ap-
peared in the form of both man and woman. The female was of ‘‘a ripe
chestnut burr colour, and similarly covered all over with ﬁne prickels,
whereupon she ﬂitted the prickle, on touching any one, [and] raised the ﬁne
red pimple characteristic of the disease.’’ The male was of ‘‘a ripe choke
berry hue; and his touch, wherever that of the [female spirit] had preceded,
gave the blackness which the pustules afterwards assumed.’’
Similar accounts existed among the Creeks. In the eighteenth century,
some Apalachicola Creeks relocated their town after ﬂoodwaters had inun-
dated their settlements and an unidentiﬁed sickness, perhaps a waterborne
disease, such as typhoid, or a mosquito-borne illness, such as malaria,
Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival 49
plagued the inhabitants. But it was not the high water that the Creeks
blamed for the illness. Rather, they believed they had become ‘‘haunted
and possessed with vengeful spirits’’ because of the murders of a group
of traders several years earlier. ‘‘Repeatedly warned by apparitions and
dreams to leave,’’ the Creeks moved to a healthier location.
the Taskeegee Creeks informed a twentieth-century anthropologist that
‘‘spirits of the dead, who have not reached the home of the spirits, but who
wander about the earth, cause fever in its various forms.’’
Choctaw folklore also associated disease and other misfortunes with
spirits of the dead. The Choctaws traditionally retained the bones of
their deceased loved ones and even carried the bones with them when-
ever they resettled their villages. Choctaws feared abandoning the bones
because ‘‘the spirits hoveredabout their bonestosee that they were respect-
fully cared for.’’ In the event that the caretakers neglected the bones, the
oﬀended spirits would punish the Choctaws with ‘‘bad luck, sickness, or
Malevolent spirits, Southeastern Indians believed, worked in conjunc-
tion with witches or wizards to spread disease.These individuals possessed
supernatural powers, but unfortunately they used their powers for malevo-
lent purposes. As early as1708, the English learned that Southeastern Indi-
ans generally feared witches. In his visit to the Creeks, Thomas Nairne
claimed that a man named Cossittee of Okfuskee was reluctant to become
headman, ‘‘for the general opinion of the Indians is, that men of power and
authority are generally the objects of the [W]izards malice, who frequently
bewitch them into lingering distempers.’’
James Adair commented that
‘‘there are not greater bigots in Europe, nor persons more superstitious,
than the Indians, (especially the women) concerning the power of witches,
wizards, and evil spirits.’’
The link between witchcraft and disease appears vividly in nineteenth-
century oral history. George Stiggins wrote that Creeks believed that a wiz-
ard spread disease by ‘‘ﬂying about the country to poison people who were
inimical to him.’’ Such an evil spirit struck his victim by ‘‘blowing a con-
tagious air into a house in passing by it at night, blowing into the nostrils
and lungs of a person he did not like when asleep, causing instant death.’’
John Ridge, a Cherokee bicultural, similarly described traditional
beliefs about witchcraft.The Cherokees in ‘‘their most savage state,’’ Ridge
wrote, believed in ‘‘a great ﬁrst cause or spirit of all good and in a great
being the author of all evil.’’ Witches and wizards, who had supernatural
powers, alwaysworked in ‘‘intercoursewith the Devil or bad spirit’’ topro-
duce misfortune. These malevolent individuals could transform themselves
into animals, especially birds, which then sought people to aﬄict. Such
50 Paul Kelton
beings ‘‘take their nocturnal excursions in pursuit of human victims, par-
ticularly those suﬀering from disease.’’ A sick person could ward oﬀ death
byemploying ‘‘witch shooters’’ to protect him or her from the evil spirits.
It was not uncommon, then, for relatives of deceased victims of dis-
ease to take vengeance on individuals suspected of practicing witchcraft.
Sometimes they made accusationsthemselves oractedonthebeliefs of their
dying kinsmen. A Cherokee ‘‘dying by disease, and charging his death to
have been procured by means of witchcraft, or spirits, by any other per-
son,’’ one Anglo-American discovered, ‘‘consigns that person to inevitable
At other times, shamans had the duty to determine with whom
the malevolent spell originated.
Commonly, Southeastern Indian villagers blamed their own residents,
who sometimes included religious leaders who were suspected of using
their craft for evil rather than good. The Chickasaws whom Nairne visited
in1708 had killed at least two suspected witches, who were ‘‘conjurers and
rainmakers’’ andwhoprevented rain from falling.
healers. ‘‘Sometimes it is dangerous to be a medicine man,’’ a Frenchman
reported. ‘‘When someone dies, the Indians attribute the death to the medi-
cine and not to the patient’s condition.’’
Most often, however, well-respected religious leaders did not face exe-
cution. More frequently it was elderly individuals who had not achieved
much status over the course of their lives who were blamed for witchcraft.
Such people were believed to have achieved their advanced age by adding
to their own life expectancy the years of those who had died young.
result, village members immediately suspected these individuals whenever
a young member died. After suﬀering the loss of a child, for example, one
Indian family called on a village priest to ascertain the cause of death. The
priest immediately suspected witchcraft and charged an old lady with the
crime, consequently resulting in her murder.
Accusations seemed to fall
more on women than men, but the Cherokees punished elderly men and
women equally for suspected witchcraft.
As outsiders who probably did not participate in all aspects of tribal
religious life,traders naturallyengenderedsuspicionand occasionally faced
retribution for allegedly being wizards. Numerous traders perished at the
hands of their Native American hosts, and many, but of course not all, of
their deaths resulted from charges of witchcraft. In 1748, for example, a
Cherokee killed a white trader for being ‘‘a Devil and a witch.’’
tion, a Creek family once held a trader responsible for the death of a kins-
man due to ‘‘pleurisy.’’ They probably believed that the trader cursed the
dying man with disease after the two had a ﬁght.
Although Southeastern Indians attributed illness to suspicious people
Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival 51
within their tribes or to resident traders, they also interpreted sickness as
the result of witchcraft originating beyond tribal bounds. For example, the
Indians whom the Roanoke colonists encountered in the sixteenth century
suﬀered mortality from a mysterious illness and blamed the English for
shooting them with ‘‘invisible bullets.’’
Although not associated with a
particularepidemic, an episode involving eighteenth-century Creeks corre-
sponded to the Roanoke example. Creeks, one American learned, believed
that members of other tribes could shoot them with invisible bullets.These
informants told the American that ‘‘their Indian enemies have the power
of shooting them as they lay asleep, at the distance of 500 miles.’’ Creek
warriors at that time singledout their neighbors, the Choctaws andChicka-
saws, for such malevolence.
Wars among the Four Nations probably originated with one group
blaming an epidemic on the witchcraft of another. Following the 1747–50
epidemic, the Creeksand Cherokees became engulfed in violent conﬂict. In
addition, relationsbetweentheCreeks and Choctaws deteriorated substan-
tially following the 1764 smallpox outbreak, and the two nations battled
each other into the1770s. These wars had multiple causes, including com-
petition over hunting grounds and the desire to avenge the deaths of kins-
men. It would not be surprising to discover, however, that war priests and
other religious leaders rallied their people into battle by charging enemies
with using witchcraft to spread contagion.
An outbreak among the Choctaws provides substantial evidence that
Southeastern Indians suspected that epidemics originated through witch-
craft practiced by their enemies. In1731, the Choctaws blamed widespread
sickness on poisoned trade items that the Chickasaws and English traders
circulated. Toupaoulastabé, a Choctaw headman, claimed that ‘‘the sick-
ness which was current in the nationcame from a medicine that theEnglish
made with cane sugar and put in the limbourg that they had sent to trade
by way of the Chickasaws for the purpose of making all the Choctaws
Choctaw warriors sought vengeance against the Chickasaws, ‘‘who
had cast a sickness into the villages that made them all die.’’
method be poison, invisible ammunition, or other devices, only witches or
wizards used such malevolent medicine.
The English and French attempted to manipulate beliefs in witch-
craft to promote their imperial interests among Southeastern Indians. The
French, who had comparatively little to oﬀer the Indians in way of trade
goods, circulated rumors that the English practiced witchcraft. After suf-
fering the loss of some of theirdelegationin1749,Creekleaders left Charles
Town claiming that ‘‘what was told them by the French was too true.’’
What the French told them was probably what they told the Cherokees
52 Paul Kelton
several years later. During the sickly decade of the 1750s, one Cherokee
leader claimed that the French said ‘‘that the Carolina People had Conjour-
ors amongst them, that could send up diﬀerent Bundles of Sickness to their
Nation which they scatteredamongsttheirTownsfrom which proceeds the
Decrease of their People.’’
The French also claimed that the English were
directly responsible for the deaths of Cherokee leaders in Charles Town in
1749.Governor Glen’s ‘‘arms and hands’’ were ‘‘all stainedwith Blood,’’ the
Cherokees, however, were reluctant to hold their British
suppliersresponsible. Instead,one can conjecturethat the Cherokees’ long-
standing friendship with the English and frequent attacks on the French
indicated that they blamed the latter more than the former for witchcraft.
Still, witchcraft was just one possible—and not the most frequently
blamed—cause of the spread of disease. Responsibility for epidemics,
Southeastern Indians believed, more often lay with powerful supernatu-
ral forces that subjected people to diseases after they had violated sacred
tribal law. The Cherokees’ belief that spirit beings let Kosvkvskini loose to
aﬄict people with smallpox provides one of the most telling examples of
where the ultimate responsibilityforan epidemic could be found.When the
spirit beings let Kosvkvskini free, the Cherokees explained, ‘‘they were dis-
pleased with the people for their sins.’’ Beliefs among all the Four Nations
in fact associated disease with transgressions against the larger spiritual
world that controlled life.
The belief that epidemics resulted from upsetting the supernatural
stemmed from traditional Southeastern Indian interpretations of natural
disasters, such as ﬂoods and droughts. A Muskogee rainmaker, for exam-
ple, once claimed that the bad conduct of young adults ruined his ability to
mediate with the supernatural, which he referred to as ‘‘Loak Ishtohoollo.’’
‘‘Loak Ishtohoollo was sorely vexed with most of their young people for
violating the chastity of their neighbours’ wives,’’ Adair learned from the
medicine man. ‘‘They spoiled the power of his holy things, and tempted
Mingo Ishto Elóa, ‘the great chieftain of thunder,’ to bind the clouds, and
withhold the rain.’’
The Cherokees believed that youthful transgressions brought not only
drought but also sickness. The Cherokees showed their deference to the
Great Spirit by making sacriﬁces of deer meat and maize to the four winds,
which fell under divine control. When they disobeyed this tribal law, the
Great Spirit set the four winds against the earth ‘‘to destroy the crops’’ and
to bring ‘‘a famine on the earth to punish them for their disobedience.’’
Cherokees courted catastrophe when they failed to heed the authority of
their religious leaders. ‘‘When he [the Great Spirit] sees that they will not
be reclaimed by the king nor priests nor beloved men,’’ a Cherokee priest
Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival 53
recited to an English trader, ‘‘he sends [the four winds] either with war or
sickness or some grievous famine to destroy these rebellious people.’’
Not surprisingly, Cherokee priests explained the smallpox epidemic
of 1738–9 as a natural disaster brought about by supernatural forces un-
leashed after tribal laws were violated. The alleged transgression that
brought the epidemic involved sexual intercourse between men and women
in the cornﬁelds.
Laws against such activity undoubtedly functioned to
keep the attention of Cherokees focused on the important duty of guard-
ing crops against animal scavengers; dereliction of such duty could result
in disastrous loss of a season’s vegetable supply.
as one can imagine, was not exciting, however, and youth probably used
their time in the cornﬁelds for sexual experimentation despite strict laws
against it. Thus when the smallpox outbreak occurred, Cherokee elders
imagined the disease ‘‘to proceed from the invisible darts of angry fate,
pointed against them, for their young people’s vicious conduct.’’ In addi-
tion, the elders equated the epidemic with a natural disaster, calling small-
pox ‘‘oonatàquára,’’ a term related to eentaquáróske, the Cherokee word
Southeastern Indians believed that sickness not only resulted from
individual violation of tribal law but also from communal disregard for
traditional modes of religious worship. Writing about the Four Nations in
general, Adair claimed that the Indians believed that the correct practice
of their Green Corn Ceremony, or what he called the ‘‘annual expiation of
sin,’’ would bring good health and safety. A key element of this ceremony
occurred on the third day, when a village priest extinguished the ﬁre of the
past year and ignited a new ﬁre, which Southeastern Indians considered
sacred. In the event that tribal members did not show proper regard for
this ritual, catastrophe would result. Such irreverence might involve failure
of common people to remain in their dwellings and to extinguish all their
old ﬁres while the head priest produced the new ﬁre for the village. As a
consequence of their transgression, ‘‘the divine ﬁre will bite them severely
with bad diseases, sickness, and a great many other evils.’’
The Green Corn Ceremony gave religious leaders of the Four Nations
an opportunity to enumerate tribal laws and command their obedience. On
the fourth day of the annual event, priests exhorted the people of their vil-
lage to abide by the sacred rules. Southeastern Indians believed such obe-
dience would ‘‘enable their prophets, the rainmakers, to procure plentiful
harvests, and give war leaders victory over the enemies.’’ The priests, more-
over, would be able to use ‘‘the communicative power of their holy things’’
or their medicine to bring ‘‘health and prosperity.’’ In the event that people
ignored tribal law, they could expect ‘‘a great many extraordinary calami-
54 Paul Kelton
ties, such as hunger, uncommon diseases, a subjection to witchcraft, and
captivity and death by the hands of the hateful enemy in the woods.’’
The Creeks also saw epidemics as a consequence of improper regard
for tribal laws and village rituals. At some point in their history, Creeks
belonging to the town of Tuckabatchee came into possession of a few brass
plates. The artifacts may have come from the earliest Spanish explorers,
other Indians, or an eighteenth-century French or British source. The
Creeks nonetheless incorporated the objects into their ceremonies as sacred
items that only head priests and their specially trained assistants could
handle. The plates were displayed on ritualized occasions, such as the
Green Corn Ceremony, or what the Creeks called the ‘‘Puskita,’’ which
the English referred to as ‘‘Busk.’’ The Creeks considered the plates ‘‘relics
of great value, on account of the blessing supposed to be attached to the
proper attention to them.’’ The ‘‘health and prosperity’’ of Tuckabatchees
depended on the proper observance of the objects’ ritual use.
unconsecrated person even touched the plates, ‘‘he would certainly die, and
sickness or some great calamity would befall the town.’’
While improper attention to village rituals could bring disaster, cor-
rect performance could ensure health and prosperity. In 1736, a Creek
priest reported that the Busk involved the use of four medicines: pasaw,
or rattlesnake root; mico weanochaw (also called mico hoyanidja), or red
root; sowatchko, or something akin to wild fennel; and eschchapootchke,or
Various Creek ceremonies practiced both in the colonial
period and today involve the ritual consumption of these specially conse-
crated medicines believed to protect their villages from sickness and mis-
fortune. High-status priests, known as Hillis Haya, had the duty of obtain-
ing materials for the sacred medicines and preparing them for communal
consumption. The Taskeegee Creeks claimed that red root and rattlesnake
root ‘‘were sacred plants given to [them] by the Master of Breath as puri-
ﬁers and insurers of good health in being free from possession by harm-
The Yuchis also valued the two roots, claiming that the Sun
gave them to the Indians for ritual consumption during the Busk. ‘‘On that
day,’’ the Yuchis believed, ‘‘no trouble comes to the people when they have
Another Creek, speaking about thetown ofEufala,
commented that ‘‘miko hoyanidja is taken to ward oﬀ ills, to act as a kind
of wall about the people against pestilence or any kind of disease.’’ ‘‘The
mashed medicine,’’ he further reported, ‘‘should be taken home after the
Busk and used in cases of sickness.’’
The persistence of beliefs that proper personal conduct and reverent
adherence to village ceremonies ensured good health demonstrated that
epidemics did not necessarily undermine Southeastern Indian religion. On
Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival 55
the contrary, village priests convinced their followers that the ultimate
causation of such catastrophes lay in the entire community’s relationship
with the supernatural. Religious leaders exhorted village members that to
survivetheymust maintain their relationshipwith thesupernatural through
traditional modes of worship. Such a worldview not only reinforced the
status of religious leaders, it also reaﬃrmed the belief of the members of
the Four Nations that they could control their own destiny.
In more years than not, traditional Southeastern Indian practices must
have appeared to their followers to ward oﬀ sickness. Epidemics, though
certainly devastating, only struck every ﬁve to ten years. But what hap-
pened when epidemics penetrated into the interior, when diseases lurked
in nearby settlements, or, worse, when illness struck the village? In these
situations, such annual traditions as the Green Corn Ceremony could not
suﬃce. New methods of avoiding disease and treating the aﬄicted were
needed.Tomeet this need, theFour Nations relied on their religious leaders
more than ever.
Before the age of modern medicine, the natural reaction of human
beings to epidemics was avoiding communities aﬀected by disease. The
Four Nations were no diﬀerent. In the fall of 1739, for example, Chero-
kee hunters did not return to their villages for fear of smallpox. ‘‘Smallpox
is said to be still raging among the Cherokees,’’ a Georgia settler wrote.
‘‘This is one of the reasons that the men would rather be in the forests
than at home.’’
Southeastern Indians, however, did more than avoid their
own villages. As the eighteenth century progressed, religious leaders lis-
tened closely to rumors of epidemic and counseled against traveling into
areas suspected or known to be experiencing an outbreak.
The Four Nations especially sought to shun the disease-ridden settle-
ments of South Carolina. Periodically in the early years of the century,
members of the Four Nations died on the trip toCharlesTown, but by mid-
century, native groups were hesitant to visit the colonial capital. In 1748,
Creeks and Cherokees reminded Governor James Glen about the ‘‘ill con-
sequences that attends Headmen going to Charles Town by sickness, [and]
that from time to time they have lost a great many Headmen.’’
asked him to hold future meetings away from the Low Country, prefer-
ably at Ft. Moore in the Carolina Piedmont.
Despite the complaints of
the Cherokees and Creeks, Glen insisted that meetings continue to be held
at Charles Town. And, in 1749, Cherokees and Creeks reluctantly jour-
neyed to the colonial capital, where they stumbled into a disastrous epi-
demic. From that point on, native religious leaders became more ﬁrm in
their resolve to prevent their people from traveling into areas where patho-
56 Paul Kelton
gens frequently loomed. The Cherokees believed that the road to the colo-
nial capital had become contaminated, and the ‘‘fear of pollution’’ even
kept them from burying their dead. In 1755, Old Hop of the important
town of Chota, whom the English recognized as a powerful ‘‘high priest,’’
ordered that future meetings be held at Congarees, a fort above the fall
He exclaimed to British oﬃcials that many of his ‘‘best warriors had
perished coming home [from Charles Town], and [he] does not want any-
more to die.’’
As a Cherokee religious leader, Old Hop served as a counselor who
employed the art of ‘‘knowing’’ or ‘‘communicating’’ with the supernatu-
ral world to learn the potential consequences of tribal actions. Such coun-
selors exerted considerable inﬂuence in the 1750s especially. In 1758, for
example, Cherokee religious leaders prevented warriors from joining the
British to ﬁght the French and their Indian allies in the OhioValley. Chero-
kee counselors perceived ‘‘bad omens...intheirConjurations’’andpre-
dicted that if their warriors went they would suﬀer ‘‘Sickness and Death’’
from a ‘‘pestilential distemper.’’ One Cherokee headman, the Little Car-
penter, further explained that he and his warriors ‘‘never undertook any
Thing of Consequence [on their own], but they consulted their Conjurers
to know the Pleasure of the Great Man above and they neverdeparted from
In the 1750s, Cherokee counselors had good reason to worry that
young men would contract infectious diseases. From1755 to1757, smallpox
raged in the North, particularly among the troops that the British wanted
their Indian allies to join.
Perhaps the Cherokees had learned of the epi-
demic from traders orcontacts with other tribes. French-allied Indians had
continually visited Cherokee villages in the 1750s and attempted to enlist
them against the English or at least to guarantee their neutrality. In addi-
tion, Cherokees may have also learned that smallpox had erupted in their
immediate vicinity. In June1757, the British trader Daniel Pepper received
a ‘‘ﬂying report’’ that smallpox had struck a Chickasaw village located
among the Upper Creeks.
Additional reports circulated that smallpox,
measles, and other diseases were spreading in Georgia and Carolina and
had hit the Catawbas. Cherokee religious leaders may have obtained some
of this information, thus encouraging them to predict harmful conse-
quences for their people should they travel much beyond their homelands.
In the smallpox epidemic of 1763, Southeastern Indians again proved
reluctant to enter areas where disease raged. In that year, the British sought
to meet with the Four Nations. At ﬁrst, they wanted to hold a conference
in South Carolina but moved the location due to the lingering presence of
smallpox. The British informed the Indians of the disease and the neces-
Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival 57
sity of choosing a location other than Carolina.
Understandably the Indi-
ans became ‘‘disinclined’’ to travel into English settlements. The Creeks,
Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Catawbas, according to the Georgia Gazette,
‘‘absolutely refused’’ to go to the town of Dorchester, where the royal gov-
ernors of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina proposed seeing
the Indian delegates.
The Lower Creeks and Cherokees also expressed
reservations about meeting at Augusta.
In the late fall, representatives of
the Four Nations, after much cajoling, eventually met with the British at
Augusta. It may have been at that meeting that the Creeks contracted the
virus and carried it back to their villages.
During the Revolutionary War, Southeastern Indian fears of contract-
ing diseases in Anglo-American settlements became pronounced. In 1775,
Lower Cherokee leaders curiously remarked to the British in East Florida
that they did not care to trade with South Carolinians any longer. ‘‘Our
paths to them,’’ the Cherokees claimed, ‘‘are grown up with Brush.’’ The
cession of trade occurred because ‘‘the Great Man above sent a Distem-
per,’’ which had ‘‘seized thewhole [Anglo-American population] from Bos-
ton to Georgia.’’ It may be the case, however, that the ‘‘distemper’’ was a
metaphor for rebellion.The Cherokee leader proclaimed that the colonists
were ‘‘now all mad.’’ Whether disease or warfare aﬄicted the colonists, the
Cherokees did not want anything to do with them.
During the 1779–80 epidemic, the Cherokees again avoided certain
areas out of fear of smallpox. In these years, the virus spread through the
South. The British hoped to enlist the Four Nations against the rebellious
colonists, but the smallpox virus ruined any chance that large numbers of
Indian troops would join the fray. One British oﬃcer described his diﬃcul-
ties with the Cherokees, who remained reluctant to expose themselves to
contagion for the beneﬁt of the British:
Having held a conference with the [Cherokee] Indian chiefs on this
subject, they told me, ‘‘they were willing and ready to give every assis-
tance in their power to the Great King and had come down from their
the province, they wouldnot be able to prevail on their young men and
warriors to remain under their present apprehension of receiving an
infection from which their nation had on a former occasion sustained
a loss of 2500 men.’’
The Creeks also feared contracting smallpox from the Euro-
Americans in 1779. In that year, Creeks were more aware than Cherokees
that smallpox lurked in their immediate vicinity. The virus had penetrated
a fewof their villages. Not surprisingly, they refused to send warriors to aid
58 Paul Kelton
the British. ‘‘I endeavored by every means in my power to get them down
to the Army,’’ a beleaguered English agent claimed. ‘‘But their supersti-
tious ceremonies to which they are unalterable attached would not permit
them to turn out of their course.’’
The date of the British report indi-
cated that the Creeks were performing their annual Busk. According to the
Creek worldview, the Busk protected them from the very harm that would
surely follow if they ventured into the smallpox-ridden Anglo-American
Although avoiding disease-ﬁlled locations undoubtedly minimized the risk
of Southeastern Indians of contracting illness, such practices did not totally
prevent epidemics from spreading into the interior. Diseases, of course,
traveled into the homelands of the Four Nations, forcing them to be even
more creative in developing ways to deal with outbreaks.
To curtail the spread of contagion from village to village, the Four
Nations learned to implement quarantine. In1748, smallpox infected some
Upper Creek towns and threatened to spread throughout the Creek Con-
federacy. The Indians, however, ‘‘cut oﬀ every kind of communication’’
with infected villages and posted sentinels ‘‘at proper places, with strict
orders to kill’’ people from infected villages ‘‘as the most dangerous of all
enemies.’’ Such measures reportedly worked.Continual practice of quaran-
tine, moreover, facilitated the Creeks’ population resurgence in the second
half of the eighteenth century.
The epidemics of1764 and 1779 appeared
to be conﬁned to certain towns, and population estimates showed no major
Although the use of quarantine may have been borrowed from the
English, Native Americans traditionally sanctiﬁed such practices with elab-
orate ceremonies designed to gain divine favor. In 1776, the Creek town
of Attassee turned to rituals to gain supernatural aid in avoiding disease.
The town had previously experienced an outbreak that had ‘‘laid in the
grave abundance of their citizens,’’ and they did not want to suﬀer another
round of disease. ‘‘At this time the town was fasting, taking medicine, and I
think I may say praying,’’ the visitor William Bartram discovered, ‘‘to avert
a grievous calamity of sickness.’’
Other Creek tribes practiced avoidance ceremonies. The twentieth-
century Yuchis, for example, had ‘‘a general public ceremony, the object of
which is to ward oﬀ not only sickness but evils of other sorts whatever they
might be.’’ Yuchis called their special disease avoidance ritual Tsotí’ bene,
or ‘‘Medicine Drinking.’’ The town chief ordered that the ceremony be held
whenever ‘‘sickness, or trouble in general is abroad or threatens the town.’’
The ceremonyembodied the beliefs of traditional Creek festivals.The vari-
Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival 59
ous families gathered at the town and puriﬁed themselves by consuming an
emetic until they vomited. They also danced as a form of ‘‘propitiation to
the various supernatural beings’’ who would protect them from disease.
oﬀ infectious diseases. One of these medicines, kadohwa, or honey locust,
was speciﬁcally taken to prevent exposure to ‘‘contagions such as smallpox
Family members bathed in the medicine for four successive
days in order to be protected from disease. As during their annual agri-
cultural ceremonies, religious leaders prepared medicines that were used in
highly ritualized formats. Prayers, dances, and songs were important for
medicine to be fully eﬀective.
TheTsotí’ bene resembled the Cherokees’ Smallpox Dance. Both were
ritualized forms of quarantine, which functioned to quell contact between
infected and uninfected villages, and both rites showed that Native Ameri-
can religion proved resilient amid the threat of epidemics. Cherokees had
anotheravoidance ceremony, whichprovidesevenricherdetail ofhow Indi-
ans responded creatively with novel rituals to aid their own survival.
The Cherokees performed a modiﬁed version of their ‘‘Great New
Moon’’ festival, or Ahtawhhungnah, in order ‘‘to avert contagiousfeversand
other similar epidemics.’’ The Great New Moon festival was held annually
after the appearance of the ﬁrst new moon of fall. It marked the beginning
ofthenewyear and wasa time inwhich Cherokeesgathered at their respec-
tive towns and puriﬁed themselves through use of herbal medicines, ritual-
ized bathing, and special dances. Cherokee head priests, or Ooleestooleeh,
however, determined to hold a modiﬁed version of the ceremony when-
ever ‘‘disease was apprehended or prevailed.’’
‘‘When God was displeased
withanypeoplehesentsicknessbymeansof...theﬁre, the water, the
moon, or the thunder,’’ Cherokees explained. ‘‘Other towns fearing a like
calamity celebrated the [Ahtawhhungnah] in order to please god and had
him to defend them from so great a calamity.’’
The modiﬁed Ahtawhhungnah was a lengthy ceremony that, like the
Smallpox Dance, essentially shut Cherokee villages oﬀ from the outside
world. The head priest made the decision to hold the event seven days in
advance, and the ceremony itself lasted another seven days. On the ﬁrst
dayof the ceremony, the Ooleestooleeh, his Beloved Men, and aTeekanaw-
ghistee prepared the medicinal beverages that village members would con-
sume. Over the next several days, the Ooleestooleeh acted as a counselor,
employing the art of knowing to make predictions about the village’s fate.
Each member of the village presented a bead to the priest that ‘‘he might,
in the event of any one being taken sick, determine the result by means of
the bead representing the suﬀerer.’’
60 Paul Kelton
The prophecy of the Ooleestooleeh did not stop there. He also sac-
riﬁced a deer’s tongue to the divine ﬁre and sprinkled it with tobacco.
He prayed that he might learn ‘‘whether the dreaded pestilence would
be driven away.’’ If smoke formed a bluish cloud and remained over the
ﬂame, sickness would prevail. If no such cloud formed and the ﬂame rose
straight up, the pestilence would spare the medicine man’s village. If sick-
ness seemed imminent, the priest would consult his divining crystal, which
above everything else symbolized his medicinal powers. Within the divin-
ing crystal the entire village would appear to the Ooleestooleeh. Victims
of disease would come into view as distinctly dark blue, while the others
would look bright.The crystal would grow more and more brilliant if good
health was predicted. After conducting these rituals, the Ooleestooleeh
told thevillagers the results.Undoubtedly, positive predictionsgave Chero-
kees spiritual comfort while ominous ones caused them much concern and
During the smallpox years of the late 1750s, the Cherokees appeared
to practice the modiﬁed Ahtawhhungnah, the Smallpox Dance, or another
disease avoidance ritual. In January 1759, a Presbyterian missionary found
people of the town of Chota engaged in religious activity. ‘‘They are much
given to conjuring & the conjurers have great Powerover [them],’’ the mis-
sionary wrote. ‘‘They have thesefewdaysbeen preparing a Physick[which]
they say will drive away all their Disorders.’’
Smallpox aﬄicted some Cherokees in 1759 and 1760, but even dur-
ing these years, when they were at war against the British, they strove to
curtail the spread of the epidemic. By December 1759, Lower Cherokees
had contracted the virus, probably from neighboring Catawbas who had
transported it from Pennsylvania. In that month, English soldiers invaded
and helped spread the disease through Lower Cherokee villages, which
were forced to communicate with each other to meet the emergency. After
the British departure, however, Cherokees attempted to arrest the progress
of smallpox. Through the winter and spring of 1760, ‘‘the ravaging small-
Not until after the second British invasion in June 1760 and the sub-
sequent destruction of Lower Cherokee villages did the disease seem to
spread. The exigencies of warfare prevented Cherokee villages from shut-
ting themselves oﬀ from each other and performing disease avoidance
rituals. Lower Cherokee refugees, ﬂeeing their homes in western South
Carolina, unintentionally carried the virus to other Cherokee settlements.
Reportedly, the Middle Towns, which lay to the north and west of the
Lower Towns in western North Carolina, came down with the illness.
Smallpox, however, stopped short of the Overhill Settlements, which lay
Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival 61
westof the MiddleTowns ineasternTennessee.TheOverhills were ‘‘in such
Dread of the Infection, that they will not allow a single Person from the
[Lower or Middle Towns] to come amongst them.’’
As the smallpox epidemic of 1759–60 showed, Southeastern Indians at-
tempted to avoid epidemics.They did not always succeed, however. In that
case, treatment became as important as prevention. Religious leaders had
to respond by employing the art of healing.
As many scholars have emphasized, healers proved ineﬀective in deal-
ing with the crisis of epidemics. An entire village succumbed to infection
at the same time, leaving no one to prepare food, obtain water, and gather
ﬁrewood. Traditional healing practices, such as sweating and cold-water
bathing, moreover, did nothing to arrest and may have even expedited the
progress of a disease. In the smallpox epidemic of1738, forexample, bewil-
dered religious leaders among the Cherokees destroyed their aboriginal
medicinal artifacts, and some stricken patients killed themselves believing
there would be no deliverance from the horribly disﬁguring virus.
After ﬁrst experiencing a virgin-soil epidemic, however, Southeastern
Indians learned more eﬀective ways of treating the sick. The most impor-
tant mode of treatment involved removing the patient from the village and
preventing his or her contact with other tribal members. Seclusion was not
a new practice. Menstruating women as well as new mothers and their
infants remained outside their villages for varying amounts of time.
did wounded warriors, whose blood threatened to pollute thevillage.These
aﬄicted individuals remained in huts outside of their villages, where only
‘‘prophets’’ and ‘‘superannuated women’’ treated them.
Southeastern Indians looked upon victims of smallpox and other infec-
tious diseases inmuch the sameway. Evenduringwhatappeared to be their
ﬁrst experiencewith smallpox, Cherokees worried about the consequences
of keeping the sick in the village and ordered them to sleep in the ﬁelds.
Cherokee priests, according to James Adair, ‘‘were...afraid,thatthedis-
Cherokee oral history, recorded in the 1830s, mentions similar
fears of disease victims:
Long ago the Indians were aﬄicted with some very awful diseases
which do not now prevail. One of these diﬀered from the smallpox,
or yaws, yet occasioned dreadful sores in the ﬂesh. When any one in a
family was taken with that disorder the diseased person was removed,
and had a hut, or tent, raised at a distance from any other habitation,
and there lived alone.Then the priest was sent for to cleanse the dwell-
ing just left by the diseased, as if some person had died in it. After this
62 Paul Kelton
should any one touch the diseased, he would be unclean as if he had
A century earlier, the Creeks treated patients similarly. In 1764,
Thomas Campbell visited the Creeks. Although making no reference to
smallpox, which reportedly struck the Creeks in the year of his visit, he
commented that ‘‘none but near relations inquire after the sick.’’
bell referred to the common practice of each clan having its own healer,
who administered treatment to his kinsmen.
Treatment of patients followed an elaborate ritual involving healers,
their assistants, and special medicines. But because healers guarded their
sacred knowledge, their rituals were generally hidden from observation by
Europeans. Only brief descriptions survive in eighteenth-century records.
‘‘When taken sick,’’ a typical account said of the Indians, ‘‘they are par-
ticularly prone to superstition, and their physicians administer their simple
and secret cures with a variety of strange ceremonies and magic arts.’’
One possible healer, whom the English frequently referred to in the1750s,
was a man from the Cherokee town of Settico, known as the ‘‘Smallpox
One only wishes that the English had taken more notice of
the activities of this interesting man. Perhaps he was a skilled healer who
achieved his mystical powers by surviving a severe case of smallpox.
so, acquired immunity to thevirus would have enabled him towork closely
with infected victims. It may also be the case, however, that instead of a
healer, the Cherokee religious leader may have been a priest who led or
even created the Smallpox Dance.Whatever the Smallpox Conjuror’s exact
role, he lamentably falls into the same obscurity as a number of other mys-
terious yet powerful religious leaders to whom literate observers gave little
Fortunately, the ‘‘strange ceremonies’’ and ‘‘magic arts’’ that eigh-
teenth-century Europeans only scantily recorded become more detailed in
nineteenth-century accounts. In 1840, the Chickasaws practiced a cere-
mony called the Tonshpashoophah (later called the Pishofa), which demon-
strated the elaborate ritual involved in patient treatment. The ceremony
involved a family calling on a healer to care for an aﬄicted member. The
healer secluded his patient in a hut and commenced ‘‘singing and shaking
a gourd over the patient’’ to determine the cause of the sickness. When the
healer discovered the cause, he used ‘‘herbs,roots, steaming andconjuring’’
to treat his patient. He also ordered family members to have a ‘‘large feast’’
in which they eat, dance, and sing. Such activities, the healers believed,
‘‘raises the spirits of the sick, and weakens the evil spirit’’ that caused the
Choctaws also practiced the Tonshpashoophah.The Choctaws as
well as the Chickasaws appointed consecrated individuals known as Tisho
Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival 63
Mingos to guard the patient and prevent anyone from entering the sick per-
son’s hut. Moreover, participants in the ritual believed that bydancing they
would scatter the disease, driving it from their communities.
Avoidancerituals, quarantine practices, andhealing ceremonies of the Four
Nations were not always eﬀective. Despite stern warnings from their reli-
gious leaders, individuals walked into disease-infested Anglo-American
settlements and carried pathogens with them back to their home villages.
Certainly there were times when native healers, such as those who con-
ducted the Pishofa, contracted diseases from patients and exposed other
members of thevillage. In addition, while ceremonies such as the Smallpox
Dance attempted to cut oﬀ villages from communication, in some cases it
may have been too late. Infected villagers brought a disease with them to
their village ceremonies, thus exposing an entire village.
Nevertheless, at the very least, Southeastern Indian survival strategies
slowedtheprogress ofcontagious diseases.The limited spread ofepidemics
in 1747–50, 1759–60, 1763–4, and 1779–83 and the lack of observable
demographic losses following these outbreaks suggest that Southeastern
Indians responded eﬀectively. Historian Peter Wood, for example, has sur-
veyed the colonial record and calculated that the total population of the
Four Nations actually increased over the last half of the eighteenth century,
growing from 35,500 in 1745 to 40,300 in 1790.
Of course, counting the
number of Indians in the eighteenth century is hindered by multiple prob-
lems, including unreliable estimates by Europeans and continual popula-
tion movement in and out of each of the Four Nations. In addition, such
increases indicate that by the middle of the century the Southeastern Indi-
ans were no longer virgin populations. One can conclude, however, that
had the Four Nations not taken such an active response to the four out-
breaks that struck the region between 1747 and 1783, colonial observers
would have recorded much smaller populations. Children born after epi-
demics were particularly vulnerable to smallpox and other acute infectious
diseases, which required surviving an active infection to achieve immunity.
Undoubtedly the Southeastern Indians took conscious actions that isolated
some of their villages and spared them from the ravages of disease. In addi-
tion, in those villages that were unfortunate enough to be visited by con-
tagion, healing rituals most likely lowered mortality rates. The seclusion
of aﬄicted individuals outside the village again impeded, if not prevented,
the dissemination of germs through an entire community. This kept large
numbers of people from getting sick at the same time and allowed normal
social services, such as food gathering and caring for the sick, to continue.
One does not have to believe that native healers in fact eﬀected cures
64 Paul Kelton
through mediation with the spirit world to acknowledge that they had a
positive impact on their patients. Unlike the barbaric cures of colonial-era
Euro-American doctors, who bled patients and inﬂicted them with doses
of mercury and other toxic materials, native herbal medicines were quite
benign.Compared to their European counterparts, native healers let nature
take its course, which in the absence of modern medicines such as antibi-
otics and vaccines was the best regimen to pursue. ‘‘Quite elementary nurs-
ing will greatly reduce mortality,’’ the medical historian William McNeill
has found. ‘‘Simple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow
persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover
instead of perishing miserably.’’
Indeed, ‘‘simple nursing’’ along with a regimen of prayers and dances
bolstered the health and morale of Indians stricken with contagious dis-
eases. It was no surprise, then, that one Choctaw chief compared the be-
loved English agent John Stuart to a religious leader. ‘‘You are like a great
Doctor who can cure all Distempers, the sight of whom comforts and
cheers the Spirits of his patient,’’ the Choctaw chief commented.
eastern Indians indeedheld their religiousleadersinhigh esteem. As priests,
counselors, and healers, these individuals interpreted diseases, gave eﬀec-
tive advice, constructedavoidance ceremonies, and performed healing ritu-
als that reinforced traditional religious beliefs and built village solidarity
in the midst of epidemics that threatened to destroy their communities.
Through such an active response to eighteenth-century epidemics, the Four
Nations survived not only physically but also culturally and spiritually.
1 Buttrick learned about the Smallpox Dance from several Cherokees who had
been trained to be religious leaders. He recorded the information and sent it in
a letter to John Howard Payne, who later included it in a manuscript. Payne’s
manuscript and Buttrick’s letter, respectively, can be found in the John Howard
Payne Papers, Newberry Library, Chicago, microﬁlm, 1:159 and 4:n.p. The
John Howard Payne Papers are hereafter cited as jhpp.
2 Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival (Norman, ok,1987).
3 The epidemiological consequences of European colonization have spawned
a substantial body of literature. The seminal works on this topic are Alfred
Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492
(Westport, ct,1972); William McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (New York,1977);
and Henry Dobyns, Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population
Dynamics in Eastern North America (Knoxville, tn, 1983). See also the often
overlooked earlier studies by John Duﬀy, especially ‘‘Smallpox and the Indians
in the American Colonies,’’ Bulletin of the History of Medicine 25 (spring 1951):
324–41. Several regional environmental histories have included the impact of
European and African diseases on Indians as the ﬁrst episode in the ecological
Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival 65
transformation of the American landscape. Nevertheless, the standard works
give little attention to how Indians intellectually constructed disease and how
they responded creatively and eﬀectively to epidemics. See William Cronon,
Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New
York,1983), 85–90; Richard White, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change
(Seattle, wa, 1980), 26–29, and Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment,
and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (Lincoln, ne,
1983); and Timothy Silver, A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists,
and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500–1800 (New York, 1990), 74–83.
4 Alfred Crosby has emphasized how the psychological impact of disease com-
pounded the biological impact. See Crosby, ‘‘Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor
in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America,’’ William and Mary Quarterly 33
(1976): 289–99. On disease, religion, and culture change, see Daniel Reﬀ, Dis-
ease, Depopulation, and Culture Change in Northwestern New Spain, 1518–1764
(Salt Lake City, ut, 1991); Colin Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Euro-
peans, and the Remaking of Early America (Baltimore, md, 1997), 70–74; and
Sheldon Watts, Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism (New
Haven, ct, 1997), 102–8. The idea that depopulation, despiritualization, and
acculturation occurred simultaneously has even been addressed in the main-
streammedia. See GeoﬀreyCowley, ‘‘The GreatDisease Migration,’’ Columbus
special issue of Newsweek, fall/winter 1991, 54–56.
5 In the late eighteenth century, U.S. oﬃcials and members of the Cherokee,
Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw nations frequently used the term Four Na-
tions. For example, see Benjamin Hawkins, Letters of Benjamin Hawkins, 1796–
1806,Collections ofthe GeorgiaHistorical Society, vol. 9(Savannah,1916),180,
214, 248, 252, and 255. The term did not receive much currency past1800 due
to the emergence of the Seminoles.Thereafter, the name Five Civilized Nations
became more prevalent. Because this essay does not include the Seminoles, the
uncommon name, the Four Nations, will be used for convenience.
6 This controversial argument has been proposed by Henry Dobyns and sup-
ported by others. See Dobyns, Their Number Become Thinned; Ann Ramenof-
sky, Vectors of Death: the Archaeology of European Contact (Albuquerque, nm,
1987); Marvin Smith, Archaeology of Aboriginal Culture Change in the Interior
Southeast: Depopulation during the Early Historic Period (Gainesville, fl,1987);
and Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: the Biological Expansion of Europe,
900–1900 (New York,1986), especially 200–1 and 209–15. Dobyns’s most per-
sistent critic has been David Henige. See ‘‘Primary Source by Primary Source?
On theRole ofEpidemics inNewWorld Depopulation,’’ Ethnohistory 33(1986):
293–312, and Numbers from Nowhere: the American Indian Contact Population
Debate (Norman, ok, 1998).
7 For the best accounts of the impact of disease on the natives of Florida, see
John Worth, The Timucuan Chiefdoms of Spanish Florida, 2 vols. (Gainesville,
fl,1998), 2:1–26; John Hann, Apalachee: The Land between the Rivers (Gaines-
ville, fl, 1988), 160–80.
8 That interior groups fared better or even escaped early epidemics has been
suggested in Ann Ramenofsky, ‘‘Loss of Innocence: Explanations of Diﬀer-
ential Persistence in the Sixteenth-Century Southeast,’’ in Columbian Conse-
quences,vol.2,Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on the Spanish Border-
lands East, ed. David Hurst Thomas (Washington, dc, 1991), 31–49. See also
66 Paul Kelton
Patricia Galloway, Choctaw Genesis (Lincoln, ne,1995). For a vivid example of
the demographic upheavals experienced by one particular Southeastern Indian
group outside of the interior, see James Merrell, The Indians’ New World: the
Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal
(Chapel Hill, nc, 1989).
9 The dates of these major epidemics are as follows:1696–1700,1718–22,1728–
33, 1738–42, 1747–50, 1759–60, 1763–65, and 1779–83. For the chronology of
major epidemics in the colonial South, see Peter Wood, ‘‘The Impact of Small-
pox on the Native Population of the18th-Century South,’’ New York State Jour-
nal of Medicine 87 (1987): 30–36; Silver, A New Face on the Countryside,74–
83; Russell Thornton, The Cherokees: A Population History (Lincoln, ne,1990);
and Paul Kelton, ‘‘The Great Southeastern Smallpox Epidemic,’’ in Transforma-
tion of the Southeastern Indians, 1540–1760, ed. Robbie Ethridge and Charles
Hudson (Jackson, ms, 2002), 21–37.
10 This essay refers to the priests, spiritual counselors, and healers of the Four
Nations as religious leaders because the generic title encompasses the full
variety of men and women who played a role in confronting colonial epidemics.
Eighteenth-century Euro-Americans most commonlycalled native spiritual and
medical practitioners ‘‘conjurors’’ while also referring to them, on occasion,
as ‘‘doctors,’’ ‘‘magicians,’’ ‘‘prophets,’’ and ‘‘jugglers.’’ Modern scholars refer
to them as ‘‘shamans,’’ ‘‘medicine men,’’ or the gender-neutral form ‘‘medicine
people.’’ Members of the Four Nation, moreover, gave their religious leaders
many diﬀerent names and titles and accorded them varying levels of status
within their societies.The Ooleestooleeh and Teekanawghistee, who conducted
the Cherokees’ Smallpox Dance, for example, were just two types of religious
leaders who would play a role in confronting the challenges of colonial epi-
demics. It is not the intention here to give a taxonomic analysis of the variety
of individuals who had religious and medical duties within each of the Four
Nations; others have skillfully handled that task. John R. Swanton has provided
the seminal works on this topic: The Indians of the Southeastern United States,
Bureauof AmericanEthnology Bulletin,No.137 (Washington,dc,1946);‘‘Reli-
gious Beliefs and Medical Practices of the Creek Indians,’’ in Forty-Second
Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (Washington, dc, 1928);
‘‘Social and Religious Beliefs and Usages of the Chickasaw Indians,’’ in Forty-
Fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (Washington, dc,
1930); and Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw
Indians, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, No. 103 (Washington, dc,
1931). See also James Mooney, History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Chero-
kees (Washington, dc, 1900; Asheville, nc, 1992); and Charles Hudson, The
Southeastern Indians (Knoxville, tn, 1976). For a general overview of Native
American medicine, see Virgil Vogel, American Indian Medicine (Norman, ok,
1970). Vogel’s greatest contribution is his discussion of American Indian phar-
macology, which is not the subject of this essay.
11 Historian William McNeill found that populations generally took one hundred
years to ‘‘learn to live’’ with a newly introduced disease and to display popula-
tion growth, but he left it to others to examine how indigenous societies spe-
ciﬁcally adapted to new illnesses. That is just what this essay intends to do. See
McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, 128. In addition, Peter Wood has estimated that
the populations of the Four Nations were increasing after 1745, which neces-
Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival 67
sarily leads one to ask why this increase happened. Incorporation of remnant
groups certainly played a role in demographic recovery, but as this article will
show, Southeastern Indian survival was due in part to the cultural responses
of the Four Nations. See Wood, ‘‘The Changing Population of the Colonial
South,’’ in Powhatan’s Mantle: Indians of the Colonial South, ed. Peter Wood,
Gregory Waselkov, and M. Thomas Hatley (Lincoln, ne, 1989), 35–103. For
a general demographic assessment of Native American population resurgence,
see Russell Thornton, Tim Miller, and Jonathan Warren, ‘‘American Indian
Population Recovery following Smallpox Epidemics,’’ American Anthropologist
93 (1991): 28–45.
12 Mooney, History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees, 250–2.
13 Ibid., 264.
14 Swanton, ‘‘Religious Beliefs and Medical Practices of the Creek Indians,’’
15 Calvin Martin argues thatIndiansof Canada blamed animals for virgin-soil epi-
demics, thus allowing them to wage a holy war on wild game and participate in
the fur trade with Europeans. However, no such evidence exists in the South-
east. See Calvin Martin, Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and
the Fur Trade (Berkeley, ca,1978). For viewpoints in opposition to Martin, see
Shepard Krech, ed. Indians, Animals, and the Fur Trade: A Critique of Keepers
of the Game (Athens, ga, 1981).
17 William Bartram, Travels of William Bartram, ed. Mark Van Doren (Philadel-
phia, 1791; New York,1928), 318.
18 Frank Speck, ‘‘The Creek Indians of Taskigi Town,’’ in Memoirs of the American
Anthropological Association (Menasha, wi, 1907), 129, 149.
19 Gideon Lincecum recorded this myth from nineteenth-century Choctaw infor-
mants. It is quoted in Swanton, Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw,14.
20 Thomas Nairne, Journal of Expedition to the Mississippi River, 1708, ed. Alex-
ander Moore (Jackson, ms, 1988), 35.
21 James Adair, History of the American Indian, ed. Samuel C. Williams (London,
1775; Johnson City, tn, 1930), 38.
22 George Stiggins, Creek Indian History: A Historical Narrative of the Genealogy,
Traditions, and Downfall of the Ispocoga or Creek Indian Tribe of Indians, ed.Vir-
ginia Pounds Brown (Birmingham, al, 1989), 88.
23 John Ridge to Albert Gallatin, 27 February 1826, jhpp, 8:n.p.
24 John Haywood, Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee, up to the First
Settlements Therein by the White People, in the Year 1768 (Nashville, tn, 1959),
25 Swanton, ‘‘Social and Religious Beliefs and Usages of the Chickasaw Indians,’’
26 Nairne, Journal of Expedition,40.
27 Jean-Bernard Bossu, Travels in the Interior of North America, 1751–62, ed. Sey-
mour Feiler (Norman, ok,1962),149. See also Von Reck’s Voyage: Drawings and
Journal of Philip Georg Friedrich von Reck, ed. Kristian Hvidt (Savannah, ga,
28 Raymond Fogelson, ‘‘An Analysis of Cherokee Sorcery,’’ in Four Centuries of
Southern Indians, ed. Charles Hudson (Athens, ga, 1975), 120.
29 Adair, History of the American Indian, 186.
68 Paul Kelton
30 John Ridge to Albert Gallatin, 27 February 1826, jhpp, 8:n.p. Scholars gen-
erally agree that elderly people, women more so than men, bore the brunt of
witchcraft accusations. See Swanton, ‘‘Religious Beliefs and Medical Practices
of the Creek Indians,’’ 632; Fogelson, ‘‘An Analysis of Cherokee Sorcery,’’ 120;
and Swanton, ‘‘Social and Religious Beliefs and Usages of the Chickasaw Indi-
31 Minutes of [South Carolina] Council, 29 March 1748, British Public Record
Oﬃce, Colonial Oﬃce, Class 5 ﬁles, vol. 456:162–3; photostats, transcripts,
and microﬁlm in the Library of Congress, Washington, dc (hereafter cited as
32 Adair, History of the American Indian,156.
33 Thomas Harriot, ‘‘A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Vir-
ginia, ,’’ in New American World: A Documentary History of North Amer-
ica to 1612, ed. David B. Quinn, 5 vols. (New York, 1979), 3:152–3.
34 Caleb Swan, ‘‘Position and State of Manners andArts in the Creekor Muscogee
Nation, 1791,’’ in Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects
of the Indian Tribes of the United States, ed. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, 6 vols.
(Philadelphia., 1852–7), 5:271.
35 Among the Iroquois, intertribal conﬂict commonly followed epidemics, but the
‘‘mourning wars,’’ conducted to replace lost kinsmen, were not the same phe-
nomenon as accusing a rival tribe of witchcraft. On mourning wars, see Daniel
Richter, Ordeal of the Longhouse: the Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of
European Colonization (Chapel Hill, nc, 1992).
36 Régis du Roullet to Périer, 27 February 1731, in Mississippi Provincial Archives:
French Dominion, ed. Dunbar Rowland, A. G. Sanders, and Patricia Galloway,
5 vols. (Jackson, ms, 1927–84), 4:58–59.
37 Ibid., 60.
38 James Glen to Board of Trade, 23 December 1749, co 5, vol. 372:171–2.
39 William McDowell, ed., Documents Relating to Indian Aﬀairs, 1754–1765 (Co-
lumbia, sc, 1970), 265.
40 Ibid., 358.
41 Adair, History of the Amerian Indian,93–94.
42 Alexander Longe, ‘‘A Small Postscript on the Ways and Manners of the Nashon
of Indians called the Charikees (1717),’’ ed. David H. Corkran, Southern Indian
Studies 21 (October 1969): 14.
43 Ibid., 18.
44 Adair, History of the American Indian, 244–5.
45 Bartram recorded Creek customs of guarding cornﬁelds. See Bartram, Travels,
46 Adair, History of the American Indian, 69.This name for smallpox does not sur-
vive,probably because it wasa Lower Cherokee term.As thecentury proceeded
the Lower dialect became less prevalent. Unudakwala,meaning‘‘holesinthe
face,’’ is another Cherokee word for smallpox. For a similar interpretation of
the Cherokees’ explanation for the1738 smallpox epidemic, see Theda Perdue,
Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700–1835 (Lincoln, ne, 1998),
58. Perdue argues that the Cherokees viewed semen and other bodily emissions
as polluting and thus regarded such pollution as the reason the spiritual world
47 Adair, History of the American Indian,111.Although not focusing speciﬁcallyon
Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival 69
disease, Joel Martin expounds on this ideainhisanalysisof the RedStickmove-
ment among the Muskogees in the nineteenth century.The Creeks believed that
misfortune resulted when the spiritual powers of the upper and lower worlds
became unbalanced. Humans and animals who lived in between the upper and
lower worlds maintained the balance by proper regard of the sacred. When
humans did not show the expected reverence, they could expect misfortune.
See Martin, Sacred Revolt: the Muskogees’ Struggle for a New World (Boston,
48 Adair, History of the American Indian, 113–4. Swanton suggests that the Choc-
taws lacked theGreen Corn Ceremony until the Creeks introduced it to them in
the nineteenth century. See Swanton, Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw,
221. This suggestion, however, seems ludicrous. Green Corn ceremonialism
was widespread through the eastern woodlands. In addition, harvest festivals
appear universal among most, if not all, preindustrial societies. That Choctaw
ceremonies went largely unrecorded does not mean they did not exist. Instead,
one should assume that the Choctaw ceremonialism was as elaborate as that of
the other Southeastern Indians.
49 Account of R. M. Loughridge,14 September1852, reprinted in Swanton, ‘‘Reli-
gious Beliefs and Medical Practices of the Creek Indians,’’ 507.
50 Ibid., 506.
51 Von Reck’s Voyage, 49. See also ‘‘Ancient Georgia Indian Lore,’’ Georgia His-
torical Quarterly 15 (June 1931): 194.
52 Speck, ‘‘Indians of Taskigi Town,’’ 138.
53 Frank Speck, Ethnology of the Yuchi Indians, Anthropological Publications of
the University Museum, Vol. 1, No.1 (Philadelphia,1909), 106–7.
54 Swanton, ‘‘Religious Beliefs and Medical Practices of the Creek Indians,’’ 608.
55 Gregory Evans Dowd also cametothis conclusion concerning NativeAmerican
religious beliefs about misfortune in the eighteenth century. See Dowd, A Spir-
ited Resistance: the Native American Struggle for Unity (Baltimore, md, 1992),
56 Daily register entry, 24 November 1739, in Detailed Reports on the Salzburger
Emigrants Who Settled in America, ed. George Fenwick Jones and Renate Wil-
son, 27 vols. (Athens, ga, 1968–), 7:289.
57 Minutes of [South Carolina] Council, 23 May 1749, co 5, vol. 459:394.
58 Journal of the Commons House of Assembly of South Carolina, 1749, ed. Alexan-
der S. Salley (Columbia, sc, 1907–49), 194.
59 South Carolina Gazette, 31 July1755; and Adair, History of the American Indian,
85, 113. Old Hop was also referred to as ‘‘Cannacaughte’’ (also spelled as
‘‘Kanekadi’’), whom one Englishman deﬁned as a physician or conjuror. John
Gerar De Brahm, Report of the General Survey in the Southern District of North
America, ed. Louis DeVorsey Jr. (Columbia, sc, 1971), 118. In contemporary
Cherokee, ganagati means ‘‘surgeon.’’ Whether Old Hop acted as a healer, how-
ever, remainsunseen. He certainlyservedas a priest and a counselor. Fora theo-
retical discussion ofOld Hop’s status, see FredO.Gearing, Priests and Warriors:
Social Structures of Cherokee Politics in the 18th Century (Menasha, wi, 1962).
Gearing overestimates the power of Old Hop, arguing that the priest headed
a tribal state with its capital at Chota. Old Hop certainly wielded consider-
able inﬂuence, but Cherokee power was dispersed more widely among several
religious leaders, civil chiefs, and warriors, who lived in a variety of Cherokee
70 Paul Kelton
towns. Foran account of internal Cherokee political dynamics during the colo-
nial period, see M. Thomas Hatley, The Dividing Paths: Cherokees and South
Carolinians through the Revolutionary Era (New York,1995).
60 McDowell, ed., Documents Relating to Indian Aﬀairs, 1754–1765,46.
61 Ibid., 471. Further evidence of the Cherokees’ reliance on knowers to predict
the consequences of tribal actions can be found in De Brahm, Report of the Gen-
62 John Duﬀy, Epidemics in Colonial America (Baton Rouge, la, 1953), 86–90.
63 McDowell, ed., Documents Relating to Indian Aﬀairs, 1754–1765, 389.
64 ‘‘Journal of the Congress at Augusta in Georgia,1763,’’ co 5, vol. 65:n.p.
65 Georgia Gazette, 20 October 1763. It is unclear whether they meant Dor-
cester, Georgia, or Dorcester, South Carolina, but both were near the smallpox-
infested settlements of Savannah and Charles Town, respectively.
66 South Carolina Gazette, 8 October 1763; ‘‘Journal of the Congress at Augusta
in Georgia,1763,’’ co 5, vol. 65:n.p.
67 Lower Cherokee Speech to a Party Setting oﬀ for East Florida, 8 November
1775, co 5, vol. 77:n.p.
68 Thomas Brown to George Germaine,18 March 1780, co 5, vol. 81:225–6.
69 David Taitt to George Germaine, 6 August1779, co 5, vol. 80:n.p.
70 Adair, History of the American Indian,276,364.
71 Bartram, Travels, 366–7. There were several descriptions of varying detail of
eighteenth-century Creek ceremonies, but all (except Bartram’s) were weak in
providing evidence of the particularpurpose ofconsuming medicines.They gen-
erally referred to the idea thatmedicines would bring good fortune,particularly
in warfare, and would purify individuals and an entire village of past trans-
gressions. See Bossu, Travels,147; Louis Le Clerc de Milfort, Memoir of a Cur-
sory Glance at My Diﬀerent Travels and My Sojourn in the Creek Nation, ed.
John F. McDermott (Chicago, 1956), 135–42 and152–3; Swan, ‘‘Position ...in
the Creek or Muscogee Nation,’’ 267–8; Benjamin Hawkins, ASketchofthe
Creek Country in the Years1798 and1799 (NewYork,1971), 75–78. See also the
nineteenth-century account, Stiggins, Creek Indian History,60–64.
72 Speck, Ethnology of the Yuchi Indians,136.
73 Swanton, ‘‘Religious Beliefs and Medical Practices of the Creek Indians,’’ 658.
74 Theentire description of the modiﬁedAh-tawh-hung-nah canbe foundin jhpp,
75 jhpp, 3:32.
76 jhpp, 3:156.
77 William Richardson, ‘‘Account of the Presbyterian Mission,’’ in Early Travels
in the Tennessee Country, ed. Samuel C.Williams (Johnson City, tn, 1930), 135.
78 Adair, History of the American Indian,266.
79 Pennsylvania Gazette, 4 September1760.
80 Adair, History of the American Indian, 129–30; Swanton, ‘‘Social and Religious
Beliefs and Usages of the Chickasaw Indians,’’ 358–61.
81 Adair, History of the American Indian,131.
82 Ibid., 245.
84 ThomasCampbell, ‘‘LieutenantThomas Campbell’s Sojournamong theCreeks,
November, 1764–May, 1765,’’ ed. Robin F. A. Fabel and Robert R. Rea, Ala-
bama Historical Quarterly 36 (summer 1974): 162.
Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival 71
85 Alexander Hewatt, An Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of the Colonies
of South Carolina and Georgia,  in Historical Collections of South Carolina,
ed. Bartholomew R. Carroll, 2 vols. (New York,1836), 1:70.
86 Forreferences to theSmallpox Conjuror, seevarious letters inWilliam McDow-
ell, ed., Documents Relating to Indian Aﬀairs, May 21, 1750–August 7, 1754
(Columbia,sc,1958),224;McDowell,ed., Documents Relating to Indian Aﬀairs,
1754–1765, 25, 381–2, 385.
87 Old Hop of Chota, the Smallpox Conjuror’s rival, achieved his status by sur-
viving a terrible wound while he was young. His crippled condition kept him
from traveling to meet with the English in Charles Town, but he maintained his
authority through his religious leadership (see South Carolina Gazette,31July
1755). Similarly, a Natchez man became an esteemed spiritual ﬁgure by surviv-
ing a lightning strike (see Swanton, Indians of the Southeastern United States,
780). Conceivably, surviving a deadly infection but becoming marked for life
with pox scars gave the Smallpox Conjuror equal powers. Unfortunately, the
evidence does not indicate whether the Smallpox Conjuroror other eighteenth-
century healers achieved their position in such a manner. In addition, individu-
als also became religious leaders through a variety of other means, including
training from a preexisting medicine man.
88 Schoolcraft, Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the
89 Swanton, ‘‘Social and Religious Beliefs and Usages of the Chickasaw Indians,’’
258–63; and Swanton, Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw,221.
90 Wood, ‘‘The Changing Population of the Colonial South,’’ 38–39, 64–66. The
populations of each of the Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw nations steadily
increased from 1745 to 1790, while the Cherokees increased from 7,200 in
1745 to 8,500 in 1775 and then decreased to 7,500 in 1790. Cherokee losses
from 1775 to 1790 were in large part the result of devastation caused by the
Revolutionary War, in which their population scattered and some starved as
Americanarmies invaded theirnationtwice,destroying villages, crops,andlive-
stock. Nevertheless, their relatively stable population levels between 1745 and
1775, despite the occurrence of three epidemics in the area, indicate an active
and eﬀective response to disease. Without conscious eﬀorts to impede con-
tagion during the 1779–83 epidemic, Cherokee population would have fallen
91 McNeill, Plagues and Peoples,121.
92 Congress held at Mobile [al], December1771–January1772, co 5, vol. 73:n.p.