The Great Dying and Coronavirus

We wait and wonder, “How long until the WHO and CDC declare this novel coronavirus pandemic under control?” How soon can we resume our normal routines? Will we fill our church sanctuaries Easter Sunday 2020? Responsible clergy will not; but rather are at work this Holy Week planning alternative ways to bring folks together virtually. As several of my pastor colleagues have point out, there was no crowd there at the first Easter.

The Great Dying – an often neglected chapter of American history – suggests we take coronavirus seriously now to speed up how soon we can safely move about freely in public again. Public health officials, familiar with the consequences of previous pandemics, have good reasons to urge our cooperation in slowing the rate of infections. History records the tragic outcomes when pandemics spread faster than health systems can keep up with diseases.

Impact of the Great Dying

In March 2019 a team of scientists at the University College London released their conclusions that the 15th Century Great Dying among the Indigenous people of North America actually impacted climate change. So many people died during that pandemic that the cumulative effect altered the earth’s climate, cooling the earth. The team published their conclusions on the science and medicine database Science Direct.  I’ve been reading how our current pandemic is actually having a positive impact on the environment.  The significantly reduced number of cars and planes on our roads and airways has resulted in improved air quality.

The pandemic introduced to the Americas in the 1400s broke out in New England in the 1600s Great Dying. Estimates of how many died vary according to who you ask. A conservative estimate is that around 70 percent of the Pokanoket population died shortly before the Mayflower dropped anchor in Cape Cod Bay. European-introduced diseases were lethal. Massasoit Ousa Mequin, watched in helpless horror as thousands of his people died from diseases previously unknown. Little wonder he worried about further trouble coming when another ship full of white people arrived in 1620.


I first heard the term “Great Dying” when I interviewed a Native as part of my research for Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures.  The man I interviewed told me his people’s version of what happened. Words like ‘catastrophic,’ ‘horrific,’ and ‘devastating’ fail to adequately capture the horror that swept through the Native population in the early 1600s, shortly before the Mayflower arrived. Natives may not have known what caused the Great Dying, but they knew it had something to do with encounters with white people.

In early 1621, on their third expedition to find a suitable place to settle, a team of Englishmen came upon the deserted Patuxet village, known today as Plymouth. The village had been abandoned only a few years earlier, when around 2,000 Native men, women, and children died in the Great Dying.

One man from that village escaped the pandemic because in 1614 Captain Thomas Hunt kidnapped him and took him to Europe to sell into slavery. Tisquantum (Squanto), dodged slavery and wound up in England, where he learned English. He returned to North America a couple of years later, working as a translator in the Newfoundland area.

A Bitter Homecoming

After five years away, Tisquantum, accompanied by English Captain Dermer, arrived at Patuxet in the spring of 1621. Dermer recorded the homecoming in his diary:

[We] passed along the coast where [we] found some ancient [Indian] plantations, not long since populous now utterly void; in other places a remnant remains, but not free of sickness. Their disease the plague, for we might perceive the sores of some that had escaped, who described the spots of such as usually die. When [we] arrived [at Patuxet]. . . all dead. (Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower, pages 52-53).

Other accounts describe scenes of bones bleaching in the sun along the beaches. People died in such great numbers none were left to bury them. Fields that once grew crops turned to patches of weeds. Wetu after wetu, in village after village – all empty.

Why Public Health Officials Want Us at Home

Medical and public health personnel fear we could have a similar global catastrophe. They sound the alarm and pray we heed their warnings. We’re all inconvenienced by this. There won’t be anyone, anywhere, who will not be impacted by this in some way. I already know of one friend who’s lost three relatives to coronavirus in recent days.

The Natives had no idea what caused the rapid spread of a disease that proved fatal to the majority of their people. We do know – we have a scientific name for it and an abundance of information on how to protect ourselves from it. May we heed the warnings from history and follow the advice of the scientists, medical personnel, and public health officials. May we all do our part by doing as they ask as though our lives depended on following their directives. For many people, their lives do.

May it be well with you in these challenging days. #TogtherThoughApart.

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