In the year 430 B.C., a fever ran through the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece. The place that gifted the world with democracy was locked in a deadly war with Sparta, a warring city-state and one of Athens’ primary competitors.
The fever killed about 75,000 Athenians and led to social unrest, draconian laws to control the local population and even the death of Pericles, Athens’ leader. It was a devastating epidemic.
In the 1300s, the Black Death, otherwise known as the bubonic plague, arrived in Europe by way of fleas on rats on boats coming from Asia into ports in places like Sicily and Venice. The pathogen quickly made its way through the continent, spreading death, despair and upheaval. Cities and towns locked down.
People wore masks with beaks that were filled with herbs, spices — anything believed to stave off the pest. Jews and single women suspected of witchcraft were accused and killed, believed to be poisoning wells and crops. Roughly one third of the population died of the illness, and both Europe and Asia were ravaged.
What are pandemics and epidemics? An epidemic is when an illness spreads through a community, such as a town, city or state. A pandemic is when an illness infects a whole nation or many nations.
Starting with Columbus and his Spanish sailors in 1492, European-borne diseases had destroyed most of the Native people of the Caribbean within a few years. The illness and death that followed were crucial in Hernan Cortes dominating the Aztec empire in Mexico in 1519. The establishment of trade routes such as the Camino Real from Mexico City to all points north spread not only culture and people, but disease as well.
New Mexico has had its share of epidemics and pandemics throughout history. It is speculated the spread of some illness may have contributed to the abandonment of Chaco Canyon in the 1300s or 1400s, creating a diaspora of the ancestral Puebloans that created the communities of pueblos we know today.
When Spanish explorers arrived from Mexico in the 1540s and colonized the area in 1598, they were preceded by European diseases such as smallpox and measles that devastated the Pueblo population, which had no immunity to these foreign microbes. This was not on purpose, nor was it a plan of the Spanish to devastate Native communities. But it did.
The Pueblo population decreased due to smallpox, measles, typhus and other illnesses. Spanish domination in the form of encomienda and other forms of forced labor also took its toll. During the 1600s and 1700s, there were waves of epidemics and pandemics that hit Native and Hispano populations hard in New Mexico.
In the 1720s and 1730s, Fray Camargo reported deaths of Pueblo people at Acoma, Jemez and Nambe so traumatizing the people of those villages insisted they bury their dead according to secret ancient rites of their ancestors. About 100 people died at Jemez and about 200 at Nambe.
At Guadalupe del Paso, then part of New Mexico and now present-day Ciudad Juarez, there were waves of epidemics almost every 20 years or so that mostly made their way north to places like Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and the Pueblo villages. In the 1760s, an epidemic of typhus, called tabardillo in Spanish, devastated both Hispano and Native populations in the area.
A pandemic of smallpox came up the Camino Real in the 1780s from Mexico City, hitting Guadalupe del Paso (El Paso) first, then the lower Rio Grande communities of places like Belen, Isleta and Albuquerque. It then wound its way north, reaching as far as the Plains Indian tribes. About 5,000 New Mexicans died, nearly a quarter of the population at that time.
In the 1800s, wave after wave of illness hit various New Mexican communities. The smallpox epidemic of 1898 in particular was hard on the pueblos. Vaccines came, but too late.
The Spanish flu of 1918 killed about 5,000 New Mexicans. San Ildefonso was particularly affected. Unprepared, with no plan or guidance, the event led to the creation of the state Health Department.
COVID-19 arrived in 2020 and is still with us. There is hope for a vaccine and optimism the illness can be brought under control by next year. If history teaches us anything, it is that this is not the first nor the last pandemic New Mexico will experience. We are living history, and must be prepared and diligent for such events.
Rob Martinez, New Mexico’s state historian, writes a column about the state’s rich past every month in The New Mexican.