Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Syphilis at Jamestown?

Stuart Fiedel and John Bedell

Researching the early history of Richmond, Virginia, one of us (Fiedel) stumbled across an account that may be relevant to the debate over the origins of syphilis and also to the history of disease among American Indians around the time of first contact with Europeans. The account does not prove the presence of syphilis, since it is merely the observations of a single English gentleman. However, neither of us can recall seeing it cited in the literature about syphilis was have read, so we thought it would be useful to make it accessible online to interested scholars.

The account comes from an anonymous diary of the Jamestown settlement in the years 1607 to 1609, probably by Gabriel Archer. Excerpts of this document are online at the Royal Archives of the UK, but not, alas, the relevant passage. For that one must turn to the text printed by Philip L. Barbour in The Jamestown Voyages under the First Charter, 1606-1609: Documents Relating to the Foundation of Jamestown and the History of the Jamestown Colony up to the Departure of Captain John Smith. Published for the Hakluyt Society by Cambridge University Press, 1969, p. 104. The narrator has traveled up the James River to a village of Powhatan Indians near the falls:
They have many wives, to whome as neare as I could perceive they keep constant, the great king Pawatah had most wives: These they abide not to be toucht before their face. The great diseaze reigns in the men generally, full fraught with noodes botches and pulpable appearances in their forheades, we found aboue a hundred. The wemen are very cleanly in making their bread and prepareing meat.
The "great disease" was a common term for syphilis, and this description certainly sounds like it might be syphilis. The author of this journal seems to have been a reasonably accurate observer, and it certainly contains no obvious fantasies. What he saw at the falls of the James remains uncertain, but highly suggestive.

October 11, 2010

From the 
Commonplace Book

The fifth, we continued our labor, when there came unto us ashore from the main fifty savages, stout and lusty men with their bows and arrows; amongst them there seemed to be one of authority, because the rest made an inclining respect unto him. . . . These Indians in hasty manner came towards us, so as we thought fit to make a stand at an angle between the sea and fresh water; I moved myself towards him seven or eight steps, and clapped my hands first on the sides of mine head, then on my breast, and after presented my musket with a threatening countenance, thereby to signify unto them, either a choice of peace or war, whereupon he using me with mine own signs of peace, I stepped forth and embraced him; his company then all sat down in manner like greyhounds upon their heels, with whom my company fell a bettering.

--Gabriel Archer, 1602


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