Native Americans and African Americans

The religious beliefs of Native Americans and African Americans were different from Christianity. In animistic religious traditions, the spirits of the deceased

are believed to go on living in a parallel spirit world after death. Items from the deceased’s life were often interred with the body for use in this spirit


Before Christianity was introduced to African slaves in the colonies, their traditional funerals were elaborate, and the graves decorated with gifts or

possessions of the dead. African religious beliefs commonly included ancestor worship, and such practices were important to maintaining good relations

with the world of spirits. Of course, African religious traditions could not be re-created in America in their complete form, but many practices lingered on.

Also related to the loss of a family member, mourning wars were a practice among Native Americans of the Iroquois Confederacy. Since the population

of tribal cultures was small and the economy was a subsistence one, the deaths of individuals, especially in epidemics or warfare, were sorely felt by

surviving members of the tribes.

Native Americans did not follow the Europeans’ practice of total war, in which the enemy was driven away or destroyed. Their own style of warfare

instead avoided massive casualties. Raids against other tribes were meant to take captives and demonstrate bravery, not to exterminate the enemy. Such

a war would mean the loss of too many of one’s own warriors and endanger the survival of the group. In mourning wars, the Iroquois sought to replace

tribal members who had been lost to disease or in battle; captives taken in such wars were adopted into the tribe and frequently given the names of the


In a very real sense, European settlers brought death with them to the New World in the form of epidemic diseases. These unseen weapons proved to be

their greatest tool of conquest of the Native Americans, albeit unconsciously wielded. Deadly pathogens such as smallpox, diphtheria, measles, whooping

cough, and scarlet fever had long plagued the populations of Europe. To the Native Americans, long sheltered from the epidemics that had ravaged

Eurasia, the coming of white settlers to their lands meant a demographic disaster. Smallpox, especially, was a mass killer, bringing a painful and

gruesome death to most and leaving survivors scarred and disfigured for life. Entire tribal cultures were wiped out within decades, and vast areas

depopulated. Traditional Native American funerary customs were disrupted, as the survivors often fled without burying the dead, leaving the dying to

endure their death alone.

By the time the English arrived, epidemic diseases introduced by the Spanish or European fisherman sojourning on the Atlantic Coast of North America

had done their deadliest work among the native peoples of the continent. Early New England settlers found entire villages abandoned, with unburied

bodies lying as stark testament to the terror inspired in survivors by the scope of the catastrophe. When new outbreaks of disease occurred among the

native population, Englishmen interpreted this as a sign of divine approval of their mission to seize the land from its original inhabitants.

Unlike the Native Americans, the European settlers in the New World encountered no new diseases, except perhaps gonorrhea, but they continued to be

plagued by those familiar to them, albeit in less epic proportions. Malaria and various fevers were common, especially in the Southern climes. Periodic

outbreaks of smallpox occurred among whites as well. When disease or illness struck, colonists typically resorted to purgative cures, such as bleeding, to

cure the suffering patient. These remedies, based on a faulty understanding of human physiology and the causes of disease, did little more than further

weaken the dying person. Traditional folk remedies, which were also regularly employed, at least had the advantage of doing no harm.

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