The Great Dying in New England


The Great Dying in New England was an event that took place in New England from 1616–1619 when an unknown disease decimated the Native American Indian population.

Pilgrims, Treaty with Massasoit, Illustration

This illustration depicts the Pilgrims agreeing to the peace treaty with Massasoit. Image Source: Indian History, Biography, and Genealogy, by Ebenezer W. Peirce

What was the Great Dying?

The Great Dying in New England was a catastrophic event that occurred when an epidemic of an unknown disease swept through the Native American Indian tribes living in New England. It left portions of New England relatively unpopulated, including Patuxet.

On December 11, 1620, the Pilgrims explored the area of Patuxet, in what is now Plymouth Bay. They found old fields, but no settlements and decided to build their new home in the area.

Five days later, on December 16, they explored the area further and discussed the exact location of the settlement. An old map, drawn by Samuel de Champlain, showed an Indian village on the banks of the harbor. However, by the time the Pilgrims arrived, nothing was left — except for the bones of the dead. 

Most of the Indians likely died when the epidemic spread through New England from approximately 1616 to 1619.

Soon after, the Pilgrims started to build their homes. They suffered through a harsh winter that saw nearly half of them die from diseases, but not what killed the Indians.

On March 16, 1621, an Indian named Samoset walked into Plymouth, and, according to legend, asked for bread and beer — and he spoke in English. The Pilgrim leaders met Chief Massasoit and Squanto a few days later and signed a peace treaty with the Wampanoag on April 21.

The Great Dying decimated the Indian tribes, paving the way for English settlements in New England, and setting the stage for a peaceful relationship between the Wampanoag Confederacy and Plymouth Colony.

Plymouth Colony in 1622
This illustration depicts Plymouth in 1622. Image Source: The Pilgrims by Frederick Alphonso Noble, 1907,

Facts About the Great Dying

  • The Great Dying in New England took place in the early 1600s, prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims at present-day Plymouth in 1620.
  • The epidemic decimated the Indian population in Patuxet, which is where the Pilgrims decided to establish their settlement.
  • It is estimated that as much as 75% to 95% of the Indian population died due to the unknown disease that swept through New England.
  • Evidence suggests the disease was transmitted from Europeans to the Abenaki, who spread it to other tribes they traded with.
  • Speculation has been that the disease could have been bubonic plague, smallpox, or yellow fever. However, a modern theory is it was leptospirosis, which could have been spread by rats on the European ships.
  • In some villages, entire populations were wiped out and many tribes never recovered.

History of the Great Dying in New England

Europeans started visiting New England in the early 16th Century. Explorers and merchants sailed from present-day Maine to Massachusetts, exploring and mapping the shore. They also went on land and conducted brief inland excursions.

The early European expeditions were carried out by fishermen, whalers, and fur traders from Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and England.

During these expeditions, Europeans often came into contact with Indians, who were susceptible to foreign diseases.

Bartholomew Gosnold, Trading with Wampanoag, Illustration, 1597
This 1597 illustration depicts English explorer Bartholemew Gosnold trading with the Wampanoag at Martha’s Vineyard. Image Source: Carli Digital Collections.

Samuel de Champlain Visits Patuxet

In 1605, Samuel de Champlain mapped present-day Plymouth Harbor, calling it “Port St. Louis.” During the expedition, Champlain visited a Wampanoag settlement the people called Patuxet.

Archaeologists have estimated there were as many as 12,000 Wampanoag people living in the area around Patuxet in 1605.

Spread of Disease

Two Europeans documented the spread of an unknown disease among the Indians in 1616.

  1. In 1616, Father Pierre Baird, a French Jesuit missionary, wrote the Abenaki were “…astonished and often complain that since the French mingle and carry on trade with them they are dying fast, and the population is thinning out.”
  2. Captain Richard Vines, an English explorer who spent time on the coast of Maine said the Indians “were sore afflicted with the Plague, for that the Country was in a manner left void of inhabitants.”

It is believed the disease originated with the Abenaki People, and they spread it to other tribes and villages when they traveled south on trading expeditions.

Thomas Morton said, “the bones and skulls upon the severall places of their habitations, made such a spectacle after my coming into those partes … it seemed to mee a new found Golgotha.”

Patuxet Homesite, Plimoth Plantation
A traditional Patuxet home at Plimoth Plantation. Image Source: Plimoth Patuxet Museums.

The Great Comet of 1618

Late in the summer of 1618, a comet was seen passing through the skies of New England. Indians believed it was a sign that something terrible was going to happen. 

The epidemic spread from southern Maine, down into Rhode Island, and into Massachusetts. It is believed the most deaths occurred in the region between Plymouth and Boston.

The Wampanoag called the devastation “The Great Dying,” and some believed it was a punishment from their gods because the disease did not appear to affect Europeans.

Symptoms of the Disease that Caused the Great Dying

Edward Winslow, a Pilgrim Father, described the disease as being “not unlike the plague, if not the same.”

Accounts indicate the most common symptoms were: severe headaches, nose bleeds, muscle pain, cramping, congested lungs, and skin turning a yellowish color.

Speculation as to what the disease actually was includes the plague, smallpox, and yellow fever. However, in all cases, there are inconsistencies that indicate the disease was something else entirely.

Effects of the Great Dying on the Population of New England

The disease had a devastating effect on the Algonquian tribes living in the eastern portion of New England, from Maine to Massachusetts. The Wampanoag were nearly wiped out by disease. Neighboring tribes were also affected, including the Abenaki, Massachusetts, Nauset, Pennacook, and Permaquid.

Arrival of the Pilgrims

When the Pilgrims arrived, they found villages and fields that appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry, along with crops and tools that were left behind. They also found the skeletal remains of the former inhabitants of the villages.

Some of the Pilgrims believed the absence of indigenous people was a sign from God they were where they were supposed to be. Thomas Morton recalled the land was “fit for the English Nation to inhabit in, and erect in it Temples to the glory of God.”

The Mayflower and its passengers arrived at Cape Code in November. The passengers explored the area, finding abandoned homes, graves, and hidden caches of corn.

After arriving at Plymouth and choosing it for their settlement, they suffered through a harsh winter, and nearly half of them died from sickness, including pneumonia and tuberculosis.

Despite the devastation, the Wampanoag still outnumbered the Pilgrims living at Plymouth Colony. However, Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag Confederacy, established a peaceful relationship with the Pilgrims.

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, 1620
This painting depicts the Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor. Image Source: Wikipedia.

New England Epidemics After the Great Dying

The region was hit by several epidemics in the 17th Century, that affected the Indian population including:

  1. 1633 — The Great Smallpox Epidemic
  2. 1645 — The Universal Sickness
  3. 1650–51 — The Plague and the Pox
  4. 1652 — The Bloody-Flux

Praying Towns and Praying Indians after the Great Dying

Like the Spanish and the French, the English Puritans worked to convert Indians to Christianity.

Missionary towns were established, known as “Praying Towns,” which were used to teach the Indians Puritan theology and customs.

John Eliot was a Puritan minister. He was the pastor at the First Church of Roxbury, one of the smaller settlements that was established around Boston. Eliot translated Christian documents to the language of the Indians.

Indians living in the towns were called “Praying Indians.”

At the beginning of King Philip’s War, there were approximately 1,100 Praying Indians living in 14 Praying Towns, including Dartmouth, Grafton, Natick, Quinnatisset, and Wagaquasset.

John Eliot, Praying Indians, Illustration
This illustration depicts John Eliot preaching to a group of Indians. Image Source: Indian History for Young Folks, Francis S. Drake, 1919.

Significance of the Great Dying in New England

The Great Dying in New England was important to United States history because of the effect it had on New England. The epidemic decimated the Indian tribes, including the Wampanoag. It paved the way for English settlements in New England, especially Plymouth, and set the stage for a peaceful relationship between the Wampanoag Confederacy and Pilgrims.

The Great Dying APUSH Notes and Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Great Dying, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the New England Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Great Dying APUSH Definition

The Great Dying was an event in New England that saw the spread of an unknown disease decimate Indian tribes. As many as 95% of the Indians died from the disease, which is believed to have been carried by Europeans who infected the Abenaki living in Maine. The reduction of the Indian population contributed to the English settlement of New England, starting with Plymouth Colony in 1620.

Great Dying Video for APUSH Notes

This video from New Hampshire PBS discussed the Great Dying that took place in New England from approximately 1616 to 1619.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The Great Dying in New England
  • Date 1616–1619
  • Author
  • Keywords Great Dying, New England, Who was affected by the Great Dying, What was the Great Dying, When did the Great Dying happen, Where did the Great Dying take place, Why did the Great Dying happen, How did the Great Dying change New England
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 19, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update September 6, 2023