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Infectious Disease in Eighteenth Century El Paso del Norte

An Essay by Rick Hendricks


For the last three decades, ethnohistorians and historical demographers have debated the role of infectious diseases on the populations of Spain's New World colonies. Completely lost in this scholarly discussion is the impact of such illnesses on the El Paso del Norte area, which today includes the greater El Paso Ciudad Juárez area. This is true, despite the fact that it is possible to discern a number of outbreaks of infectious disease, several of which reached epidemic proportions. These episodes  along with a variety of other historical factors, such as destruction of prime agricultural land through flooding, Indian uprisings, and increased Apache raiding  had a dramatic effect on the population of Spanish colonial El Paso and on the importance of the area to the rest of New Mexico.

From its establishment in 1659 until 1680, the mission of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe was the southernmost outpost of the colony of New Mexico. There Franciscan friars ministered to a population consisting almost entirely of local indigenous peoples, principally Mansos, and a handful of Spaniards (meaning in this context mestizos, peninsular Spaniards, and Afro-¬Hispanos). The outbreak of the Pueblo Revolt upriver in New Mexico in August of 1680 brought a flood of more than a thousand Spanish refugees and several hundred Pueblo Indians, swelling the population of El Paso to many times its usual size. After a failed attempt at reconquest in 1681, another group of Pueblos relocated to the El Paso area. Although the documentary evidence is sparse, it appears likely that infectious disease accompanied the refugees south to El Paso.

Even by defining an epidemic narrowly as a mortality crisis with a death rate three times the norm and factoring in the characteristics of an increased population, there seems little doubt that an epidemic struck El Paso in 1682. While it has not been possible to identify this disease, documents reveal that it killed Native Americans almost exclusively. Incomplete sacramental registers and anecdotal mentions in other archival records indicate that another unnamed epidemic beset El Paso in 1728. Epidemics notwithstanding, El Paso grew in importance in the New Mexico colony. By the 1730s it had begun to emerge as an important agricultural and trade center astride the Camino Real that stretched from Mexico City to Santa Fe. Known for its wine and brandy, El Paso's economy literally floated on the products of local grapes. Still, wave after wave of illness rolled over the riverine communities strung south from the Guadalupe mission along the Rio Grande.

The first episode of infectious disease for which the sacramental records are complete occurred in 1733. This unnamed illness struck with deadly suddenness in late winter early spring and had subsided by early summer. Its victims were overwhelming Apache Indian children. Slightly more females died than males. Although it is always problematic to attempt to name unidentified diseases in a historical context, the combination of winter onset and age and ethnicity of the victims suggests that this event was an outbreak of measles or some other rapidly communicable, directly transmitted infection. It is also interesting to note that Apaches, who traditionally did not live in settled communities alongside Spaniards and would therefore be less likely to have immunity, were the principal victims of this outbreak. It is unclear whether they were in El Paso to trade or had settled at the mission where they became infected, or whether they had traveled to El Paso in search of medical attention, having become ill through some other means. While the mortality of this incident was much higher than normal, it did not reach the threshold required to be considered an epidemic; unrecorded deaths of non Christian Apaches may well have pushed this episode over the threshold.

Infectious disease forcefully attacked El Paso in 1748. Almost all the deaths associated with this epidemic were recorded in the months of May and June. Among the victims, children outnumbered adults by more than two to one, and Indians outnumbered Spaniards by the same ratio. Although most victims were simply identified as Indians, the single largest named group in this category was that of Piros. Almost half again as many females died as males in this epidemic. Two years later, another disease event took place that closely mirrored the 1748 epidemic, strongly hinting at a recurrence. Mortality peaked in April and May of 1750. The records are not as specific regarding ages of the victims as in 1748, but children probably outnumbered adults by almost two to one. Twice as many Native Americans died as Spaniards, but mortality did not attain epidemic proportions. In addition to the toll exacted by disease, unusually severe flooding and Indian uprisings in 1749 50 marked the beginning of El Paso's decline in importance relative to such population centers as Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

In October of 1763, an El Pasoan fell victim to typhus, the only clearly identifiable disease to strike El Paso in the eighteenth century. Two years earlier, epidemic typhus erupted in Mexico City in the last major outbreak of this disease in eighteenth-century New Spain. Throughout 1761 and 1762, typhus and a concurrent smallpox epidemic ravaged the viceregal capital. Together they claimed between 14,600 and 25,00 people (depending on the estimates). By the summer of 1763 the epidemic had spread to Puebla and by the fall it had arrived in the far north, in El Paso.

Known to Spaniards as tabardillo, typhus was recognized as a distinct disease in Europe by the late fifteenth century. Apparently, Fray Diego Zapata, to whom the grim task of ministering to the dying fell, knew well the classic symptomatology of typhus, which includes headache, loss of appetite, fever, and malaise, as well as a rash of rose red macules appearing at four to six days on the lower chest or upper abdomen, spreading to the back, shoulder, upper arms and thighs. Doubtless, too, he would have noted the onset of high fever so characteristic of typhus. Thus, he carefully inscribed a capital T over the name of each victim of the disease in the burial book for the El Paso church.

More than 40 percent of the households in the Guadalupe parish lost members to typhus, and in 26 of them multiple deaths were recorded. Because eighteenth-century El Paso's communities were characterized by isolated homes built in the middle of agricultural fields rather than in urban clusters, individual families were particularly hard hit by typhus, while others escaped entirely. Once present in a given household, the disease often claimed many victims. This was because of the vector for transmitting typhus. A zoonose, typhus is caused by Rickettsia prowazekii, a microorganism living in the lining of the intestine of Pediculus humanus, the body louse. The louse survives infestation for 12 to 18 days, then expels the microbe in its feces. Lice bite and defecate on human skin, leading to irritation and scratching. In this way the microorganism enters the human body through cuts or abrasions and incubates for 10 days to two weeks. Then in the febrile period of the disease, the microorganisms in the blood spread to other lice that bite an infected person. Poor sanitary practices, such as infrequent changing of clothes and bathing, and the general acceptance of body lice (together with lack of knowledge about preventing the spread of infectious disease by destroying infected clothing and bedclothes) fostered a perfect breading ground for typhus. The only treatment considered effective at the time was administering juices, phlebotomy, and purges.

Unlike other eighteenth-century epidemics, typhus struck adults harder than children, and more Spaniards than Indians died, reaching 9.5 percent of this sector of the population. Given the dwindling indigenous population, however, this statistic is misleading. More than 25 percent of the El Paso mission Indians fell victim to typhus before the scourge ended in early 1675. A recrudescence lasting from March to August of 1767 took the lives of even more victims before subsiding. While typhus typically kills more men than women, in the epidemic of 1764, almost 15 percent more women died than men. Notably, 26 women who were pregnant when they contracted the disease miscarried.

As in the case of the epidemic typhus that traveled from Mexico City to El Paso, smallpox made a similar journey, departing the Valley of Mexico in 1779 and arriving in the El Paso area and points north in 1780. Before it had run its course in the following year, this pathogen carried off around 5,000 Pueblo Indians upriver in New Mexico then it diffused, presumably by horse, to Indian peoples living along the Missouri River system. Unfortunately, the sacramental registers for El Paso for 1780 81 have not survived, and we therefore lack the detailed information available for this disease episode. The evidence that does exist for the effect of the smallpox epidemic, however, seems to indicate that smallpox decimated El Paso. Census data demonstrate that, largely independent of other factors, the combination of epidemic typhus and smallpox were sufficient to effectively halt population growth in El Paso between 1760, when the Bishop of Durango, Pedro de Tamarón y Romeral, conducted a census of the region, and 1784, when the first household census of El Paso and the surrounding communities was taken.

In the century from 1682 to 1781, El Paso suffered five epidemics, or one every twenty years. Interspersed among the epidemics were several other serious outbreaks of infectious disease, two of which produced mortality rates only slightly below that of a true epidemic. Over all, more Native American children died than any other group. While The area's Spanish population relocated with remarkable fluidity among its several communities and, indeed, among other more distant communities in New Mexico, during this hundred year period, El Paso neither received a major influx nor experienced a major exodus of inhabitants. This makes it possible to study clearly the role of infectious disease on the population.

Had El Paso's population continued to grow at an average rate, statistical projections show that by the end of the eighteenth century it would have been almost exactly twice the actual recorded figure, but each time the population began to recover its losses naturally, another wave of disease swept over the area. To be sure, Indian raiding produced loss of life over the years on the frontier, but nothing on the scale of that which infectious disease produced. Had it not been for the devastating effect of epidemics and near epidemics on the area, El Paso would not have seen its importance to the New Mexico colony diminished. Ironically, then, as the southern gateway to growing towns to the north, a regional trade center, and an important stop on the Camino Real, El Paso became a way station for infectious disease. For just as surely as exotic goods from all over Spain's far flung empire made their way to El Paso, so too did most of the major diseases of the day.

This essay appeared as "Epidemic Disease in Eighteenth-Century El Paso," in the Southern New Mexico Historical Review 10 (January 2003): 6-8. Reproduced with permission.