Disease continued to ravage the Massachusetts Bay shoreline, wiping out the native populations by the thousands. Reports from the period indicate that the epidemic covered an area that spanned from the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers of southern Maine to the Narragansett Bay of Rhode Island, with the highest rate of fatalities concentrated around Boston Harbor and Plymouth Bay. Sailing along the Massachusetts coast in 1619, Captain Thomas Dermer described the impact on the region, noting that “ancient plantations, not long since populous, now [lay] utterly void; in other places a remnant remains, but not free of sickness.”
“There hath, by God’s visitation, reigned a wonderful plague [that has resulted in] the utter destruction, devastation, and depopulation of that whole territory, so as there is not left … any that do claim or challenge any kind of interest therein. We, in our judgment, are persuaded and satisfied, that the appointed time is come in which Almighty God, in his great goodness and bounty towards us, and our people, hath thought fit and determined, that those large and goodly territories, deserted as it were by their natural inhabitants, should be possessed and enjoyed by such of our subjects.” – King James I, The Great Patent of New-England
the New England, Middle, and Southern Colonies, ..
The Pilgrims were not the first Europeans to step foot in these new lands. Since at least the early 16th century, the coastal area between Maine and Massachusetts was being regularly visited by English, Dutch and Portuguese fishermen, Basque whalers, and French fur traders. The French in particular had made a number of early excursions into the area. The explorer Samuel de Champlain led a mapping expedition around Plymouth Harbor (which he named “Port St. Louis”) in 1605. While there, he encountered a native settlement called Patuxet, a large cluster of Wampanoag villages that sat where the future Plymouth Colony would be established. According to oral tradition and archeological evidence, the Wampanoags had occupied this area for nearly 10,000 years and consisted of a population of around twelve-thousand people by the time of Champlain’s explorations.
The New England colonies - Encyclopedia Britannica
Whatever the mysterious coastal disease was, it nearly wiped out the Algonquian tribes of eastern Massachusetts and southern Maine – and the English were quick to capitalize on native ruin. European entrepreneurs had their sights set on the New England coast for years. There were settlement attempts in the decades prior to the Mayflower landing, but would-be colonists had always been unable to secure a foothold in the area due to the hostile native presence. This would all change following “the miraculous plague” of 1616-19.
The History of British and Irish Towns
Smallpox is another strong candidate. The reported pockmarks on the victims seem to point in this direction. But critics of this theory note that it was uncommon for adult Europeans (who, through generations of exposure, had by this time developed some level of resistance) to contract the smallpox virus, and unlikely that the disease would have survived a six-week sea voyage made by explorers before running its course. Large-scale migration of European children would not take place for at least another decade, a factor which contributed heavily to the confirmed smallpox epidemic that ravaged parts of New England in 1633. Also, in studying the Narragansett language, Roger Williams, founder of the Rhode Island colony, interviewed survivors of both epidemics who made a point of distinction between the 1616-19 “plague” and the 1633 “pox” (using two different words in their native tongue to describe two different forms of disease).
Southern Colonies - Land of the Brave
Sir Ferdinando Gorges – the “father of English colonization in North America” – had chartered several of the earlier expeditions to the region. He knew of the strange epidemic and it’s catastrophic impact on the native population, noting “their vulnerability to European microbes and power.” Gorges considered the land up for grabs and, seeing the potential for great profit, sought a charter for the territory through the newly formed joint-stock Plymouth Company. Share holders would provide a ship for a wandering sect of radical Protestant-Christian separatists who sought passage to the New World, under an agreement that their settlement would belong to the company for seven years (thereby establishing a stable base of operations for further colonial ambitions).