5.2 Typhus in the Colonial Americas

Epidemic Typhus is an obligate disease carried and spread by body lice. Symptoms include high fever, body aches, delirium, cough, and rash. Typhus presents alarmingly high death rates, often due to malnutrition and overcrowding, which were common at the time.

This diagram shows the cycle of typhus--spreading from infected fleas, to rodents, to humans.

Throughout history, times of war have been instrumental in the spread of disease. War requires the movement of troops, which unfortunately leads to the spread of disease. War causes a deterioration in the hygiene and health practices of societies. This is often caused by the inability to acquire health supplies due to a shortage or an attack.

Typhus first erupted in epidemic form in the Spanish armies of Ferdinand and Isabella in Granada in the late 1480s. The disease remained epidemic in Europe and was prevalent among Iberian soldiers in the Italian Peninsula a few years later in 1493. The disease spread widely across Europe in the Thirty Years War from 1618-1648. Typhus is very commonly associated with warfare, as war disrupts normal hygiene practices and habits of societies. Lice that spread typhus were common among unclean people, especially when clothing had been worn for long periods of time. Many cultures tried to put up walls and barriers to try to keep out soldiers and those inflicted with the disease, but these walls quickly proved ineffective, as typhus continued to sweep Europe.

Typhus was also carried across the European continent by Napoleon’s army in 1812. The army of 600,000 was devastated by typhus, and only 90,000 soldiers remained upon arrival in Moscow. Because of its prevalence in certain conditions, such as war, typhus has acquired numerous names in the vernacular throughout history, including camp fever, ship fever, and jail fever.

This painting shows Napoleon's suffering army in Moscow.

Typhus was not native to the Americas and was most likely brought over by European sailors and soldiers sent to the New World. While airborne epidemics such as measles, smallpox and influenza are thought to be the first major epidemics in the New World, Typhus appeared in the mid-16th century, about a generation after these earlier diseases (Cook, 96).

This map shows the spread of Typhus throughout Colonial America.

Typhus in Florida

Typhus is believed to have spread to Florida during an expedition from the Dominican Republic. Friar Luis Cancer de Barbasto and his ship, the Santa Maria de la Encina, left Veracruz in 1549 and reached Charlotte Harbor in May of that same year. After going ashore with a few crew members and an Indian interpreter named Magdalena, Cancer returned again to shore and found that everyone had been killed except a few sailors and Magdalena. The sailors, Magdalena, and Cancer are suspected to have brought typhus ashore in Florida and infected the natives (Cook, 109).

Typhus in Guatemala
There is some record of an epidemic amongst the Mayan people around 1516 that was historically suspected to be smallpox. However, there were no pustules, a symptom of smallpox, noted. Therefore, historians now believe that the Mayans were most likely plagued by Typhus. (Cook, 104).

In the late 17th century, Guatemalan writer and chronicler Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzman reported numerous cases of typhus in the South American nation, especially on the coast. Guatemalan sources mention this typhus infection, although it could have been plague, as the symptoms are often extremely similar. It was most likely caused by a shortage of crops caused by a lack of labor (due to epidemic deaths), which resulted in one of the historical causes of typhus—malnutrition.

Typhus in Mexico
Epidemics in Mexico were well-documented from 1576-1579 because Philip II of Spain ordered that each province in Mexico be described and documented. Great drought, crop failure, and famine were seen in Mexico between 1575 and 1576. Typhus-like symptoms were recorded, with the people of Mexico recounting, “blood came from our noses,” and symptoms including high fever. Death within a week of initial symptoms was certain. Unfortunately, the virgin population knew no medicinal plant or treatment.

Epidemic typhus resurfaced again in 1579. On October 26, 1583, the archbishop of Mexico wrote to the Spanish crown, describing the deaths of more than half of the native population of Mexico. In his account, the archbishop cited population counts in deaths accounts of Indian churches and his observations of the natives (Cook, 120).

Typhus 17th Century South America
Typhus could be categorized as a pandemic in the 1630s, as it was widespread, affecting most of the South American continent. Numerous deaths due to typhus were recorded in Lima, Peru in 1629, and reached Bogota, the capital city of Columbia in 1630. Here, it was renamed the plague of Santos Gil. The plague then traveled to Quito, Ecuador and was epidemic in 1634 and again in 1639. Historians believe that it is possible that typhus may have entered the upper Uruguay River region. In the early 17th century, Jesuits had begun settling in this region (Cook, 172).

Although typhus devastated all classes relatively similarly, historical records show that people in the direst economic classes were perhaps affected most harshly. Typhus also affected those living in highlands, where the body flea that spread typhus was most likely to live and thrive. In the 17th century, the overall mortality of infection by typhus is through to be around 20-25%.

This painting shows natives' treatment methods for fevers.