How would the history of American colonization by Europeans differ, if the Native Americans were immune to the new diseases?

From Wikipedia:

Even before the European settlement of what is now the United States, Native Americans suffered high fatalities from contact with European diseases spread throughout the Americas by the Spanish to which they had yet not acquired immunity. Smallpox epidemics are thought to have caused the greatest loss of life for indigenous populations, although estimates of the pre-Columbian population of what today constitutes the U.S. vary significantly, from 1 million to 18 million.

Assume that the Native American population is at 18 million.


4 Answers 4


The colonization would have happened much slower, later or not at all.

Not only would there still be 10 times as many Americans, they would still have their strongest and wisest leaders in place, a network of trade routes between tribes and finally all those fertile fields the settlers found lying fallow in our timeline would be claimed and farmed by the local tribes. Any settlers would face much more resistance at every turn.

Much slower

The most likely scenario is that the first boat loads of pilgrims get slaughtered or starve without land to farm, bringing that migration to a screeching halt. Then the Europeans switch to their standard tactics, the one that also helped them in Africa and Asia: Divide and Conquer.

By initially trading with certain tribes and providing them with tactical advantages over enemy tribes, the Europeans ingratiate themselves and then barter for a small part of some defeated tribe's land. From there, they keep tipping the scales in inter-tribal wars and propping up their allies, escalating the inter-tribe wars, doing through bloodshed what the plague did in our timeline.

Much later

The first European settlers get kicked back into the ocean. Several attempts are made and violently repelled. The Native Americans tell their children and grandchildren stories of the white-as-death men that came from the sea and were pushed back by great heroes.

After the Industrial Revolution in Europe, the next fleet to sail to the Americas is steam-powered, has cannons and a force of marines with rifles. The coastal tribes are forced to surrender as their villages explode around them and no arrow or spear can harm the ships. Some years of relative peace pass by as the Europeans set up their coal mining and industry, but after that they relentless drive west, conquering or exterminating any native tribes they encounter.

Despite the obvious exposure to guns, swords and other metal items, it's highly unlikely that the Native Americans would catch up on their own. Pre-Columbian North America did not have any knowledge of mining or the smelting and casting of metal, with the only known samples being worked copper that was probably found on the surface. South America did have these techniques, but they were exclusively used for decorations, mostly using gold.

South Americans would probably have a decent chance of developing ironworking, given their better starting point and more extensive use of slave labor. The North American natives would have to overtake some huge cultural barriers, since proud hunters are not likely to accept having to break their backs digging for iron ore. The feudal system in Europe was a big advantage in that regard. Some strong tribes might enslave others to do their labor and set up a mine plus smelter, but large scale industry is very unlikely.

For both North and South, the discovery of steel production would likely come too late to save them.

Not at all

In the third and least likely scenario, the Native Americans form a broad alliance of the eastern tribes after the first encounters. This prevents the Europeans from gaining any ground. They do however trade with the Europeans in coastal settlements and from this they acquire horses, metalworking skills and eventually the knowledge to produce guns. The eastern tribes then conquer the rest of the Americas and establish their own empire, rivaling those in Europe.

The Aztecs would have been in a good position to trade their gold for Spanish steel if they had not been devastated by the smallpox, so perhaps they would have become the dominant empire in Middle and South America.

  • $\begingroup$ Re the “much later”, is it possible that during the intervening years, some North American cultures might have made enough technological progress to allow putting up a fight? Or would the preconditions have made that unlikely? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ I've added some info on that. The short version is: Their culture would hold them back from developing advanced metallurgy quickly enough. $\endgroup$
    – Cyrus
    Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 10:02
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ And later still, the New World is inundated by medical researchers trying to work out why the natives are immune to most infectious diseases. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeScott - I would have said that the natives have parallel diseases, or diseases that affected their immune systems so they'd be immune. $\endgroup$
    – Malady
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 21:21

Having more people in place is not necessarily sufficient to prevent Europeans from colonizing the Americas. Most of the people, like today, would not be warriors or fighters of any description, so would not contribute materially to the defense of the land (although they would be able to support a much larger warrior class).

If we look at India or China, we see densely populated lands which were overrun and colonized by Europeans because the Europeans could draw upon an entire cultural arsenal of ideas,tactics and enticements. They divided various kingdoms against each other, offered sophisticated trade goods and when things went south, could fight much larger "native" armies using superior European arms and tactics. And of course, the Europeans essentially controlled the seas, so they could come at the time and place of their own choosing, making organized defense that much harder for the natives.

Native Americans would have a double disadvantage, since they would be facing all the sophisticated tools in the European arsenal, but would be starting their resistance from an essentially Neolithic culture. Even in the 1500's, this would be a huge mismatch in capabilities, and the native Americans who learned to use this to their advantage against enemy tribes would rapidly prosper under the rule of the Europeans. The best possible outcome would be the situation that Tecumseh tried to engineer with the war of 1812; allegiance with the British against the Americans in exchange for an independent Native American enclave (it is difficult to say a country or State, since Native American culture had not fully grasped the concepts of a "Nation State" as we understand it).

Since there were many competing European nations looking to colonize the Americas, there is the potential for multiple native enclaves as various tribes and confederations throw in their lot with the Spanish, French, English, Dutch, Portuguese and other competing nations against the others. Of course, a lot will depend on who the eventual winners are....

  • $\begingroup$ Totally agree. A small army of Conquistadors took on the Aztec empire (albeit, with help). $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 19:25

It seems pretty obvious that if the Indians had not lost millions to disease -- I've seen estimates of 90% of the population wiped out, I'm not sure what the scholarly consensus is, or how reliable any numbers are -- anyway it seems obvious that that would have put them in a much stronger position to resist European colonization. But exactly how would it play out?

At one extreme, one could argue that it would have made little difference. Bear in mind that the reality was not a matter of "Europeans versus Indians". Both groups consisted of many competing nations. When Cortez conquered the Aztecs, a very important factor was that the real situation was not "a tiny band of Spaniards versus a huge empire", but rather, "a tiny band of Spaniards mobilizing many native nations who all had good reason to hate the Incas -- because the Incas regularly tortured, killed and enslaved them -- and leading them against the Incas".

My point being: the actual history was a series of shifting alliances between various European nations and various Indian nations. If there had been more Indians, this would certainly have changed the dynamic, but as for most of history it was some Europeans and some Indians versus other Europeans and other Indians, maybe the Indians would have just killed each other and the end result would have been the same.

At the opposite extreme, one can certainly imagine a scenario where the Indians all banded together to resist the Europeans and throw them off the continent. But that scenario is wildly improbable. It's like saying that Germany could have won World War 2 if only they could have convinced the French and British and Yugoslavians and Greeks to unite with them to fight the invading Americans.

I think there may be some subtle racism here: the idea that of course Britain and France and Germany are distinct nations with distinct history and cultures, but that the Cherokee and the Navajo and Incas are all basically the same, there's really no difference between them, because they're all "just Indians", not "real" nations. Like I've heard many times that Malintzin, the Indian woman who served as a translator and guide to Cortez, was a "traitor to her own people" for helping the Spanish against her fellow Native Americans. Except ... she WAS siding with her own people. Her father had been assassinated by the Aztecs for refusing to submit to their power. Would you really say that she had some moral obligation to help the people who murdered her father, just because they were born on the same continent? That's like saying that in World War 2, the French were "traitors to their fellow Europeans" because they accepted aid from the United States and Canada to win their country back from the Germans.

More realistically: There's both a moral, or perhaps public relations, question, and a raw power question.

Regarding raw power, there's the obvious point that, despite all I've said above, the more Indians there were, the harder it would have been to defeat them. Yes, when it came to raw violence, the Europeans had the advantage of superior military technology. But they also had to travel long distances to fight, and they had to supply their armies over long distances. They were fighting in unfamiliar terrain while the Indians were in their homeland. Etc. Even if the Europeans had the raw power to win in the long run, as their death toll mounted, at some point they might well decide that it just isn't worth it. Like the collapse of the British Empire after World War 2, or the recent U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, or the Roman evacuation of the British isles ca AD 400. There have been many times in history when a big nation has the raw numbers and military might to defeat a weaker nation if they were willing to pay the cost in money and lives ... but they're not willing.

RE morals: To Europeans, America was largely an empty continent open for the taking. The more Indians there were, the less viable this view would have been. While some Europeans had no qualms about massacring any Indians who got in their way, others had great respect for the Indians. In Columbus diary he describes the Indians as being pure and virtuous people because they were untainted by the evils of civilization. When one tribe told him that another were cannibals, he refused to believe that it was possible, writing in his diary that this must be a mistake, that now and then someone got lost in the woods and his family came up with wild stories about him being eaten by cannibals to explain why he never returned. The Pilgrims executed one of their own people for murdering an Indian. Etc. I think it's fair to say that the bloodier any conquest was, the more moral objections that would have been raised to it.

So wow, where does all that rambling lead? It would almost surely have slowed down the European conquest. I think it's unlikely that it would have prevented Europeans from having any foothold in the Americas at all. After all, some of the early Spanish conquests were before the plagues really took hold. My gut feel is that, if enough Indians had survived, there could still be independent Indian nations today in the Great Plains of North America, maybe in Argentina and Brazil. But the Spanish would still have taken the Aztec and Inca empires and the U.S. would still be established east of the Mississippi. There'd still be white people in California, though who they'd be aligned with politically is hard to say.


The colonization of the Americas by Northern Europeans may not have happened.

Fewer Native Americans lost to disease would have meant more people to fight the colonization. The Europeans would either have to bring more people over to fight them, given up (and gone home), or negotiated peacefully.

Any of those three options would have left America with fewer Europeans colonizing it.


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