There is no disputing that an epidemic of devastating lethality descended on Nantucket’s Wampanoag population in the winter of 1763–64. Of 358 Wampanoags resident on Nantucket, 222 died in the course of a few winter months. Most of the victims were women, children, and old men. The main reason some fit young men were spared was because they were away from the island, out whaling “on the shoals to south’ard.”
At most, one non-Wampanoag was infected, an Irish woman by the name of Molly Quinn, who kept an inn and ran a laundry on the southern edge of town. Molly Quinn later denied that she had ever been sick, although others insisted that she had indeed been sick and then recovered.
As the epidemic took hold, Nantucket’s sheriff, who was also a physician, imposed a cordon sanitaire around the affected Wampanoag village at Miacomet in order to protect the residents of the rest of the island. Not only did this quarantine spare the English but also a number of Wampanoags employed as live-in servants in town and a small group of Wampanoags who lived apart from the others out in Madaket.
Although the disease did not spread to the English town (called Sherburne at the time), it did spread to Wampanoag communities on Martha’s Vineyard and in Mashpee with fatalities in both places.
A great deal of attention has been paid to what this highly selective and deadly infection was. It was described as “yellow fever,” but yellow fever is carried by mosquitoes, and this was a winter epidemic. Moreover, mosquitoes do not make ethnic discriminations about whom they bite. Nor was it smallpox, which was well-known, highly recognizable, and greatly feared. Whatever it was, it was only spread by direct contact with infected people or, apparently, with their clothing. It was carried to Mashpee by a Nantucket Wampanoag woman who traveled there before symptoms appeared, then sickened and died there.
Nantucket’s historian of the 1700s, bilingual in English and Wampanoag and a practitioner of Wampanoag herbal medicine, was Zaccheus Macy (1713–97). Macy wrote down much of what we know about the epidemic. In 1797 and 1798, Friend Christopher Starbuck (1731–1815) wrote a series of letters to fellow Quaker Friend Moses Brown in Providence about the “Indian Sickness” of thirty-four years before. Using the late Zaccheus Macy’s written account, Starbuck wrote about the numbers infected, the numbers recovered, the numbers deceased. And then…
He blamed it on the Irish.
The story of the epidemic as he related it was that “a Brig from Ireland, having a number of passengers on board, was cast away near Long Hill on the North side of the island.” Then, two women passengers died aboard, and their bodies were thrown overboard to be washed up onshore. What is more (and rather unlikely), from this same Irish vessel, clothing was sent ashore to none other than Irish Molly Quinn to be washed in her laundry. Subsequently, Molly and one of her Wampanoag employees named Mary Norquata came down with “yellow fever” (that is to say that the infection caused its victims to turn yellow with jaundice). In the end, there were 222 deaths on Nantucket and more in Mashpee and on the Vineyard, but all English Nantucketers were spared.
The Irish were implicated by Christopher Starbuck on four counts: The Irish arrived on an infected vessel. The Irish threw dead bodies overboard. The Irish sent contaminated clothes ashore to be washed. And Irish Mollie Quinn, who handled the infected clothing, was the only non-Wampanoag to get sick.
The Nantucket Wampanoags didn’t come off entirely blameless either in Starbuck’s account. Somehow, they were constitutionally vulnerable to an illness to which the rugged English (and local Africans as well) were invulnerable.
This played into the belief, entrenched even in the 1700s, that Indians were doomed to extinction. And in this case, it was the Irish who came calling with the doom.
Christopher Starbuck’s original letters to Moses Brown are in the manuscript collection of the Nantucket Historical Association. Frances Karttunen has written about the Indian Sickness in The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, available from the NHA Museum Shop.