Madeleine Johnson investigates the mysterious epidemic that wiped out 90% of the Indian population around Plymouth:
The symptoms were a yellowing of the skin, pain and cramping, and profuse bleeding, especially from the nose. A recent analysis concludes the culprit was a disease called leptospirosis, caused by leptospira bacteria. Spread by rat urine…. According to the hypothesis, infected ship rats landed in the New World and excreted leptospira, infecting raccoons, mink, and muskrats whose urine further contaminated any standing fresh water.
Johnson explains why the European colonists remained largely untouched by the plague:
Wampanoag have long had seasonal feasts of thanksgiving, one of which celebrates the cranberry harvest. There is some evidence that cranberries were also used medicinally – raw, ground into a poultice, and applied to open wounds. Although modern research suggests that cranberries can be a potent antimicrobial, that might not have been enough to slay the spirochete. The more leptospira that initially invade the bloodstream (possibly via direct contact with berries), the more likely the disease is to be fatal.