The Dutch Among the Natives

American Indian-Dutch Relations, 1609–1664

Curing Rituals 

The journal of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, 24 December 1634

Since it was Sunday I looked in on a person who was sick. He had invited into his house 2 of their doctors who were supposed to heal him. They were called SUNACHKOES*. As soon as they arrived, they began to sing, and kindled a large fire, sealing the house all around so that no draft could enter. Then both of them put a snakeskin around their heads and washed their hands and faces. They then took the sick person and laid him before large. Taking a bucket of water in which they had put some medicine, they washed a stick in it ½ ell long**. They stuck it down their throats so that the end could not be seen, and vomited on the patient s head and all over his body. Then they performed many farces with shouting and rapid clapping of hands, as is their custom, with much display; first on one thing and then on the other, so that the sweat rolled off them everywhere.

* Van den Bogaert's wordlist contains "sinachkoo" with the given meaning "(to) exorcise the devil." 

**An ell is a standard of measurement equal to 27 inches.

Charles T. Gehring and William A. Starna, trans., eds., A Journey Into Mohawk and Oneida Country, 1634–1635: The Journal of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, Revised Edition (2013), pp. 11–12

See also Van den Bogart's 4 January entry


"Up the river [the Hudson] ... formerly many people have dwelt, but who for the most part have died or have been driven away by the Wappenos [Eastern Abenakis]." Isaack de Rasière, 1628.

"None of the chiefs was at home, except for ... Adriochten, who was living 1/4 mile from the fort in a small cabin because many Indians here in the castle had died of smallpox." Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert among the Mohawks, 13 December 1634.

"Their numbers have dwindled owing to smallpox and other causes to the extent that there is now barely one for every ten." Adriaen van der Donck, 1655, on the Indians of the Hudson Valley.

Standing in the shadows of those first generally untroubled years of Indian-Dutch interaction was disease. Although illness and debilitation were a familiar part of life to Native peoples, what Europeans unwittingly brought with them was not. The first epidemic in the Northeast—maybe plague, perhaps a hepatic virus, probably leptospirosis, a bacterial disease affecting animals and humans—struck coastal New England in 1616. The Natives of the Hudson Valley remained unscathed until the late 1620s when they were swept by an unknown sickness. It may have been smallpox, the most virulent of all infections. But there were other deadly contagions that Indians would experience—typhus, measles, cholera, pertussis, and others. Mortality rates reached and exceeded 60 percent. Such high rates of death led to the loss of leaders and learned, experienced persons, and the rending of kinship ties. The toll in Indian lives also aroused anxiety among the people, posing a challenge to religious beliefs, spirituality, and the effectiveness of their means of treating disease. The grim depiction by one early writer of the aftermath of the epidemics as a "new found Golgotha," the place of the Crucifixion, is tragically fitting.

 
 
 
 

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