- Pestilence and Persistence: Yosemite Indian Demography and Culture in Colonial California
Pestilence and Persistence is a case-study contribution to the model of European- American Indian interactions that stresses the effects of introduced diseases on the Indian population after the arrival of Columbus. As Hull explains her work, “The timing, magnitude, and cultural consequences of colonial-era catastrophic depopulation among the Indian people of Yosemite Valley is chronicled . . . by bringing together native oral tradition, ethnohistoric accounts, historical images on film or canvas, later ethnographic data, and archaeological information that extends well beyond the colonial era” (25–26).
Continuous direct contact between Americans and the Miwok began only in 1851, when the Mariposa Battalion invaded the valley and eventually relocated some of the Indians to a newly established reservation about fifty miles away, from which they escaped to return home. But Hull’s story begins when “a black sickness” descended on the valley and caused severe depopulation. Hull dates this occasion between 1785 and 1800, but she does not attempt to specify the disease in question.
Readers are likely to find Pestilence and Persistance most useful for Hull’s description of the Yosemite Indians during the last half of the nineteenth century, for which the documentary record is surprisingly rich. Hull arrives at a population of approximately 300 people c. 1800, its lowest ebb for millennia, partly because of introduced disease and partly because of a millennium-long cycle of depressed population levels that ended around 1600 but had not yet had time to rebound. These conclusions are problematical. Historians seeking a demonstrated relationship between evidence and argument are likely to come away disappointed—perhaps even alarmed—by the intensive use of proxy data to interpret the pre-contact Miwok experience, especially those described as “items that have a known mathematical relationship to the number of people that produced or used them” (117, 302–307)
The longest chapter in this work, comprising more than one-fifth of the text, is essentially a rechauffé of twenty-five years of study about ten American Indian societies employing the disease model as an explanatory framework. Hull’s adherence to this model is evident in her use of “disease-induced” thirty times in this chapter and by her unwillingness, [End Page 463] in most cases, to consider alternatives to account for depopulation. The purpose of this chapter is unclear. It adds nothing to her main focus on the Miwok Indians, in which, as noted above, she has been able to use a variety of sources—mostly written and mostly contemporaneous—to build a credible case that resembles the disease model. It enlarges, but does not enhance, the core narrative, and its prominence leaves an impression that the focal study was designed only to add a cog to that model.