Acute Syphilis . . . Re-thinking the Mass Killers of Indigenous America

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

Three pathogens . . . smallpox, salmonella and syphilis . . . wiped out much of the population of the Americas.  Other Old World pathogens, such as measles, typhoid, cholera and typhus also made large swaths into the indigenous population.  Recent investigative programs by the BBC have altered our understanding of how pandemic microbes originated and spread. Archival and genetic evidence suggest that these plagues were the direct result of Portuguese exploration of West Africa and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.  Treating fellow human beings worse than animals caused tropical pathogens to mutate into mass killers.  

What sparked my research are historical facts are little known outside those people, who have read a book on the mid-17th century inhabitants of Georgia by French historian-ethnologist Charles de Rochefort or have followed the research of the People of One Fire for the past 15 years.  The Kingdom of Apalache in Northeast Georgia was the progenitor of the Creek Confederacy.  It began allowing Protestant and Jewish colonists to settle on its land in 1566. It traded with the colonists of Santa Elena [SC] from 1570 to 1584] In 1646, it allowed the construction of a Spanish trading post in its capital and a road to connect that facility to St. Augustine.  The kingdom seemed to thrive until the 1690s, when it suddenly disappeared from the maps. Its educated elite almost ceased to exist after that time period.  What happened?

Shortly after the arrival of Hernan Cortez in Mexico, a strange new disease began to wipe out the population of the indigenous peoples. In fact, it is highly unlikely that either Cortez could have conquered the Aztecs or Pizzaro conquered the Inca, if not smallpox had devastated their populations, immediately in advance.  Other waves of plagues would follow, which would eventually kill off over 90% of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. A mutant form of salmonella killed at least 85% of the indigenous population of the Mexican Highlands in the mid-1500s, without touching Europeans or indigenous people, living near the coast. 

When the Tristan de Luna Expedition landed in Pensacola Bay in 1559, they learned that the indigenous population of southern Alabama had been decimated by diseases after the large herd of pigs, accompanying the De Soto Expedition, had gone feral and proliferated.  Yet . . . a century later, an advanced indigenous civilization in the heartland of the Creek People (Northeast Georgia) still thrived a century later . . . despite having European colonists living in their realm.

In 1653, the Parakusa (High King) of the Apalache Kingdom, whose capital was in Northeast Georgia, bragged to his guest, Englishman Richard Briggstock, that he had no fear of European invaders.  The leader stated that at a moment’s notice, over 7,000 soldiers could reach the capital within two days.  Furthermore, he had filled his northern and eastern frontiers with European colonists, armed with firearms, who were married to Apalache women.  The last English map to show the Apalache capital was published by Robert Morden in 1693.  The last French map to show the Apalache Kingdom was published in 1701.

In his “History of the Cherokee People” [1826] written in eight long letters from Principal Chief Charles Hicks to newly elected Cherokee National Council President, John Ross, described the entrance of the Cherokees into the Western North Carolina Mountains. The letters were written in English, since Ross (at that time) did not know Cherokee that well. Hicks said that the Cherokees occupied what is now northeastern Tennessee, about the time that Charleston, SC was founded.  Then a terrible plague swept through the towns of the “mound builders” – greatly reducing the number of their warriors.  The first town captured by the Cherokees in the North Carolina Mountains was Big Tellico (Tali, Talicoa).  The Cherokees then moved from west to east capturing the weakened towns, killing or driving off the “mound-builders.”  The Cherokees burned the “mound-builder” temples and then placed Cherokee town houses (council houses) in their place.

At the opening of his speech to the leaders of Savannah, GA on June 7, 1735, High King Chikili stated in the English translation, “We were like children, without food or clothing . . . and you gave us clothing”.  Did he really say, “children,” not “like children?”  Chikili was still the joana (high priest) of the Apalachicola towns on the Chattahoochee River.  That means that he was ethnically a Georgia palache.  Apalachicola merely means “Apalache People” in their language.  So undoubtedly Chikili was a direct descendant of the Apalache High King, who hosted Richard Briggstock, 82 years earlier.   The Apalache Kingdom seemed to be thriving until the 1690s, when it suddenly disappeared.  How could most of the Creeks completely forget how to weave cloth in one generation?  Apparently, only the Soque . . . deep within the Northeast Georgia Mountains . . . and the Uchee on the Lower Savannah River continued weave cloth and make traditional clothing.

In working on “The Mayas In Georgia” video series for our Youtube Channel, I have been looking for evidence that would explain the sudden abandonment of many terrace complexes, at some point in time after Charleston was founded in 1670.  How could a civilization be erased so quickly?   You see . . . I have been finding the ruins of 17th century style European cottages at most of these terrace sites.  We found another one on Lynch Mountain, GA.   I have also visited a cluster of several Late Medieval style stone foundations on a natural terrace overlooking the Nacoochee Valley in NE Georgia.  It is obvious that Native Americans and their English, Dutch or French Huguenot in-laws abandoned these sites at some point just before large numbers of Carolina traders began penetrating the Southern Highlands.

The 1701, Guilaume De L’Isle Map shows Northeast Georgia occupied by the Apalachete . . . Northwest Georgia and the region around Chattanooga occupied by the Coweta . . . eastern Tennessee occupied by the Kusate, Koasate, Tocahre Uchee and Koasatie . . . western North Carolina occupied by the Shawnee, Itsate Creeks, Uchee and Coweta Creeks . . . the area between Franklin, NC and Asheville, NC occupied by the Kofachete (mixed race people) . . . . northwestern North Carolina occupied by the Watare (Watauga) . . .  northeastern Tennessee occupied by the Chiska and other tribes with Peruvian names . . . and southwestern Virgina/southern West Virginia occupied by the Cave Dwellers (Cherokee).   The 1717 version of the De L’Isle Map shows northeastern Tennessee occupied by the Cherokees . . . southeastern Tennessee occupied by the Kusate . . .northwest Georgia occupied by the Kusate . . . the extreme northwestern tip of South Carolina occuped by the Cherokees . . . an nobody much in northeast Georgia. What could have caused the stark demographic change?

Books on the Colonial History of South Carolina of a pox epidemic in the Southern Appalachians during 1696, which killed many inhabitants.  There are no eyewitness accounts, because South Carolina Indian traders either avoided the region or were killed by the disease.

Many, many articles by academicians address the “1738-39 smallpox epidemic among the Cherokees,” which supposedly reduced their population by a half.  I learned in one article that the Cherokee leaders quarantined villages in which the “pox” broke out.  I didn’t know that.  I also learned that the first cases appeared in 1738, after the Cherokee were catastrophically defeated by the Chickasaw.  Most of these articles included eyewitness accounts. 

The head of an acute syphilis victim . . . removed in an autopsy.

Some of the symptoms suffered by the Cherokee just didn’t sound like smallpox.  In fact, many times they called it the Black Pox because the victims became jaundiced then turned dark purple. Descriptions of smallpox epidemics in other tribes, farther west, were similar. It was stated that men and women in the prime of their lives were the most likely people to catch the disease and die. It was typical among survivors for their noses, fingertips and ends of toes to become necrotic and then fall off.  The presumption among American historians and anthropologists was that the lack of immunity among Native Americans caused these extreme symptoms, atypical of smallpox, but I wonder.

An Aztec victim of smallpox


Smallpox is caused by the variola virus.  There are kindred diseases, such as cowpox and monkeypox which can infect humans slightly, while providing immunity for smallpox.  According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA, the number of people dying from measles and smallpox gradually declined during the Middle Ages. People developed an immunity to these infections or infections by cowpox and sheep pox.  By the 14th century, it was mainly children who died from measles and smallpox.

There is little doubt that the voyages of Cristobal Colon (Columbus) and other early Spanish explorers introduced smallpox to the Americas.  In fact, by 1500 AD it had already spread to the South Atlantic Coast of North America and Yucatan Peninsula via Native American traders even though the Spanish had not settled there yet.  Smallpox spread into the heart of South America prior to attempts by the Spanish and Portuguese to colonize that region. 

CDC researchers were puzzled why there was a sudden increase in smallpox deaths in western Europe during the 1600s, particularly among adults. Up to that time, smallpox had been considered a childhood disease, like measles and chicken pox. Smallpox apparently circulated as a childhood disease in northern England and Sweden for many centuries, even where population densities were low and settlement patterns dispersed. Until around 1650, smallpox was a relatively rare epidemic disease in southern England outside the largest cities, despite its commercialized economy and the growing trade between its communities.  See

Genetic analysis of smallpox viruses in the remains of late 17th century London victims revealed that the virus had mutated at some point in the past.   The specific genetic blueprint was traced to West Africa and found to be related to monkey pox.  Apparently, the monkey pox virus had crossed over into humans in the remote areas, where bush meat was commonly eaten.  These more primitive peoples were first the victims of Arab Muslim slave traders, beginning around 690 AD then Portuguese slave traders in the late 1400s onward.  

The sudden appearance of a virulent strain of smallpox in southern England corresponds exactly to when Virginia and the British colonies in the Caribbean began importing large numbers of African slaves.  This was made possible, when Swedish, Danish and Dutch traders were able to militarily drive out the Portuguese from several slave forts in West Africa.  The frequency of smallpox in England and the British colonies increased dramatically after 1664, when the British established slave castles in West Africa.


This disease, which had symptoms that combined extreme dysentery with hemorrhagic fever, killed as many as 15 million people in the Americas during the 1500s – mostly in the Highlands of Mexico and Central America.  The latest genetic research [2018] suggests that it was caused by Old World salmonella bacteria, which caused often fatal dysentery in Medieval Europe that somehow mutated in Mexico to be a lethal organism, which could kill in hours. . . having some of the symptoms of Ebola Fever.   To be specific, the organism is named the Salmonella enterica—subset Paratyphi C.   I came down with that disease my first night in Mexico, after eating contaminated shrimp about two hours after getting off the plane.*  In about seven hours, I went from felling the first symptoms to being paralyzed.    See  Years later, after coming down with multiple tickborne diseases, I had comprehensive blood tests, which included this specific pathogen on a list of potentially deadly diseases for which I had active immunity.

Researchers examined the remains of known Cocoliztli victims in a mass burial in 2-18.  All contained this salmonella organism.  They then examined a burial ground nearby, containing pre-Spanish Conquest remains.  None of those remains contained this pathogen.   Several Pre-Columbian remains have been analyzed since then.  None of those sites contained these bacteria.  This study has not analyzed a statistically significant number of human remains, but the evidence strongly supports a theory that Salmonella Enterica played a major role in the near de-population of Mexico.

Syphilis Spirochete bacteria

Acute Syphilis

Syphilis is never included on a list of diseases, which nearly made Indigenous Americans extinct. Based on recent research in the UK and at the Centers for Disease Control, it should be. Many epidemics among Native American tribes within the interior of the Southeastern United States had symptoms like a mutant strain of syphilis, which caused an epidemic in late 15th century and 16th century England, but not like documented cases of smallpox.

There they go again . . . academicians lacking a trace of logic in their mindset

In 2008, Emory University in Atlanta issued an international press release entitled, “Syphilis from the Americas – Case Closed.”  Graduate student Karen Harper had found Yaws bacteria (treponema pallidium) in an isolated pre-Columbian population in Guyana, a small nation on the northern end of South America.  She postulated that it was proof that syphilis came from the Americas.  Yaws is caused by a spirochete bacteria. So is syphilis, Lyme Disease, plus a host of insect-borne diseases in both the New and Old Worlds.  Thirty years ago, I came close to biting the dust from a strain of Lyme Disease, indigenous to the Russian Steppes! You go figure!  

The Emory researchers, guiding Miss Harper’s work, stated that “Our hypothesis is that a subspecies of Treponema from the warm, moist climate of the tropical New World mutated into the venereal subspecies to survive in the cooler European environment.   Since syphilis was unknown prior to the Columbus Expeditions, the source was obviously in the Americas.  The phylogenetic analysis of twenty-six pathogenic Treponema strains indicated that yaws is an ancient infection in humans while venereal syphilis arose relatively recently. The study results are especially significant due to the large number of different strains analyzed, including two never-before-sequenced strains of yaws from Guyana—the only known active site of yaws infection in the Western hemisphere.” 

While the academic paper stated this as an hypothesis, Emory’s Public Relations Department stated it as a fact.  Note that the Emory research report clearly stated that the yaws-infected skeletons from Guyana were the only known cases of yaws in the Americas! Yaws is an entirely different disease than syphilis.  Its symptoms are skin rashes, whose bacteria are transmitted by direct contact with the sores.

As usual, no reporter or “journalist” in the news media did any fact-checking. They merely rubber-stamped the press release into their local news.  Cristobal Colon (Columbus) never visited Guyana.  On his first voyage, he visited a few islands in the Lower Antilles, plus briefly, Cuba.  On his return voyage back to Iberia,  the two remaining ships reached Lisbon, Portugal on March 5th, 1493.  About two weeks later,  he was presented to the royal courts of Leon and Aragon (there was no country named Spain then) in Granada, which is in the mountainous, arid, southern tip of Iberia.  Now an admiral,  Colon two weeks later traveled from Granada to Cadiz to begin outfitting a fleet of 14 ships for a second voyage.  It departed on September 24, 1493 and returned to Cadiz on June 11, 1496.  The Second Voyage was also nowhere near Guyana.

So we are to believe that the sailors of Colon’s first voyage picked up a skin disease that does not occur in the Caribbean Islands then brought the bacteria back to a section of Spain that is hot and arid.  That skin infection bacteria mutated into a systemic venereal disease in about six months time then traveled to the suburbs of Naples and quickly spread among the prostitutes living there in order to infect the French army in early 1494?   Okay . . . moving on.

I did some fact-checking.  The Emory researchers may be right about yaws being the origin of syphilis, but they picked the wrong part of the world.  Yaws is endemic in West Africa.  The Portuguese began sailing to the coast of West Africa in 1419!  They reached Sierra Leone by 1460 AD. 

Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb

Fact-checking by the BBC

In 2015, Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb hosted a documentary film on “Syphilis in the Tudor Era home.”  In 2018, she was part of a team of scholars on BBC, who researched the history of syphilis in the United Kingdom.  Their research challenged long-held beliefs about the origin of syphilis. The Wikipedia article on syphilis repeats an explanation that most all of us were taught in school . . . namely that syphilis was a disease carried by American Indians, which sailors on the voyages of Columbus carried back to Europe.

Lipscomb provided viewers some surprising facts in both TV programs.  Apparently, American Indians had no knowledge of syphilis until white men introduced it to North America. British forensic pathologists have now found profound evidence that a generally non-lethal strain of syphilis was present in England in the Middle Ages.  It was apparently brought back to England by Crusaders.  This information has not reached academicians in the USA and so is difficult to find in Wikipedia. A virulent, sexually-transmitted disease did appear among French soldiers besieging Naples, Italy in 1494. In 1497, these soldiers brought the disease back to France, hence the reason that it was originally called the French Pox.  The disease reached England that same year, where it turned into an epidemic.

Dr. Lipscomb found hospital records from 1497, which described most of the patients in the hospital as being victims of the French Pox.  Unlike either smallpox at that time or syphilis today, the French Pox (or Black Pox) had a high mortality rate.  While reading the hospital records, she described other symptoms such as jaundice, pustules all over their bodies, kidney failure, heart failure, lameness, their noses falling off, the ends of fingers and toes falling, ears falling off, male reproductive organ falling off and scars all over the body after the scabs fell off.  Those symptoms definitely are not the symptoms of the syphilis disease that doctors treat today.   Over time, the chronic form of syphilis became more common in Europe.  The fact that there was an epidemic in England, immediately after French soldiers returned to France, is proof that this form of syphilis was an acute, fast-moving disease.  Modern syphilis can often require several months before any symptoms appear at all.


A disease that primarily affected adult men and women in their prime, but also caused their children to be born with congenital syphilis, would explain the seemingly instantaneous disappearance of an advanced Indigenous civilization in the Southern Highland during the late 1600s. Children born before the epidemic would become orphans with few adults to pass on the more sophisticated cultural knowledge of their communities.

There have been very few forensic studies of Native American remains in the Southeastern United States. As far as we know, there have been no analyses of these remains to check for evidence of pathogens associated with epidemics.  Until such studies occur any discussion on the subject must remain in the realm of “educated speculation.”

Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that in addition to smallpox and paratyphoid fever, an acute strain of syphilis was a major killer. While most references continue to state that syphilis bacteria originated in the Americas, no Pre-Columbian syphilis bacteria have been identified in Pre-Columbian human remains and it is documented that Native Americans were not familiar with syphilis until the disease was inoculated into their women by Spanish and Portuguese sailors.

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