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The study of Native American depopulation and the role of epidemic disease in it began in earnest around the beginning of the twentieth century, and from that point until 1966 it remained a relatively obscure niche topic across several different disciplines. Interestingly, the few scholars interested in this topic, regardless of disciplinary background or specific position on the substantive issues, were overwhelmingly concentrated at a single institution: the University of California at Berkeley.

It’s not entirely clear why Berkeley became the focus of study for this topic, but the precipitous decline in numbers of the California Indians during the nineteenth century, which happened right before the eyes of many of the early white settlers, had spurred more interest in the general topic there than elsewhere starting with the very earliest attempts at professional anthropology. A key early attempt to estimate the numbers of inhabitants in aboriginal California was published in 1905 by C. Hart Merriam. Merriam noted that the part of the state under the influence of the Spanish missions, which he estimated to be approximately one-fifth of the non-desert area, had relatively good demographic data provided by the missionaries. He further assessed, based on his personal experience doing fieldwork throughout the state, that the resource base of the entire non-desert area was pretty similar and could presumably support a similar population density (though he acknowledged that there was no evidence that it actually did). He therefore took the demographic data from the mission records, adjusted it to account for unconverted Indians within the missionized zone, whom he estimated on no evidence to form one-quarter of the total population, and multiplied it by five to come up with a total estimate for the non-desert portion of the state.

For 1834, the year for which Merriam considered the mission data most complete and reliable, he estimated 30,000 Indians in the missions, 10,000 unconverted Indians in the mission zone, and a non-desert state total of 200,000. He further estimated the desert population at 10,000 (again with no basis), for a total within the current state boundaries of 210,000 in 1834. He further noted the decrease of population over the course of the mission period and estimated a total population of 260,000 as of first contact in the late eighteenth century.

Merriam further looked at estimates for Indian population made by various officials during the American period, starting in the 1850s and made some adjustments for under-counting of Indians living away from reservations. He concluded that the population decline had been dramatic, resulting in a 1900 estimate of just 15,500 people. He identified two periods of particularly sharp decline, following the secularization of the missions in 1834 and the start of the Gold Rush in 1848. These two periods overlapped, and Merriam attributed them to similar causes, primarily the greed and oppressive behavior of white settlers, but he saw them as involving distinct groups of both Indians and settlers (Spanish-Mexican ranchers along the coast in the first case, Anglo and international gold prospectors further inland in the second). He mentioned disease in passing as one factor leading to the demographic decline, but didn’t emphasize it.

Merriam’s methodology was fairly crude by modern standards, but it was pretty sophisticated for its time. It’s interesting to note that Merriam combined aspects of what would eventually come to be the two main methodological approaches to estimating pre-contact populations: working backward from ethnohistorical documentation and estimating carrying capacity of particular types of land based on subsistence resources available.

Soon after Merriam’s work was published, James Mooney at the Smithsonian Institution began work on a more ambitious project to estimate contact population for all of North America. A brief summary of this work appeared in the Bureau of American Ethnology’s first Handbook of North American Indians, but Mooney never published his intended full monograph due to his untimely death in 1921. An abbreviated version based on his notes was published posthumously by the Smithsonian in 1928. Mooney primarily made his estimates based on the earliest surviving population counts of reasonable reliability for each tribe, with adjustments to get from there to an estimate of population at whatever date constituted “contact” for the area in question (ranging from 1600 to 1780). Mooney took historically recorded epidemics into consideration in making these adjustments, along with warfare and other factors. For California, however, unlike every other region, Mooney did not make his own estimates but adopted Merriam’s.

Merriam wasn’t based in California, but his pioneering fieldwork there was influential on the development of a local tradition of anthropology at Berkeley, which was developed largely by Alfred Kroeber, a towering figure in American anthropology generally. Kroeber studied a wide variety of topics, and Native American demography was one of them. Around the same time Mooney was working on his estimates for the “Population” chapter of the Handbook of North American Indians, Kroeber began work on his own using a similar methodology for the California chapter of the same publication. Working backward from the earliest solid counts in the ethnographic record, Kroeber came up with a count of approximately 150,000 at the time of contact. This is a much lower number than Merriam’s, and over the years Kroeber became even more conservative in his estimates. By the time he published his own Handbook of the Indians of California in 1925 his overall estimate had declined to 133,000, approximately half of Merriam’s number.

In 1934 Kroeber published an article discussing Native American contact-era population for all of North America, in which he adopted Mooney’s estimates for most areas but substituted his own estimate for California in place of Merriam’s. This reduced the overall continental estimate a bit, and Kroeber stated in the article that he was using Mooney’s estimates but that he thought they were likely a bit high and would come down as more research was done. John R. Swanton, the Smithsonian anthropologist who edited Mooney’s work for the 1928 publication, had a similar opinion, which he expressed in the footnotes at various points.

All this makes Mooney, Swanton, and Kroeber the main founders of the “low counter” school of thought on these issues. Due to Kroeber’s towering reputation within the discipline of anthropology and his prominent post leading the anthropology department at Berkeley, the low count position would come to be popular in many circles among anthropologists for decades to come. This was particularly true among archaeologists and physical anthropologists, who also had other reasons based on their own research and (sub-)disciplinary perspectives to incline toward low counts. Similarly, Mooney and Swanton’s legacy led to a longstanding tendency toward low counts among Smithsonian Institution anthropologists, again especially among physical anthropologists and archaeologists.

At the same time all this was going on in the 1920s and 1930s, however, a very different perspective on population counts and demographic decline was developing among a different set of researchers, again with Berkeley as a major base and California, along with Mexico, as a major field of investigation. This perspective, which would develop into the “high counter” school with a focus on environmental carrying capacity, was largely led by geographers, with the most prominent figure being Carl O. Sauer at Berkeley’s geography department.

Sauer’s role in the development of geography was parallel in many ways to Kroeber’s in anthropology, and his personal research interests were equally broad as well. He had a particular interest in Mexico, and it was his research in the 1930s with Donald Brand (also known for his research on Chaco Canyon around the same time) on the historical demography of northwestern Mexico that set the tone for the school of thought that would follow him on this topic. After reviewing the available historical and archaeological data available at the time, Sauer and Brand concluded that northwestern Mexico had been home to approximately as many people in pre-contact times as in their own time. Given the historical evidence for much lower populations in the initial centuries after Spanish contact, this implied an immense decline in population after contact that contrasted strongly with the interpretations of Kroeber et al. that posited low pre-contact populations and substantial continuity in demographic trends across the boundary of contact. Sauer’s students in geography at Berkeley, and their own students there and at other institutions, would go on to develop his ideas over the next few decades, with the result that geography would become a bastion of “high-counter” thought just as archaeology and physical anthropology would become centers for “low-counter” thought.

The most prominent high counters to emerge in Sauer’s immediate wake, however, were not geographers at all, though they were still associated with Berkeley. They included the Latin Americanist historians Leslie Byrd Simpson and Woodrow Wilson Borah, but the most prominent figure was a physiologist at Berkeley’s medical school named Sherburne Friend Cook.

Cook is a complex figure with an immense but ambiguous impact on the field of Native American historical demography. His eclectic interests and long career at Berkeley echo those of Kroeber and Sauer, but unlike them he was a marginal figure in his own discipline. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1925 with a dissertation on the toxic effects of heavy metals, and after being hired at Berkeley a few years later he continued to study that topic. He was something of a pioneer in studying the physiological effects of environmental contaminants and his early career looked bright.

As Cook continued his studies on heavy metal toxicity in the early 1930s, however, he veered into political ground equally toxic to his career. He documented the presence of heavy metals in chicken feed and began to trace them up the food chain to the chickens and then to the people who ate them. The public health implications of this line of research were considerable, but so were the economic implications to chicken feed manufacturers. It appears (based on later oral history research among Berkeley academics by the historian Wilbur Jacobs) that those manufacturers influenced a dean at the medical school to try to prevent Cook from publishing his results and to go on to use administrative chicanery to sabotage his career for many years.

Discouraged, Cook began to divert his attention away from physiology and explore other fields of interest. He somehow stumbled upon a transcript in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library of an eighteenth-century description of the diseases of the Indians of Baja California written by a Jesuit missionary, which he translated and published in 1935 in a local medical journal. He went on to publish various other odds and ends of medical history and related topics over the course of the next few years. He developed an interest in Indian demography and population history, and was in friendly contact with both Kroeber and Sauer as they did their studies on this topic in the 1930s.

Cook was an astonishingly productive and creative researcher, and he conducted numerous studies of Indian population history, along with many other topics, over the remaining forty years of his life. He developed numerous ingenious methodological approaches to try to wring population estimates out of the most unlikely sources, including Aztec tribute lists and various environmental productivity estimates in California. His methodology was constantly being adjusted, so his specific population estimates for given areas varied from publication to publication, but in general he was coming up with high numbers more in line with Sauer’s results than Kroeber’s. He also did extensive studies of disease history, including a very important 1955 publication on the “fever and ague” that swept California and Oregon in the early 1930s in which he argued, contra earlier researchers, that it was most likely malaria and its extreme death rate among Indians was due to it being their first exposure to the pathogen. (An early glimpse of the “virgin soil” concept that would become so influential later.)

Cook’s research was extraordinarily wide-ranging, and some of it would be controversial on a variety of grounds especially after his death. Many of his ingenious methodologies for estimating populations relied on assumptions that didn’t hold up well to closer investigation, and his conclusions about the oppressive conditions in the California missions were vigorously contested by pro-mission scholars, especially those affiliated with the Catholic Church. He stands as a towering figure in the field of historical demography of Native Americans, however, and set the tone for the emergence of that field as a focal point of scholarship.

Cook’s final estimate for the contact-era population of California was 310,000. This was somewhat higher than Merriam’s estimate of 260,000, and much higher than Kroeber’s 133,000, putting Cook firmly on the “high-counter” side. The influence of Cook and his collaborators, while fairly limited in what was still an obscure field of study in the 1940s and 1950s, would expand dramatically in the 1960s as a new generation of researchers moved the topic out of the back halls of Berkeley and dramatically into the academic and political spotlight.

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