The University of Arizona

UA Honors Student Wins Top Undergraduate Paper Prize

By Jeff Harrison, November 25, 2002

Matthew Kruer, University of Arizona junior majoring in history, received the Portz Prize from the National Collegiate Honors Council at its annual meeting. The Portz Prize is awarded to three honors students in a national competition. Matthew's paper, "A Country Wonderfully Prepared for Their Entertainment: The Aftermath of the New England Indian Epidemic of 1616," was read at the NCHC conference in Salt Lake City where Matthew received the Portz Prize.

"This paper exemplifies the multi-talented students in Honors," said Dean Patricia MacCorquodale of the UA Honors College. "The paper is a brilliant, interdisciplinary synthesis of history, economics, psychology, sociology and political science woven together with a critical perspective."

Matthew is the second UA student to win the Portz Prize. Mark Rivera, a philosophy major, received the prize in 1999.

Kruer's Abstract

A devastating plague struck the Indians of coastal Massachusetts between 1616 and 1620, decimating the population and causing a catastrophic social breakdown. Though a precise diagnosis of the contagion is not possible given the existing evidence, it was most likely smallpox. Estimates of the resulting mortality range anywhere from 75 to 90 percent. The unprecedented level of destruction and complete lack of defense against the disease demoralized the affected tribes. The psychological effect of the epidemic contributed to their subsequent subjection to rival Indian tribes, as well as the conviction that powerful spiritual forces acted against them in bringing the plague. European adventurers saw the opportunity to exploit a humbled population and financed the journey of a handful of Separates from Leyden - the Pilgrims - to New England.

The Pilgrims arrived with little or no supplies and few means of supporting themselves. That they survived at all is attributable principally to the auspicious discovery of supplies, tools and food that Indians had abandoned in their haste to avoid the epidemic. As a direct result, the Pilgrims came to view the epidemic that shattered the Indians' world view as the work of Divine Providence. Whatever the Pilgrims' view of the epidemic, the political and demographic consequences of the disease prevented the Indians from provoking hostilities. Hoping to escape submission to their Narragansett overlords, the Wampanoag tribe sought out the Pilgrims in an attempt to forge an alliance. The Pilgrims, however, exploited the untenable position of the Indians to secure dominion over the region surrounding Plymouth. They accomplished this through a strategy of oppression and terrorism, which the Indians suffered because they had no other alternative.