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Pox Americana

The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

Elizabeth Anne Fenn

Hill and Wang

Pox Americana Download image

ISBN10: 080907821X
ISBN13: 9780809078219

Trade Paperback

384 Pages



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During the years when the Revolutionary War transformed thirteen former British colonies into a new nation, a horrifying epidemic of smallpox was transforming—or ending—the lives of tens of thousands of people across the American continent. This great pestilence easily surpassed the war in terms of deaths, yet because of our understandable preoccupation with the Revolution and its aftermath, it has remained virtually unknown to us. Elizabeth A. Fenn is the first historian to reveal how deeply the virus Variola affected the outcome of the War of Independence, and why it caused a continental epidemic, touching the lives of virtually everyone in North America from Florida to Alaska.

Political ferment and military actions helped to spark the initial outbreaks of the dreaded illness on the East Coast, where the pox struck first in Boston. As the contagion of liberty spread, this gruesome contagion of pestilence spread with it, striking Native Americans, Continental soldiers, and settlers of both European and African descent. Smallpox devastated the American troops in Quebec and kept them at bay during the British occupation of Boston. Soon the disease affected the war in Virginia, where it ravaged slaves who had escaped to join the British forces. And during the terrible winter at Valley Forge, General Washington had to decide if and when to attempt the risky inoculation of his troops.

In 1779, while Creeks and Cherokees were dying in Georgia, the pox broke out in Mexico City, whence it followed travelers north, striking Texas and then erupting in Santa Fe and outlying pueblos in January 1781. From there the epidemic ravaged the northern plains and wrought havoc among the Indians trading furs at the Hudson Bay. Simultaneously, it reached the Pacific coast and extended to what is now southeastern Alaska. Fenn argues persuasively that not only the war but the expansion of the European world economy—and with it the acquisition of the horse by Plains Indians; the increase in intertribal conflict aggravated by access to guns; the trade in furs and other goods; and the Spanish pattern of colonization, missionization, and silver mining—created the circumstances for this unprecedented continental epidemic.

The destructive, desolating power of smallpox made for a cascade of public-health crises and heart-breaking human drama. Fenn explores the many different ways this megatragedy was met, and analyzes the consequences. Her book is a signal contribution to the study of infectious diseases which immensely increases our understanding of the interplay between devastating pestilence and historical change. And it transforms our picture of the American Revolution.


Praise for Pox Americana

"[Fenn] has done a prodigious amount of research and presents it in a lively, readable book that would be wonderful for undergraduates . . . this is an important book that will . . . encourage more studies of epidemics' significance to North America."—Joyce E. Chaplan, Harvard University, The Journal of American History

"A remarkable book . . . Well-written . . . This is a superb scholarly study, an original work that will become a classic. It provides a model for future historical studies examining the movement of infectious diseases that have undeniably influenced the course of world history."—Clifford E. Trafzer, University of California, Riverside, American Historical Review

"Elizabeth Fenn provides a dazzling new perspective that embraces the entire continent . . . [and she] recovers the larger picture that we have long missed . . . A story that is timely as well as powerful and sobering."—Alan Taylor, The New Republic

"A chilling portrait of the first contact between the New World and the [smallpox] virus . . . [Fenn] chronicles smallpox's influence on early American history [and] musters strong evidence of early biowarfare . . . Pox Americana fills out the historical record, illuminating in vivid detail a pandemic that stretched from Alaska to Brazil and took more lives than America's war of independence . . . A meticulously researched study of public health policy challenging—and defeating—an incurable disease."—Philip Herter, The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"With Pox Americana, Fenn has made a stunning contribution to American Revolution studies."—Michael Kenney, The Boston Globe

"A richly detailed and comprehensive portrait of smallpox at a now-forgotten but nonetheless epochal moment in its long past . . . A fascinating and invaluable case study of the way an epidemic can, as it spreads with blind impartiality, fuse such apparently unrelated phenomena as the American Revolution, the Canadian fur trade and the Spanish missions of the West . . . Fenn makes us re-imagine . . . an era of polyglot complexity, with widespread populations scattered across the continent, only dimly aware of each other at all, and pursuing (simultaneously or in sequence) different preoccupations as they battled the same catastrophic illness . . . That insight alone brands Pox Americana as a considerable achievement."—Mark Caldwell, Newsday

"[Fenn] has made fresh use of many primary sources . . . to put together a remarkable portrait of an epidemic that killed five times more people on the entire continent than the War of Independence did in the east."—The Economist

"After the flood of works that talented scholars have devoted in recent years to the American Revolution, who could have expected a major new study of an unexamined and scarcely suspected dimension of it? That is what Elizabeth Fenn has produced in this extraordinary book, which concerns the workings of a catastrophic epidemic that shaped both the course of the Revolutionary War and the way people lived throughout the North American continent."—Edmund S. Morgan, Yale University

"With impressive research and sparkling prose, Elizabeth Fenn addresses a greatly neglected subject: a smallpox epidemic that not only was continent-wide but had the real possibility of derailing the War of Independence. Pox Americana is an excellent book."—Don Higginbotham, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"I thought that the most important participants in the saga of North America in the era of the American Revolution were the Native Americans, African Americans, Patriots, Redcoats, and French. Elizabeth A. Fenn convinces me that I must add the smallpox virus to the list of protagonists or fail to comprehend the actions of all the others."—Alfred W. Crosby, author of The Columbian Exchange

"A considerable achievement and an extraordinary work of history that uncovers an episode that reshaped America as surely as the War of Independence."—Garance Franke-Ruta, The Washington Monthly

"Fenn's study will fascinate . . . It nicely belies the conventional wisdom that books written for the popular market have to be derivative biographies or military histories, or something that will look good on television . . . Throughout, Fenn is alive to the social, gender, ethnic and political dimensions of responses to the disease . . . and is particularly impressive in its treatment of the transforming impact of smallpox on native societies . . . Well written and accessible as well as original and interesting."—Jeremy Black, History Today

"Remarkable. [The author] literally changes our understanding of a seminal event in the founding of the American nation. Her carefully researched account moves smallpox to a position of centrality in the outcome of the Revolutionary War, as well as in the fate of the Indian population of North America . . . Fenn moves her story beyond the travails wrought by battle, imprisonment, and hunger. Infection and disease have long been wholesale killers in war. But in stunning prose [Fenn] identifies the particular role of smallpox in the American Revolution."—Leonard Cole, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

"Many books have been written about smallpox, but few have this volume's scholarly focus. Fenn relies heavily on primary documents to illustrate the disease's devastating impact on the political and military history of North America during the Revolutionary War. Excerpts from diaries, letters, presidential papers, and church and burial records provide first-hand accounts of the spread of this disease. The result is an extensive discussion of the role of smallpox in the Colonial era, but the book's main strength is in the detailed analysis of smallpox among Native Americans, from Mexico to Canada."—Tina Neville, University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, Library Journal

"In this engaging, creative history, Fenn addresses an understudied aspect of the American Revolution: the intimate connection between smallpox and the war. Closed-in soldiers' quarters and jails, as well as the travel demands of fighting, led to the outbreak of smallpox in 1775. George Washington ended an outbreak in the north by inoculating American soldiers (the colonists had a weaker immune system against smallpox than the British). Indeed, Fenn makes a plausible case that without Washington's efforts, the colonists might have lost the war. Despite the future president's success at 'outflanking the enemy' of smallpox, however, the disease spread on the Southern front, where there was 'chaos, connections, and a steady stream of victims.' Even as the war ended, the increased contact between populations spread the disease as far as Mexico and the Pacific Northwest. The outbreak eventually killed an estimated 125,000 North Americans, more than five times the number of colonial soldiers who died (to her credit, Fenn admits that these numbers are inexact). Along the way, Fenn, who teaches history at George Washington University, recounts the fate of many blacks freed under a British 'emancipation proclamation' of sorts; promised their freedom if they fought for the British, several thousand ex-slaves perished from smallpox. She also traces the disease's effect on the North American balance of power by devastating some Native American tribes in the 1780s. Long after the war, whites kept Native Americans passive with explicit threats of infection. Fenn has placed smallpox on the historical map and shown how intercultural contact can have dire bacterial consequences."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

Pox Americana

September 28, 1751. Time has left the early pages of his diary so damaged that the exact date remains uncertain. But it was probably on this day that nineteen-year-old George Washington...