Book Look - Pox Americana, by Elizabeth Fenn

The problem with the history they teach you in school is that it’s really just a highlights reel. For instance, there’s how early American history is usually taught: Pilgrims landed at Jamestown --> more people came and settled New England --> King George III demanded taxes --> American Revolution. By shifting the focus from geopolitical issues to social/health issues – specifically the Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782 - Fenn gives us an “all the other stuff that was going on” account of North America during this pivotal time in history, give or take a few decades either way - and what an interesting, heretofore largely neglected, tale it is!

Given the number of diseases that plagued North America’s earliest European settlements – to include measles, influenza, mumps, typhus, cholera, plague, malaria, yellow fever, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and diphtheria – why does Fenn choose to focus on smallpox, aka Variola? For one thing, the disease is transmitted only through human contact, thus ensuring that tales of spreading infection are also, de facto, tales of human migration and communication. Also, Variola’s insidiously long incubation period (as long as 14 days might pass between initial infection and the first symptoms) immeasurably increased the odds that it would spread without detection.

Yes, the American Revolution still features large in Fenn’s account. In fact, the author offers a fairly convincing argument that smallpox played a heretofore entirely unappreciated role in determining the fate of many of the war’s most crucial battles. I admit these chapters left me somewhat unnerved, because before reading them I thought I was pretty familiar with the major events of the American Revolution. Not so much now! I gasped at the spectacle of Lord Dunmore’s 1000-strong “Ethiopian Regiment” marching to war in shirts boldly emblazoned “Liberty for Slaves!” only to perish in anguished heaps upon the shore of Gwynn Island; thrilled at the doomed attempt by valiant Daniel Morgan and his Virginia Riflemen to scale the walls of Quebec while there were still enough American troops alive to attempt the feat; and was shocked to learn that John Adams attributed his Congressional appointment to the fact that he was one of the few candidates willing to travel to smallpox-infested Boston to attend the meetings of the Continental Congress. Truly, I never imagined the extent of the devastation that Variola wrought within American cities and encampments during the war years, and I’m inclined to agree with Fenn’s conclusion that had George Washington not had the foresight to require all the men in his army to be innoculated against the disease, the outcome of the war might have been quite different.

But it was the chapters of the tale not specifically related to the American Revolution that I found most fascinating. Fenn chooses to relate the tale not so much chronologically as histiologically, tracking each smallpox outbreak from its probable origin and then tracing – via Native American oral traditions and settler diaries and church death records - the paths it travelled as it spread across the American continent, sometimes via the Canadian trappers and Native American middle-men who travelled to the Hudson Bay Company’s trading posts annually, only to carry back with them the fatal infection; sometimes via Franciscan monks who carried the infection with them into the Indian villages they attempted to convert; up and down the bustling trade road joining Mexico City to European settlements along the along the Rio Grande; in the saddlebags of Indian Raiding parties whose plunder included blankets and clothing teeming with disease; in the company Russian adventurers demanding “fur tributes” from the Inuit and other native tribes unlucky enough to inhabit the northeastern coasts, 10,000 of which were killed by smallpox in a single year. In the end, though, all these paths converge upon one truth: that one European-borne pestilence was probably, in and of itself, responsible for reducing the population of North American by 20-50% during the years of its terrifying reign.

One can quibble with Fenn’s conclusions – that smallpox very nearly altered the outcome of the American Revolution; that smallpox permanently shifted the balance of power among Native American tribes by selectively devastating traditionally peaceful agricultural tribes (such as the Shoshone) while sparing their more nomadic rivals (such as the Sioux); that Variola triggered the decline of Native American civilization by devastating whole tribes and undermining their confidence in traditional gods and healing rituals; that had it not been for Variola, African Americans might have gained their freedom 100 years earlier. But, as Fenn’s meticulously footnoted narrative makes clear, it’s hard to overstate the role that smallpox played in shaping the destiny of North America and the young republic that emerged from the chaos that Variola left in its wake.