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The Great Smallpox Epidemic

Elizabeth A. Fenn examines a little known catastrophe that reshaped the history of a continent.

Drawing accompanying text in Book XII of the 16th-century Florentine Codex (compiled 1540–1585), showing Nahuas of conquest-era central Mexico suffering from smallpox.Cruising the northwest coastline of America in 1792, Captain George Vancouver was troubled. Where, he wondered, were all the natives? The land was abundant, with a seemingly unlimited supply of salmon and fresh water, but there were strikingly few people. Instead, the British navigator found deserted villages. The first, encountered south of Vancouver Island on the shores of Discovery Bay, was ‘over-run with weeds; amongst which were found several human skulls, and other bones, promiscuously scattered about’.

As Vancouver charted the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the scene repeated itself regularly. ‘During this Expedition’, crew member Thomas Manby noted, ‘we saw a great many deserted Villages some of them ... capable of holding many hundred Inhabitants’. For Manby, the conclusion was inescapable: ‘By some event, this country has been considerably depopulated, but from what cause is hard to determine.’ Vancouver agreed. All the evidence, he believed, indicated ‘that at no very remote period this country had been far more populous than at present’.

There had indeed been a disaster, one so vast, in fact, that even its witnesses and victims could not appreciate its extent. In the years from 1775 to 1782, as the Revolutionary War reshaped society and politics along the eastern seaboard, a very different cataclysm shook the entire North American continent. The cataclysm, huge and hideous, was smallpox.

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