Pox Americana

The three judges of the 2002 Longman-History Today Book Prize were as one in their praise for this co-winner. Pox Americana is well written and accessible as well as original and interesting. 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. Smallpox would certainly not have looked good. Fenn, who teaches history at Duke University, North Carolina, pulls no punches in underlining the severity, to both individuals and communities, of the disease. She is also searching on the suffering and hardships caused by the efforts to avoid or alleviate smallpox, which included inoculation and isolation.

Throughout, Fenn is alive to the social, gender, ethnic and political dimensions of responses to the disease. For example, the controversial nature of inoculation at the time, not least the risk of contagion, ensured clashing attitudes and very different regulatory regimes. Prior to the revolution, inoculation was far more restricted and unpopular in New England than in the middle colonies, where exposure, and therefore immunity, were common. Fenn shows how these and other differences helped ensure trouble when the outbreak of war led large numbers of men to travel. For variola major, the virus that causes smallpox, to succeed, it has to travel, because the virus has no animal vector. Fenn brilliantly charts these travels, showing how the virus interacted with the war, affecting its progress and, at the same time, being speeded by the movements of troops and others. Furthermore, this was a process that spanned the continent, and Fenn is able to follow the ‘vast web of human contact’, that included Natives, on whom the impact was particularly savage, as well as the Hispanic population of New Spain: the smallpox hit Santa Fe and Albuquerque in 1780.

The impact on the war included the devastation that smallpox visited on Lord Dunmore’s ‘Ethiopian Legion’ of escaped African-Americans in the Chesapeake, as well as on the American army in Canada in 1776. Due to a well-developed system of inoculation, British forces suffered less than their opponents, and Fenn is interesting on the responses of the American Patriots. In Canada in 1776, Benedict Arnold drew attention to the Patriots’ commitment to liberty when he noted that ‘his repeated orders given to prevent the spreading of that fatal disorder the Small-Pox’ had been ‘in a great measure disregarded’.

Social distinctions also emerge. Officers suffered less than enlisted men. Money allowed them to purchase the services of inoculators.

By the southern campaign, the newly-acquired immunity of the Continental army helped greatly, and Fenn suggests that ‘Washington’s unheralded and little-recognised resolution to inoculate the Continental forces must surely rank among his most important decisions of the war’.

Further west, the fur trade spread the epidemic. The Natives who had profited from the Hudson’s Bay Company were devastated. Control of the inland trade slipped from these Natives to employees of the Company who established direct connections to the tribes of the plain.

There, Fenn suggests that the source of smallpox was New Orleans, although she is candid on the difficulties of establishing routes and linkages. Having considered a number of options, she argues that the smallpox went from Louisiana along the Red River to the Comanches and was then transported by them, through trading links, to the Shoshones of modern Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The mobility brought by the horse helped spread the disease.

Smallpox’s arrival in the Pacific Northwest is less clear, but Fenn suggests that it was from the east, not from European traders. Once arrived, smallpox ran out of new human connections and the epidemic came to an end.

A salutary addition to the military history of the war, Fenn’s study will fascinate those interested in early-American and medical history, and is particularly impressive in its treatment of the transforming impact of smallpox on native societies.

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82
Elizabeth A. Fenn
Hill and Wang   xiv + 366pp   $ 25 hb; $15.00 pb

Jeremy Black is the author of The Ideological Origins of The British Empire (Cambridge, 2000).