In Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs, Paul Kelton challenges the “virgin soil” thesis promoted by scholars, such as Alfred Crosby, Jared Diamond, and Charles Mann. According to the “virgin soil” theoretical framework, diseases unwittingly brought by colonists infected and decimated indigenous populations in North America that lacked immunity. Kelton argues that such a framework deprives [End Page 232] both colonizers and indigenes of their human agency and instead promotes an argument for biological determinism. According to Kelton, the “virgin soil” thesis shrouds the violence of colonialism with a narrative of accidental, and unintentional, conquest by germs. In order to demonstrate this point, Kelton centers his analysis on the Cherokees’ experience with smallpox. Kelton selects the Cherokees because of the amount of documentary sources, as well as their close relationships with British, and later, American colonizers. He rightly points out that in addition to cultural considerations, a Native group’s proximity and interaction with colonizers also affected the exposure and spread of smallpox in Native communities.
Cherokee Medicine is arranged chronologically, beginning with the Spanish invasions of the sixteenth century and ending with the Cherokees’ adoption of the smallpox vaccine in 1824. Chapters one and two address the Cherokees’ initial contact with smallpox and their response. Kelton asserts that the Cherokees first suffered a smallpox outbreak in 1698, but he is clear that the exact date cannot be established from the existing evidence. Regardless of the exact date, Kelton clearly demonstrates that smallpox spread as a result of English colonial efforts, specifically the southeastern Indian slave trade. In chapter two, Kelton explains how Cherokee spiritual and medical practitioners effectively responded to smallpox by isolating infected individuals, closing off their villages to outside contact during times of outbreak, altering their cosmologies to incorporate the virus into their spirit world, and creating new rituals to protect their people from the contagion.
In chapter three, Kelton recounts an outbreak of smallpox that decimated the Cherokee population in the mid-eighteenth century. Just as he does in the first chapter, Kelton again demonstrates the frailty of biological determinism by placing the smallpox outbreak within the context of the Anglo-Cherokee War, which lasted from 1759 to 1761. The intensity of the smallpox outbreak in 1760, Kelton maintains, cannot be understood outside the violence of colonialism. In chapter four, Kelton provides evidence against a late-eighteenth-century [End Page 233] outbreak of smallpox among the Cherokees. Through his deft use of sources, Kelton argues that the story of a smallpox epidemic, accepted by many historians, exists only in Tennessee settler folklore and cannot be corroborated in other documentary records of the time. Through this example, Kelton illustrates how the employment of germ colonization by American settlers cloaked the violence of their successive invasions into Cherokee communities. In the final chapter, Kelton argues for the continued importance of Cherokee rituals concerning smallpox despite the nation’s adoption of the smallpox vaccine. According to Kelton, Cherokees developed a pluralistic methodology that allowed them to adopt aspects of Euro-American culture that suited their purposes, such as vaccination, while maintaining their culturally specific medicines and rituals.
Kelton effectively dispels the biological determinism embedded within the “virgin soil” thesis and replaces it with a story of human agency: the violent human agency of Euro-American colonialism and the resilient human agency of Cherokee communities and spiritual leaders. Kelton’s exhaustive research, heavily weighted in archival materials, demonstrates that the true explanation for indigenous depopulation and death is the violence inherent in colonialism. For proof of this argument, Kelton suggests we look to the Cherokees themselves, who at the end of the American Revolution accredited their decline to “war, and succeeding invasions of our Country” (p. 215). Glaringly absent was any mention of disease.
JAMIE MYERS MIZE is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro. Her research focus is Cherokee masculinity in the Revolutionary and early-republic periods.