- Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation’s Fight against Smallpox, 1518–1824 by Paul Kelton
Focusing on Cherokees’ experience with Variola, or smallpox, historian Paul Kelton challenges the “virgin soil” thesis advanced by scholars [End Page 652] Alfred W. Crosby, Charles C. Mann, Jared Diamond, and others. He offers “a more complicated story than [Indians’] supposedly ill-equipped bodies and counterproductive responses,” instead emphasizing how the forces colonizers unleashed shaped “the contours of death and survival of indigenous peoples” (p. 20). Cherokees actively and successfully responded to smallpox, Kelton explains. He also dissects flawed accounts used to support the “virgin soil” thesis. For Cherokees, the deterministic narrative of Native demographic and cultural decline does not fit. They maintained their traditions and even experienced population growth.
In the first of five chronologically organized chapters, the author builds on his previous book, Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492–1715 (Lincoln, Neb., 2007). Kelton shows that smallpox arrived not with the Spanish expeditions to the Southeast but rather in the 1690s with sustained contact between Europeans and Cherokees. The Indian slave trade, warfare, and economic changes that Europeans unleashed facilitated the spread of smallpox. In chapter 2, Kelton draws on Protestant missionary Daniel Butrick’s writings, James Mooney’s ethnography, and Lee Irwin’s scholarship to reconstruct Cherokee views about and strategies regarding smallpox. Cherokees employed isolation, avoidance, quarantine, and traditional medicine and created new ceremonies to combat the disease. Exposing James Adair’s flawed account of the 1738 smallpox epidemic to critical analysis is central to this enlightening chapter.
Warfare takes center stage in chapters 3 and 4. Here, Kelton tracks the war-induced and war-prolonged spread of smallpox during the Anglo-Cherokee War (1759–1761). Later, in the Revolutionary era, Cherokee villages remained smallpox-free, contrary to the ethnocentric notion that “became engrained in frontier folklore, incorporated into early published memoirs, and written into historical accounts” (p. 139). Echoing David S. Jones, Kelton writes that “narratives of disease are anything but morally neutral” (p. 173). A final chapter based on missionary records and Cherokee ethnography reveals when and how, in the early 1800s, Cherokees adopted “vaccine[s] on their own terms and did so without turning their back on their own medical beliefs and practices” (p. 215).
Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation’s Fight against Smallpox, 1518–1824 will lead scholars to reexamine how they understand and write about epidemic disease. For some, Cherokee population statistics remain unsatisfyingly fuzzy. One wonders how Cherokee smallpox death rates compared with non-Cherokee smallpox deaths in Charles Town in 1760. Would variolation have helped the Cherokees? Scholars have not looked for biological warfare in the Anglo-Cherokee War, but the author implies they might do so. The sections on Cherokee responses to smallpox are so fresh and compelling that the lengthy passages on Euro-American military brutality seem less innovative. However, such passages make the book a stand-alone early Cherokee history.
Strengthened by five beautiful maps, Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs will spur conversation and further research. Its content, methodology, and structure make it essential reading for graduate students in early American and Native history. In offering a new angle on Cherokee history, Kelton challenges common misconceptions, subjects well-worn primary sources to rigorous analysis, offers new insights on Cherokee demography, and gives [End Page 653] Cherokee medicine long overdue attention and credit. He makes it clear that “human agents and not their supposed biological allies” did the most to shape Cherokee history, with and without smallpox present (p. 216).