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  • Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82
  • James Kirby Martin
Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82. By Elizabeth A. Fenn. (New York: Hill and Wang, a Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. xiv plus 370 pp. $25.00).

Well-informed students of the American Revolutionary era have long known that virulent, localized outbreaks of smallpox played havoc with soldiers and civilians alike during the years of the War for American Independence. The devastation wrought by this killer disease among Continental and militia troops who invaded Canada in 1775–1776, for example, or among African-American slaves who were in the vicinity of Yorktown, Virginia, at the time of the siege of Lord Cornwallis’s army in 1781, have received modest amounts of attention. What scholars have not previously known, however, is how incredibly widespread and horribly destructive this smallpox epidemic really was. This is the subject that Elizabeth Fenn, after extensive and impressive research, addresses in this valuable new investigation of the smallpox virus, Variola major, and its rapacious spread to all corners of the North American continent between 1775 and 1782. [End Page 268]

Fenn first looks into the ghastly, highly contagious characteristics of smallpox. She points out that from the 1490s to the 1770s, as many as twenty-three smallpox epidemics occurred in various parts of North America. 1 Especially hard hit were Native Americans, but Euro-Americans were not wholly immune. Over time European settlers learned to isolate the sick and even perform inoculations by making incisions in their skin and then rubbing in Variola-related matter drawn from the pustules of persons enduring milder cases.

Turning to the War for Independence, Fenn concludes that George Washington’s decision in 1777 to have new Continental recruits inoculated (assuming they had not already gained immunity through natural bouts with the disease) was critically important to saving countless lives, not only among the soldiery but also among civilians in contact with American troops as the latter moved about the countryside. Washington thus had “outflanked Variola” in leading the way to military victory over the British, but the virus, writes Fenn, “executed an even more stunning maneuver” and “outflanked the war itself.” (p. 134)

Another of the author’s main points is that the 1775–82 epidemic was most likely the first fully continental disease episode in North American history. Fenn, as such, devotes about half of her text to following smallpox’s death-laden trail into Mexico, back through Texas to New Orleans, up into the Hudson Bay region and beyond into western Canada, out onto the Great Plains and the Far West, and then into the northwestern portions of the continent, even including Alaska. Researching and distilling this complex body of information represents the challenge of breaking free of the traditional “eastern seaboard” emphasis in Revolutionary era scholarship in favor of studying “events elsewhere on the continent,” states Fenn, all of which “highlights the geographic and demographic gaps in our historical canon.” (p. 9). Closing some of these gaps certainly embodies a major contribution of this book.

A key aspect of the author’s presentation focuses on describing the disease’s capricious journey across the landscape. Lurking almost everywhere were complex conditioning factors related to the Columbian exchange, including the introduction of horses and European-style weapons. Indians resident on the Great Plains, for example, could ride, trade, raid, and make war in all directions—and also spread Variola wherever they went. The author, when the evidence seems clear cut, identifies those peoples, such as the Shoshones of the Great Plains, who carried Variola into the midst of other population groups during the 1775–82 plague. Fenn’s purpose, however, is not to cast blame for blame’s sake, particularly with respect to Native peoples who had little comprehension of the disease. The real culprit, the author indicates, lay in the heightened interaction of diverse peoples across the continent, a reflection of European colonization and missionization efforts as well as proliferating networks of commercial exchange that brought Native Americans into sustained contact with Euro-American and European traders.

By and large, Fenn avoids romanticizing the lives of Native Americans in...