Title: Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782
Author: Elizabeth Fenn
Categories: Disease, Space, Transnational History, War, Indians, Empire, Trade, Mexico, Pacific Northwest
Place: North America - Eastern Seaboard, Mexico, New Mexico, Pacific Northwest, Canada and Hudson Bay
Time Period: 1775-1782
Elizabeth Fenn describes the devastating smallpox epidemic of 1775-1782 and argues that smallpox was a monumental shaper of empires. Tracing its path reveals the web of connections and a host of other human processes that extended across not just British colonial America, but the entire continent. Her approach demonstrates the efficacy of engaging in transnational history and is an explicit call for expanding early American perspectives beyond the narrow band of settlement on the Atlantic coast and towards the continental expanse of North America. With over 130,000 North Americans dying, Fenn argues that the disease provided a common experience of death and suffering, which goes against traditional narratives of division and separation between various groups in North America.
She spends the first half of the book discussing smallpox's effects on the Revolutionary War. The disease devastated Americans, Indians, and black troops more so than the European troops who had more exposure to the disease across the Atlantic, and the Continental Army wrestled in the first years with how to control it: specifically, whether to enforce quarantines or innoculation. After the disease devastated the northern campaign in Quebec, George Washington eventually decided on inoculation, which helped turn the tide of the war. As war moved to the southern theater, Britain's strategy of exploiting social divisions through the use of Indian and black troops ended up backfiring as smallpox tore through ranks and filtered across the backcountry just as American troops benefited from their previous inoculation.
In the second half of the book, Fenn traces how the disease spread across the rest of the continent. In New Spain, by 1779 smallpox was ravaging Mexico City, and moved up the interior of Mexico through the camino real trading road, devastating the region's mining districts and eventually reaching California. She then traces how the Hudson Bay fur trade helped facilitate the spread of the disease in Canada and the northern plains. Fenn argues that, although it is difficult to trace, that the disease moved from Spanish settlements in New Mexico and Texas to Comanche and then Shoshone Indians all the way north across the Great Plains. This movement highlights the importance of Indians' adoption of horses and guns in facilitating a massive network of trade and connections that sped up the transmission. She ends by positing that the same Shoshones carried smallpox to the Pacific Northwest in 1781 via the Columbia River basin. Although her documentary evidence gets increasingly scant as the second half of the book moves on, she paints a convincing portrait and is careful to note its limitations.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Expand the realm of focus from narrow Atlantic seaboard to that of a continental expanse
- Importance of disease in shaping empires as transnational agent
- Web of connections across the North American continent (transnational connection)
- Smallpox provides a common experience of death across the continent
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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