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Pox Americana by Elizabeth A. Fenn

Pox Americana

by Elizabeth A. Fenn

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The problem with the history they teach you in school is that it’s really just a highlights reel. For instance, there’s how early American history is usually taught: Pilgrims landed at Jamestown --> more people came and settled New England --> King George III demanded taxes --> American Revolution. By shifting the focus from geopolitical issues to social/health issues – specifically the Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782 - Fenn gives us an “all the other stuff that was going on” account of North America during this pivotal time in history, give or take a few decades either way - and what an interesting, heretofore largely neglected, tale it is!

Given the number of diseases that plagued North America’s earliest European settlements – to include measles, influenza, mumps, typhus, cholera, plague, malaria, yellow fever, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and diphtheria – why does Fenn choose to focus on smallpox, aka Variola? For one thing, the disease is transmitted only through human contact, thus ensuring that tales of spreading infection are also, de facto, tales of human migration and communication. Also, Variola’s insidiously long incubation period (as long as 14 days might pass between initial infection and the first symptoms) immeasurably increased the odds that it would spread without detection.

Yes, the American Revolution still features large in Fenn’s account. In fact, the author offers a fairly convincing argument that smallpox played a heretofore entirely unappreciated role in determining the fate of many of the war’s most crucial battles. I admit these chapters left me somewhat unnerved, because before reading them I thought I was pretty familiar with the major events of the American Revolution. Not so much now! I gasped at the spectacle of Lord Dunmore’s 1000-strong “Ethiopian Regiment” marching to war in shirts boldly emblazoned “Liberty for Slaves!” only to perish in anguished heaps upon the shore of Gwynn Island; thrilled at the doomed attempt by valiant Daniel Morgan and his Virginia Riflemen to scale the walls of Quebec while there were still enough American troops alive to attempt the feat; and was shocked to learn that John Adams attributed his Congressional appointment to the fact that he was one of the few candidates willing to travel to smallpox-infested Boston to attend the meetings of the Continental Congress. Truly, I never imagined the extent of the devastation that Variola wrought within American cities and encampments during the war years, and I’m inclined to agree with Fenn’s conclusion that had George Washington not had the foresight to require all the men in his army to be innoculated against the disease, the outcome of the war might have been quite different.

But it was the chapters of the tale not specifically related to the American Revolution that I found most fascinating. Fenn chooses to relate the tale not so much chronologically as histiologically, tracking each smallpox outbreak from its probable origin and then tracing – via Native American oral traditions and settler diaries and church death records - the paths it travelled as it spread across the American continent, sometimes via the Canadian trappers and Native American middle-men who travelled to the Hudson Bay Company’s trading posts annually, only to carry back with them the fatal infection; sometimes via Franciscan monks who carried the infection with them into the Indian villages they attempted to convert; up and down the bustling trade road joining Mexico City to European settlements along the along the Rio Grande; in the saddlebags of Indian Raiding parties whose plunder included blankets and clothing teeming with disease; in the company Russian adventurers demanding “fur tributes” from the Inuit and other native tribes unlucky enough to inhabit the northeastern coasts, 10,000 of which were killed by smallpox in a single year. In the end, though, all these paths converge upon one truth: that one European-borne pestilence was probably, in and of itself, responsible for reducing the population of North American by 20-50% during the years of its terrifying reign.

One can quibble with Fenn’s conclusions – that smallpox very nearly altered the outcome of the American Revolution; that smallpox permanently shifted the balance of power among Native American tribes by selectively devastating traditionally peaceful agricultural tribes (such as the Shoshone) while sparing their more nomadic rivals (such as the Sioux); that Variola triggered the decline of Native American civilization by devastating whole tribes and undermining their confidence in traditional gods and healing rituals; that had it not been for Variola, African Americans might have gained their freedom 100 years earlier. But, as Fenn’s meticulously footnoted narrative makes clear, it’s hard to overstate the role that smallpox played in shaping the destiny of North America and the young republic that emerged from the chaos that Variola left in its wake. ( )
  Dorritt | Feb 28, 2016 |
epidemic, health, medicine
  GeekGoddess | Mar 19, 2014 |
After reading Elizabeth Fenn's "Pox Americana: The great smallpox epidemic of 1775-82", I am inclined to think that General Washington's best decision during the Revolutionary War was to, in current political terminology, flip-flop, on the question of inoculating the Continental Army. When I first heard of this book I fell into the trap of judging it by its cover, I expected to learn how an outbreak of small pox had affected the participants of the Revolutionary War. While the author does that she goes much deeper into the epidemic. She follows the small pox outbreak from 1777 Boston up and down the eastern coast, to the Britain's indigenous allies, across Mexico, up to Canada and nearly into Alaska. Because the documentary evidence in the northwest is fragmentary at best she also looks into a Russian outbreak that reached western Alaska at approximately the same time to determine if it could be responsible for the bones and empty villages that greeted British explorers Vancouver and Puget in 1792.

If Fenn had simply concentrated on the interaction between the Revolution and small pox this would be an important book on an under-examined topic. By following the epidemic across North America she managed to create a fascinating book on a topic, to the best of my knowledge, that had been completely unexamined.

The breadth of the research necessary to uncover the epidemic's footsteps seems overwhelming. She looked at Russian, Spanish, British, French, and US records as well as church, business and personal diaries. Fenn managed to find enough passing references to small pox in this wide variety of sources that her argument tracing the epidemic from European outposts across the vast expanse of the continent still controlled by indigenous Americans, while her evidence does not reach the level of certainty, she managed marshal enough evidence to achieve probability. Considering that there are no direct documentary sources this is an impressive accomplishment.

I confess to being predisposed to like this book after learning in the introduction that the author spent years working as an auto mechanic. It is an experience we share that allowed me to appreciate her ability to take a small clue, a tick on a vacuum gauge, a hissing noise, or a passing reference in a text, and see them as road signs pointing to the solution of a puzzle. I have to recommend "Pox Americana" to anyone interested in the Revolutionary War or in reading a concise account of the interaction of the First Nations with each other and with European colonizers. I found the differences in how Spanish missions and British fur traders dealt with the sick and dying Native Americans surprising.
Fenn's writing is very readable, she uses plain English and generally eschews the obfuscation caused by some academics’ enamourment with polysyllabic verbiage. I found this book included in the syllabi of several medical history classes*; I am not the only one impressed by Fenn's intriguing topic, clear writing and quality scholarship.

* National Library of Medicine; History of Medicine: Online Syllabus Archive ( )
1 vote TLCrawford | Mar 12, 2012 |
I'm American. That can mean a lot of things. That I'm a fat, overindulgent, lazy or stupid? No! What it means is that I've had America's brief history hammered into my brain repeatedly in my 12 years of schooling. We covered the Revolutionary War numerous times, and I like to think I know just a little bit about it. However, I can say definitively that no one ever told me there was a third combatant in the war for my country's freedom. One whose soldiers were countless, who killed indifferently, indiscriminately, and without bias, and claimed more lives than the Continental and British armies combined. The third side, of which I was never taught about, was smallpox.

Smallpox played a subtly important role in the war. Between the fear of attacking a quarantined town and the risk of capturing and imprisoning infected soldiers, there was a lot more caution involved in the war than I ever knew about. Obviously disease has always been a factor in almost every war, but I'm amazed in my many years of American history courses no one ever covered the role of smallpox in a war as important as this one, and that there is so little information about it.

In this regard, Pox Americana is wonderfully enlightening. Elizabeth Fenn has apparently done some heavy research on this relatively neglected topic, and I'm definitely glad she did it. However, I did have a few minor issues with the book. Some of the information just wasn't recorded, mostly things like how the disease effected native Americans, so the author had to play fill-in-the-blank. I've never liked speculations, theories, assumptions, etc in my nonfiction, even if the topic is as interesting as this one. I also felt it was a little dry and I was rather bored throughout the latter half of the book, as it seemed to drag on a bit more than needed, but this is probably just because I'm not a big nonfiction history reader, and tend to get a little bored with the subject.

Regardless, my complaints are small and have more to do with my own reading preferences than how the book was actually written. If you think the topic sounds interesting, I can say Pox Americana is definitely a worthwhile read, especially for fans of American history. Go read it. ( )
18 vote Ape | Jul 12, 2010 |
Reviewed Oct. 2006

Amazing info - some pictures and maps - large index. Apparently my professor attended her lecture when she was a PhD candidate and found her research to be very helpful in teaching American Revolution. I sure learned more about smallpox than I would ever need to know. We discussed this book quite a lot in class and essays. The professor asked...”if you were given 5 minutes to tell someone about the A.R. would you mention smallpox?” We all said “yes,” when asked if we would have before reading this book, we all answered “no.” Our professor feels that Fenn’s argument is that smallpox unified America, not the revolution, smallpox became the common evil. I that that Fenn got carried away with her research topic, she should have stuck with the East coast, and not include the second part dealing with the Native American and the trading routes. Maybe two different books would have been better. Fenn says she included Mexico, West Coast and Native Americans because they are often ignored. But when compared to what was happening on the East Coast I would think that they were right to be ignored. This book really reminded me of the flu book I read a few years ago. Written for popular audience with enough to please historians as well.

24-2006 ( )
2 vote sgerbic | May 8, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 080907821X, Paperback)

A horrifying epidemic of smallpox was sweeping across North America when the War of Independence began, and until now we have known almost nothing about it. Elizabeth A. Fenn is the first historian to reveal how deeply Variola affected the outcome of the war in every colony and the lives of everyone on the continent. Her remarkable research shows us how the disease devastated the American troops at Quebec and kept them at bay during the British occupation of Boston, and how it ravaged slaves in Virginia who had escaped to join the British forces. During the terrible winter at Valley Forge, General Washington had to decide if and when to attempt the risky inoculation of his troops.

The destructive, desolating power of smallpox made for a cascade of public-health crises and heartbreaking human drama. Fenn's innovative work shows how this megatragedy was met and what its consequences were for the young republic.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:17 -0400)

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