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Pox Americana
Cover of Pox Americana
Pox Americana
The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

The astonishing, hitherto unknown truths about a disease that transformed the United States at its birth

A horrifying epidemic of smallpox was sweeping across the Americas when the War of Independence began, and yet we know 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 in North America.

By 1776, when military action and political ferment increased the movement of people and microbes, the epidemic worsened. Fenn's remarkable research shows us how smallpox devastated the American troops at Québec and kept them at bay during the British occupation of Boston. Soon the disease affected the war in Virginia, where it ravaged slaves 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. In 1779, while Creeks and Cherokees were dying in Georgia, smallpox broke out in Mexico City, whence it followed travelers going north, striking Santa Fe and outlying pueblos in January 1781. Simultaneously it moved up the Pacific coast and east across the plains as far as Hudson's Bay.

The destructive, desolating power of smallpox made for a cascade of public-helath crises and heartbreaking human drama. Fenn's innovative work shows how this mega-tragedy was met and what its consequences were for America.

The astonishing, hitherto unknown truths about a disease that transformed the United States at its birth

A horrifying epidemic of smallpox was sweeping across the Americas when the War of Independence began, and yet we know 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 in North America.

By 1776, when military action and political ferment increased the movement of people and microbes, the epidemic worsened. Fenn's remarkable research shows us how smallpox devastated the American troops at Québec and kept them at bay during the British occupation of Boston. Soon the disease affected the war in Virginia, where it ravaged slaves 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. In 1779, while Creeks and Cherokees were dying in Georgia, smallpox broke out in Mexico City, whence it followed travelers going north, striking Santa Fe and outlying pueblos in January 1781. Simultaneously it moved up the Pacific coast and east across the plains as far as Hudson's Bay.

The destructive, desolating power of smallpox made for a cascade of public-helath crises and heartbreaking human drama. Fenn's innovative work shows how this mega-tragedy was met and what its consequences were for America.

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  • Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth A. Fenn

    Pox Americana

    1

    VARIOLA

    September 28, 1751. Time has left the early pages of his diary so damaged that the exact date remains uncertain. But it was probably on this day that nineteen-year-old George Washington set sail from Virginia to the island of Barbados with his older half brother, Lawrence. If their departure date is unclear, the brothers' purpose is not: The trip was intended to ease Lawrence's persistent cough and congested lungs, symptoms of the consumption that was to kill him within a year. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, travel abroad was a favored treatment for consumption, the contagious disease that today we call tuberculosis. Early Americans understood consumption to be an ailment of heredity and climate, alleviated by salt air, mountain breezes, or whatever atmospheric conditions best suited a particular patient's constitution. It was the Washingtons' hope that Barbados would suit Lawrence.

    The trip was difficult. Hurricanes regularly strafe the Caribbean in the early fall, and 1751 was no exception. The brothers and their shipmates endured a week of stiff gales, rain squalls, and high seas in late October, the effects of a nearby storm. They disembarked at Bridgetown, Barbados, on November 2, 1751. Although the purpose of the journey was to ease Lawrence's consumption, it was soon George who lay seriously ill—not from tuberculosis, but from smallpox.

    On November 3, the day after landing, the two brothers begrudgingly accepted an invitation to dine at the home of Gedney Clarke, a prominentmerchant, planter, and slave trader with family ties to the Washingtons. "We went,—myself with some reluctance, as the smallpox was in his family," George wrote in his diary. His misgivings were justified. For a fortnight afterward, the two Americans plied the Barbadian social circuit, unaware of the virus silently multiplying in George's body. Then, on November 17, when the incubation period had passed, the infection hit hard. "Was strongly attacked with the small Pox," Washington wrote. Thereafter, his journal entries stop. Not until December 12, when he was well enough to go out once again, did George Washington return to his diary.

    The brothers' stay in Barbados was brief. "This climate has not afforded the relief I expected from it," wrote Lawrence. On December 22, the brothers parted ways, George returning to Virginia and Lawrence opting for the more promising climate of Bermuda. Lawrence's health was failing fast. He spent the spring in Bermuda and then hurried desperately to his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia, where tuberculosis took his life on July 26, 1752.1



    On Sunday, July 2, 1775, a much-older George Washington stepped out of a carriage in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take command of the Continental army, newly established by the Congress still meeting in Philadelphia. Already, an American siege of nearby Boston was under way. The standoff was the outcome of the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, when an angry throng of New England militiamen had routed a column of British troops attempting to seize a stash of munitions at Concord. Exhausted and humiliated, the king's soldiers had staggered sixteen miles back to Boston under relentless American sniper fire. Here they were trapped. The armed patriots were to besiege them in the city for the next eleven months.

    By the time Washington arrived to command the American army in July, the confrontation had taken on an added dimension: It was not just military but medical as well. Smallpox was spreading through Boston. Washington knew how debilitating the disease could be, and he knew...

About the Author-
  • Elizabeth A. Fenn teaches history at George Washington University. The author of Natives and Newcomers, she lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.



Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    September 10, 2001
    In this engaging, creative history, Fenn (Natives and Newcomers) addresses an understudied aspect of the American Revolution: the intimate connection between smallpox and the war. Closed-in soldiers' quarters and jails, as well as the travel demands of fighting, led to the outbreak of smallpox in 1775. George Washington ended an outbreak in the north by inoculating American soldiers (the colonists had a weaker immune system against smallpox than the British). Indeed, Fenn makes a plausible case that without Washington's efforts, the colonists might have lost the war. Despite the future president's success at "outflanking the enemy" of smallpox, however, the disease spread on the Southern front, where there was "chaos, connections, and a steady stream of victims." Even as the war ended, the increased contact between populations spread the disease as far as Mexico and the Pacific Northwest. The outbreak eventually killed an estimated 125,000 North Americans—more than five times the number of colonial soldiers who died (to her credit, Fenn admits that these numbers are inexact). Along the way, Fenn, who teaches history at George Washington University, recounts the fate of many blacks freed under a British "emancipation proclamation" of sorts; promised their freedom if they fought for the British, several thousand ex-slaves perished from smallpox. She also traces the disease's effect on the North American balance of power by devastating some Native American tribes in the 1780s. Long after the war, whites kept Native Americans passive with explicit threats of infection. Fenn has placed smallpox on the historical map and shown how intercultural contact can have dire bacterial consequences. 38 b&w illus. not seen by PW.

  • Janet Maslin, The New York Times

    "Pox Americana sifts carefully through journals and records of the late 18th century to reconstruct the path of the disease. Using resources as varied as the burial records kept by Catholic Priests in the Southwest and the diaries of explorers traveling up the Pacific coast, she pieces together a gripping, untold story and even tries to arrive at an accurate statistical tally for the seven-year blight . . . Scholarly yet detectivelike."

  • Michael Kenney, The Boston Globe "With Pox Americana, Fenn has made a stunning contribution to American Revolution studies."
  • Garance Franke-Ruta, The Washington Monthly "A considerable achievement and an extraordinary work of history that uncovers an episode that reshaped America as surely as the War of Independence."
  • Professor Don Higginbotham, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill "With impressive research and sparkling prose, Elizabeth Fenn addresses a greatly neglected subject: a smallpox epidemic that not only was continent-wide but had the real possibility of derailing the War of Independence. Pox Americana is an excellent book."
  • Alfred W. Crosby, author of The Columbian Exchange

    "I thought that the most important participants in the saga of North America in the era of the American Revolution were the Native Americans, African Americans, Patriots, Redcoats, and French. Elizabeth A. Fenn convinces me that I must add the smallpox virus to the list of protagonists or fail to comprehend the actions of all the others."
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