«in the raging time of the small pox»

A new series on smallpox and the documentation of American otherness in the late Eighteenth century

The series in brief

This post inaugurates a series focussing on the perception of the effects of smallpox on the demographic decline of the native North American populations by some English-speaking writers in the eighteenth century. The series will highlight the awareness expressed by contemporary observers of the circulation of new infectious diseases imported from Europe into North America, and of the effects of these diseases – of which smallpox is a critical but far from unique case – on the decimation or incipient extinction of native peoples.

The aim of this series is to show how this awareness favoured, in English-speaking observers, the agglutination of the category of “European”, and an urgent need to document American human diversity before its disappearance.

Works by John Lawson, John Brickell, James Adair, and Cadwallader Colden are considered before dwelling on the Lewis and Clark expedition and on Thomas Jefferson’s role in the expedition’s cultural aims and interests in medicine.

Redman Coxe, Practical observations on vaccination, or, Inoculation for the cow-pock, Philadelphia, Printed and sold by James Humphreys at the corner of Walnut and Dock-streets 1802. illustration preceding the title page, comparison of the development of smallpox and vaccine sores
Redman Coxe, Practical observations on vaccination, or, Inoculation for the cow-pock, Philadelphia, Printed and sold by James Humphreys at the corner of Walnut and Dock-streets 1802. illustration preceding the title page, comparison of the development of smallpox and vaccine sores at 3, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 18-20 days after inoculation or contraction. In the same volume appear a letter by Jefferson in support of the vaccine practice and the data recorded by Jefferson during the Monticello experiments. Copy at Yale University, Cushing, Whitney Medical Library, no known restrictions on reproduction for academic use.

Diseases and epidemics in the Euro-American encounter: attributions of meaning and imperial constructions

The deep connection between geographical, historical, proto-ethnographic and medical knowledge of the American territory and its inhabitants, projects of colonial government and commercial expansion, is clearly visible in the accounts of the expedition led by Meriwether Lewis, together with Lieutenant William Clark between 1804 and 1806, in the Louisiana territory newly acquired by the young republic.

The institutional, scientific and symbolic value in North American history of the mission and the documentation collected could hardly be overestimated. Among Thomas Jefferson’s objectives in promoting it to Congress, geographical exploration and the establishment of diplomatic relations with native peoples go hand in hand with plans for colonial expansion, the search for a Northwest Passage to the Pacific and other possible advantages for the American fur trade.1

Among the expedition’s programmes there are also important aspects in the medical field, explored in depth by a historiography interested above all in the disciplinary history of medical knowledge and practices,2 with a prevalence of contributions written by doctors and medical historians, while reflections in the field of cultural history and aimed at reconstructing the perspective of the populations encountered by the expedition were rather rare.3 The expedition’s interests in the field of anatomical study and the inoculation of the smallpox vaccine as an instrument of diplomacy are set against the widely known background of the decimation of native populations by pathogens of European origin, of which smallpox is a sadly known and not unique occurrence.4  The role of germs, diseases, epidemics in the Euro-American encounter is in turn understandable as part of broader environmental and biological scenarios and processes of European expansion into America.5

The observation of the decimation of native populations by diseases to which European settlers were immune through early exposure dates back at least to Ralph Lane and Thomas Hariot’s 16th century. Equally old is the attribution of this mortality to a divine will, to a providential plan favourable to the colonists, proposed for example by Hariot.6 During the 17th century, disease had a profound effect on demographic dynamics in North America, and continued to reverberate on a cultural and religious level. While between 1616 and 1636 approximately ninety percent of the native populations of Massachusetts, Wampanoag and New England died from smallpox and other epidemics, Ferdinand Gorges, John Winthrop and William Bradford conceptualised what they observed in terms of a providential narrative. The semantisations of diseases and epidemics in a religious sense had profound repercussions on the dynamics of Christian missionary work.7  Interpretations of plagues as a form of punishment or divine sign in the Christian context, and later debates about the endemic origin of pathogens, fed the substratum of the hierarchisation of American ‘savages’ in a racial sense.8 Teleological visions of smallpox as written in the destiny of native populations were repeated until the late nineteenth century.9

The attribution of meaning to diseases and inequalities between groups in terms of mortality is to all effects part of the ideological tools of imperial constructions (not only) in the North Atlantic context. Individual and collective responses to epidemic phenomena incorporate elements at the intersection of medical theories, economic and political interests, and racial ideologies. Rationalisations of these phenomena, the cultural malleability of their interpretation always reveal specific social and political points of view. In the words of David Jones:10

Disparities can be seen as proof of natural hierarchy, as products of misbehaviour, or as evidence of social injustice. These assessments motivate or undermine interventions, influencing whether observers prevent an epidemic’s spread, treat its victims, or exploit its opportunities.


[1] M. Lewis and W. Clark, Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806, edited, with introduction, notes and index, by R. G. Thwaites, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company 1904, 7 vols., and vol. 8: Atlas accompanying the original journals, in quest’edizione: vol. I, Thwaites, Introduction, xvii-lviii, e V. H. Paltsits, Bibliographical Data, lxi-lxxxiv.

[2] E. G. Chuinard, Only One Man Died: The Medical Aspects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Glendale, CA, Arthur H. Clark Company 1979; B. C. Paton, Lewis and Clark: Doctors in the Wilderness, Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 2001; D. J. Peck, Or Perish in the Attempt: The Hardship and Medicine of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Foreword by Moira Ambrose, Illustrations by R. F. “Bob” Morgan, Helena, MT, Farcountry Press 2002. Obiettivi divulgativi sono prioritari in Paton.

[3] Lewis and Clark and the Indian Country: The Native American Perspective, ed. by F. E. Hoxie and J. T. Nelson, Urbana, University of Illinois Press 2007; see also the namesake exhibition on Newberry Library’s website, https://publications.newberry.org/lewisandclark/; The Salish People and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, ed. by Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee and Elders Cultural Advisory Council, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

[4] R. T. Boyd, The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectiouus Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774-1874, Seattle and Vancouver, University of Washington and UBC Presses 1999; R. T. Boyd, Smallpox in the Pacific Northwest. The First Epidemics, «BC Studies», 101, 1994, accessed via Anthropology Faculty Publications and Presentations, 141, https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/anth_fac/141; D. S. Jones, Epidemics in Indian Country, 2014, Oxford Research Encyclopedia, American History, doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.27; W. H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, Garden City, NY, Anchor Press-Doubleday 1976, specialmente cap. 5.

[5] A. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, Westport, CT, Greenwood 1972; J. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel. The Fates of Human Societies, New York and London, Norton 1997; W. H. McNeill, The Global Condition. Conquerors, Catastrophes, & Community, Princeton, Princeton University Press 1992.

[6] D. S. Jones, Rationalizing Epidemics: Meanings and Uses of American Indian Mortality since 1600, Cambridge, MA and London, Harvard University Press 2004, pp. 20-45, anche per le successive note su Lane, Bradford e Hariot.

[7] N. Salisbury, Spiritual Giants, Worldly Empires: Indigenous Peoples and New England to the 1680s, in The World of Colonial America: An Atlantic Handbook, ed. by I. Gallup-Diaz, London and New York, Routledge 2017, pp. 153-170 vedi pp. 156-160.

[8] Jones, Rationalizing Epidemics; J. E. Chaplin, Was Knowledge Power? Science in the British Atlantic, pp. 281-300, in The World of Colonial America, ed. by Gallup-Diaz, specialmente p. 286.

[9] Jones, Rationalizing Epidemics, 105.

[10] Jones, Rationalizing Epidemics, 3.

This post is adapted from: Giulia Iannuzzi, “in the raging time of the small pox”: Il vaiolo e la documentazione dell’alterità americana tra fine Settecento e primo Ottocento, Diciottesimo Secolo, 6 (2021): 67-82, doi: 10.36253/ds-12544; ISSN: 2531-4165. This article is available in full green open access:

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "«in the raging time of the small pox»," in Geographies of Time, 01/03/2022, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1961.

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