“I have lived among them in the raging time of the small pox”

Adair and Colden witnesses to epidemics in eighteenth-century North America: a new post in the smallpox series

The fur trader James Adair, who lived between the turn of the century and the 1770s in an area between present-day North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Florida, recorded smallpox as an imported disease among the First Nations he came in contact with. “I have lived among them in the raging time of the small pox”:1 Adair highlighted the first-hand experience that has made his History of the American Indians, published in London in 1775, one of the primary sources adopted in studies of the historical ethnography of the peoples of the South East.2

With the linguistic-cultural awareness that is typical of his compilation, Adair reported the mythographic conceptualisation of smallpox by the Cherokee (Cheerake):3

“The small-pox, a foreign disease, no way connatural to their healthy climate, they call Oonatàquára, imagining it to proceed from the invisible darts of angry fate, pointed against them, for their young people’s vicious conduct.”4

Regarding the Catawba (Katahba),5 he noted: “[they] are now reduced to a very few above one hundred fighting men – the small pox, and intemperate drinking, have contributed however more than their wars to their great decay”.6 Here he recorded, and underestimated, the consequences of the smallpox epidemic that had led to the evacuation of settlements in the Catawba Valley in 1759.7 In later years, archaeological evidence, particularly relating to sites and stratigraphies of burials in the area, will paint a picture of the massive demographic loss caused by the Great Southeastern Smallpox Epidemic of 1759,8 following a probable earlier wave in 1738. The latter was documented by Adair among the Cherokee (historiography will confirm a halving of the population due to the various epidemic waves that followed between 1697 and 1783):

“About the year 1738, the Cheerake received a most depopulating shock, by the small pox, which reduced them almost one half, in about a year’s time: it was conveyed into Charles-town by the Guinea-men, and soon after by the infected goods.”9

On the Creek (Muskohge) Adair noted that they had learned, following the advice of British traders, to suspend social contacts as a means of stopping the spread of the contagion. The Creek’s ability to limit losses in the event of an epidemic and their lesser inclination to conflict with other groups distinguished them from the conspicuous decline that characterises other nations: “All the other Indian nations we have any acquaintance with, are visibly and fast declining, on account of their continual merciless wars, the immoderate use of spirituous liquors, and the infectious ravaging nature of the small pox.”10

James Adair, History of the American Indians […], London, Printed for Edward and Charles Dilly, in the Poultry 1775, frontispiece. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).

A relevant precedent for Lewis and Clark’s expedition in terms of awareness of the diplomatic implications of contagion is found in Cadwallader Colden’s History of the Five Indian Nations. Colden, at the time of writing Surveyor General of the Province of New York,11 is based in part on francophone sources for the reconstruction of relations between Europeans and native peoples in the seventeenth century, and includes first-hand chronicle and testimonial aspects of the first half of the eighteenth century. Colden promoted an understanding of the variety of forms of socio-political organisation of native peoples as essential to the establishment of diplomatic relations, which he argued were crucial to the consolidation of the British presence in the area between New York and Canada. In the second and final edition of 1747, the History dwells on the concerns about the risk of smallpox infection expressed by the Governor of the Province of New York, George Clinton, on his way to the Albany negotiations in August-September 1746 with the representatives of the Six Nations. Among other things, the disease prevented the participation of a representative of the Mississauga (Messesague), a population of Algonquian stock from the area north of Lake Huron,12 and led to an early closure of activities for fear of the contagion spreading to the town, which could not be prevented.13

The testimonies of these observers during the eighteenth century allow us to place the case of Lewis and Clark against the background of a somewhat pre-existing attention and awareness. These were coupled with precise interests in the medical, experimental, proto-ethnographic fields, in particular on the part of Thomas Jefferson, helping to explain, in the expedition, the ample presence of medical aspects both in the diplomatic armamentarium, in the conceptual categories guiding the observation and description of the peoples encountered, and among the reasons for a desire to document. A prior awareness of the effects of diseases of European origin motivated the need to create an archive of American humanity, enabling future generations to continue their study, to reconstruct their genealogies and possibly unravel the mystery of their origins.


[1] J. Adair, The History of the American Indians by James Adair. Edited and with an Introduction and Annotations by Kathryn E. Holland Braund, Tuscaloosa, The University of Alabama Press 2005, p. 210.

[2] C. Hudson, James Adair as Anthropologist, «Ethnohistory», 24, 4, 1977, pp. 311-328.

[3] Of Iroquois linguistic stock, the Cherokee were largely involved in Anglo-French conflicts during the 18th century, usually on the side of the British. On smallpox among the Cherokee: W. R. Reynolds, Jr., The Cherokee Struggle to Maintain Identity in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Jefferson NC, McFarland, 2015, chapp. 2-4 passim.

[4] Adair, The History, p. 116, 210.

[5] C. L. Heath, Catawba Militarism: Ethnohistorical and Archaeological Overviews, «North Carolina Archaeology», 52, 2004, pp. 80-121.

[6] Adair, The History, p. 246, sul vaiolo presso i Chikkasah vedi anche p. 289 e p. 336 sui Choktah.

[7] M. E. Fitts, Defending and Provisioning the Catawba Nation: An Archaeology of the Mid-Eighteenth-Century Communities at Nation Ford, PhD thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2015, in particolare pp. 4, 18, 59, 79-80, 115, 124.

[8] P. Kelton, Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492-1715, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press 2007, p. 161; see also P. Kelton, Avoiding the Smallpox Spirits: Colonial Epidemics and Southeastern Indian Survival, «Ethnohistory», 51, 1, 2004, pp. 45-71.

[9] Adair, The History, p. 252, vedi anche pp. 267-268; The epidemic phenomenon is not mentioned by Henry Timberlake, another important witness to British-Cherokee relations in the 18th century: Henry Timberlake, The Memoirs of Lieut. Henry Timberlake who Accompanied the three Cherokee Indians to England in the Year 1762 […] London, Printed for the author 1765. Sul vaiolo presso i Cherokee: P. H. Wood, The Impact of Smallpox on the Native Population of the 18th Century South, in Early American Medicine: A Symposium, ed. by R. I. Goler and P. J. Imperato, New York City, Fraunces Tavern Museum 1987, pp. 22-28; Reynolds, The Cherokee Struggle, p. 24.

[10] Adair, The History, pp. 274-275, 343; Kelton, Avoiding the Smallpox Spirits.

[11] On the biographical and intellectual life of Colden (1688-1776), a well-educated Scottish emigrant with Enlightenment and royalist tendencies who was a politician in New York: J. M. Dixon, The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden: Empire, Science, and Intellectual Culture in British New York, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press 2016; in particular on the correspondence with Benjamin Franklin in the 1950s concerning the regulation of trade with native populations in the New York and Albany areas: T. J. Shannon, Indians and Colonists at the Crossroads of Empire: The Albany Congress of 1754, 2000; Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press 2002, pp. 110-111.

[12] N. Salisbury, Native people and European settlers in eastern North America, 1600-1783, in The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, vol. I – North America, Part 1, ed. by B. G. Trigger and W. E. Washburn, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1996, pp. 399-460, see p. 441. Mappati da J. Mitchell, Map of the British and French Dominions in North America […], [London], Published by the Author, Sold by And: Millar 1755.

[13] C. Colden, The History of the Five Indian Nations of Canada, which are dependent on the province of New-York in America […],London, Printed for T. Osborne in Gray’s-Inn 1747, pp. 156, 180, 184, 188-189.

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:

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Giulia Iannuzzi (June 1, 2022). “I have lived among them in the raging time of the small pox”. Geographies of Time. Retrieved July 21, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/prz6

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