Epidemics, extinctions, Europeans

A new post in the smallpox and American otherness series.

In 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived at the remains of an Omaha (Mahar) village. Here they learned that four hundred inhabitants, together with the chief Blackbird, were wiped out by smallpox four years earlier.[1] A small hill-like grave site remained, on which the expedition erected a flag.[2] What remained of the Omaha village presented a desolate landscape. Clark noted how the community never recovered; a sign of this was the return to a pre-agricultural subsistence. Here and below, we quote while maintaining the linguistic peculiarities of the handwritten “field notes”, which, especially in Clark’s case, often present peculiarities in the handwriting (we limit the squares to the transcription of those editorial interventions that the editor of the edition in use, Moulton, considered indispensable to the understanding of today’s reader): “The Situation of this Village, now in ruins Siround by enunbl. [innumerable] hosts of grave[s] the ravages of the Small Pox (4 years ago) they follow the Buf: and tend no Corn”,[3]

the ravages of the Small Pox […] has reduced this Nation not exceeding 300 men and left them to the insults of their weaker neighbours which before was glad to be on friendly turms with them – I am told whin this fatal malady was among them they Carried ther franzey to verry extroadinary length, not only of burning their Village, but they put their wives & Children to D[e]ath with a view of their all going together to Some better Countrey – They burry their Dead on the tops of high hills and rais mounds on the top of them, – The cause or way those people took the Small Pox is uncertain, the most Probable from Some other Nation by means of a warparty.[4]

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Geographies of Time

Geographies of Time: HD cover
Giulia Iannuzzi, Geografie del tempo. Viaggiatori europei tra i popoli nativi nel Nord America del Settecento (Rome: Viella, 2022), 324 pp. ISBN 9788833139968. https://www.viella.it/libro/9788833139968.


Titled Geographies of Time: European travellers and indigenous peoples in eighteenth-century North America, this book investigates the consequences that contact with the indigenous peoples of North America had on the idea of historical time in the eighteenth-century European mind. Against the backdrop of the historiography devoted to the theories of progress with which the culture of the Old World hypostatised in the societies of the globe different stages in the development of humanity, the primary corpus of this study consists of travel accounts, reports, and treatises based on direct observation. The purpose of this choice is to add, to the attention enjoyed by historical-philosophical and erudite thought and writing, the complementary exploration of the cultural uses of given ideas of time in the context of the encounter with North American human otherness. This perspective allows us to focus on and problematise the interplay that representations based on first-hand experiences reveal between pre-existing cultural palimpsest and empirical validation of knowledge. The identification of a humanity perceived as different from oneself with one’s own ancestors has been a common trope since the early modern age – between conceptual domestication of a radical difference, geographical projections of a golden age, and stratification of textual and figurative conventions.

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Jefferson and smallpox in late-18th century North America

A new post in the smallpox and American otherness series.

The interest that the expedition led by Lewis and Clark cultivated in medical knowledge and in the observation and treatment of contagious diseases such as smallpox and syphilis was largely due to Thomas Jefferson. The correspondences between the protagonists allow us to reconstruct in detail various aspects of cultural as well as logistic planning in the preparation of the expedition, with the extensive involvement of Jefferson, who gave Lewis, already his secretary, minute indications for the recording of information in the field and its preservation.[1] Promoter of the whole project, Jefferson was also a key figure in soliciting indications from scholars and colleagues from the American Philosophical Society in various disciplinary branches regarding the information that the expedition would hopefully have to collect on the populations encountered.

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“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

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Plagues from the Old World and European identities in North America

A new post in the smallpox series: An epidemiological aspect was at work in the conceptualisation of a European self in the mirror of American otherness.

In the journal of his voyage to the Carolinas published in 1709, John Lawson connects the arrival of syphilis in America to Columbus, describing the striking consequences for the Santee,1 a Siouan population near the river of the same name in present-day South Carolina, which declined from about a thousand in the seventeenth century to less than ninety at the beginning of the eighteenth.2

On behalf of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, to whom he dedicated his New Voyage, Lawson set out from Charleston on 28 December 1700, and arrived at the mouth of the Pamlico River (Pampticough) on 24 February 1701,3 drawing a wide arc in Carolina territories. It crossed and described an unmapped area, about which Europeans’ knowledge was largely lacking. The observer clearly identified the role of diseases of European origin, smallpox above all, in the rapid decline of populations such as the Sewee, another nation probably of Siouan stock, whose numbers, estimated at around eight hundred in the seventeenth century, were reduced to seventy-five in 1715:4

the Sewees have been formerly a large Nation, though now very much decreas’d since the English hath seated their Land, and all other Nations of Indians are observ’d to partake of the same Fate, where the Europeans come, the Indians being a People very apt to catch any Distemper they are afflicted withal; the Small-Pox has destroy’d many thousands of these Natives.

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Smallpox, North America and a global Europeanness

A new post in the smallpox series: geographies of diseases in the eighteenth century and the dawn of a consciousness of globalisation

During the eighteenth century, the development of historical-geographical knowledge and philosophical disputes in the Old World connected the themes of disease, contagion and inoculation to discussions of the physical difference of the American humanity and the environmental and climatic conditions that determine it.

The Histoire Philosophique et Politique des établissemens & du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes connected, for example, the speed of the course of diseases to the climate in the Americas,1 exemplifying the reflections of the coeval neo-Hippocratic medical climatology of the Enlightenment that informed the treatment of these themes also in Abbé Prévost’s Histoire générale des voyages and in Robinet’s Dictionnaire universel des sciences.2 The climatic and environmental elements were seen to interact in a complex way with customs, habits and lifestyles, and with differences in constitution between genders and races. In Raynal’s Histoire, the geography of diseases, so to speak, is the product of a stratification and articulation of factors between natural history and physical and socio-cultural variety.3

This series discusses the theme of smallpox in some eighteenth-century witnesses, with particular regard to travel accounts significant for the observers’ interest in American societies. These accounts are placed against the backdrop of the attempts of description and systematic explanation mentioned above, but stand out for the weight they give to direct observation and testimony, often combining cognitive ambitions with tasks in policy, diplomacy, colonial administration, in the context of specific imperial apparatuses, and particular biographical experiences.

These examples constitute the background for a deepening of the theme in Lewis and Clark’s expedition. Here, the construction of medical knowledge closely linked to the expansion projects of the republican government.4  By adopting as sources the reports of the expedition, the correspondence between some of the protagonists, the coeval medical publications that influenced the preparation of the expedition, this particular perspective of analysis will allow to focus on smallpox as a catalyst of a proto-consciousness of European globalization processes by the actors involved. The awareness of the devastation brought by epidemic phenomena coming from the Old World plays an important role in the very genesis of the Jeffersonian project of documentation of the North American native populations whose extinction is noted or foreseen. Thus, in the journals kept by the participants, recur notations of the role of smallpox, alongside syphilis and other not always identified plagues, in the destruction of specific nations or human groups.


[1] G.-T. Raynal, Histoire Philosophique et Politique des établissemens & du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, A Geneve, Chez Jean-Leonard Pellet, Imprimeur de la Ville & de l’Académie, 1780, University of Chicago, ARTFL Project, https://artflsrv03.uchicago.edu/philologic4/raynal/, see t. 3, Livre onzieme, chap. XXXII – Maladies auxquelles les Européens sont exposés dans les isles de l’Amérique, p. 233; and XXXI – Caractères des Européens établis dans l’archipel américain.

[2] D. Droixhe, Les maladies des Antilles et de l’Amérique du Sud dans l’Histoire des deux Indes. Climat, environnement, santé, in Autour de l’abbé Raynal: Genèse et enjeux politiques de l’Histoire des deux Indes, éd. par A. Alimento et G. Goggi, FerneyVoltaire, Centre international d’étude du XVIIIe siècle 2018, pp. 125-169. On the connection between physical degeneration and climate in Raynal: A. Gerbi, La disputa del nuovo mondo. Storia di una polemica: 1750-1900, a cura di S. Gerbi, con un saggio di A. Melis, 1955; new ed. Milan: Adelphi 2000.

[3] Raynal, Histoire, t. 3, Livre onzieme, chap. XXXII. The moral geography of the behaviour of Europeans in the West Indies affects their exposure to disease, as they indulge in pleasures that habit makes less harmful to men born in those climates, t. 3, chap. XXXI, p. 234. On the other hand, scurvy also afflicts the savages of Hudson Bay because of the unhealthiness of some aspects of their lifestyle. However, the adoption of the moeurs of policés peoples is not necessarily beneficial to the natives: «Peut-être aussi les mœurs des peuples policés, sont-elles plus contraires que leur climat à la santé des sauvages?», t. 4, Livre dix-septieme, chap. VI – Climat de la baie d’Hudson. Habitudes de ses habitans. Commerce qu’on y fait, qt.. p. 187. See also on climate and health in Louisiana: t. 4, Livre seizieme, chap. VI – Etendue, sol climat de la Louysiane; VII – Caractère général des sauvages de la Louysiane, & celui des Natchez en particulier, esp. p. 98.

[4] On of the evolution of Jefferson’s attitudes towards state power, international relations, territorial expansion and the use of force: F. D. Cogliano, Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy, New Haven and London, Yale University Press 2014; for an in-depth study of Jeffersonian concepts and policies towards indigenous peoples: B. W. Sheehan, Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian, New York, W. W. Norton and Company 1973 (Sheehan’s theses are echoed by J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, New York, Vintage Books 1996, pp. 239, 404 note 54); A. F. C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press 1999.

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:

«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.

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