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
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.