Archiving American diversity

Remarks concluding the smallpox series

The last post in the Smallpox series. Read other posts in the series at this link.

Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis also included the observation and recording of material remains and accounts of those Indigenous nations that could be considered rare or extinct.[1] The task of systematically collecting information on aspects of the physiology, culture, organisation, religion, social, political and medical practices of the groups encountered, illustrated by Jefferson in his instructions, was at the crossroads of multiple time perspectives and multiple purposes. Subject of many historiographical debates, Jefferson’s complex relationship with indigenous people was distinguished by the presence of different and contradictory attitudes in successive moments, between philanthropy, assimilation and removal.[2] Within this path, the very horizon of the Louisiana Purchase has been identified as a turning point in the submission of previous idealistic instances to an idea of removal informed by pragmatic needs, functional to the expansion of the republic.[3]

The compilation of vocabularies of indigenous languages , which correspondents and administrators were asked to collect according to a pre-established form, made the lexicographic and grammatical fact a linguistic pendant of the construction of a Euro-American identity in response to the buffoonish denigrations of the “New World”, which on the one hand also passed through the appropriation and mythographic transposition of indigenous cultures and on the other used the linguistic element as a function of racial hierarchy.[4]

The creation of an archive of knowledge about the past and present of indigenous nations was intended to benefit future memory and studies.[5] Tomorrow’s scientific curiosity would have been able to ascertain the origin of these peoples if sufficient samples were collected to allow comparative analysis.[6]

I have long believed we can never get any information of the ancient history of the Indians, of their descent and filiation, but from a knowledge and comparative view of their languages:[7]

for the study of peoples who do not have alphabetical writing systems and systems of documentation of the past similar to the European one, the recording of oral language production became an essential tool also for the reconstruction of genealogical relationships between groups.

This projection forward in time derived from a clear awareness of the demographic decimation to which many groups had already been subjected, as well as from a process of absorption into Euro-American civilisation seen as ineluctable.[8] Moreover, the very proto-ethnographic curiosity and the desire to compose a picture of the forms and hierarchies of socio-political organisation were clearly functional to this process, “as it may better enable those who may endeavour to civilise and instruct them, to adapt their measures to the existing notions and practices of those on whom they are to operate”.[9] The expedition commanders adopted this perspective, both by comparing different groups along an ideal civilisation scale, and by referring to the completion of that process.[10] The urgent need to document American socio-cultural and linguistic variety takes shape within a scenario in which the possible extinction of real-life speakers could otherwise jeopardise knowledge forever:

It is to be lamented then, very much to be lamented, that we have suffered so many of the Indian tribes already to extinguish […] it would furnish opportunities to those skilled in the languages of the old world to compare them with these, now, or at a future time, and hence to construct the best evidence of the derivation of this part of the human race. [11]

The study itself was reserved for posterity, so that this function of the archive was configured as a scientific practice constitutively halfway between the past of which it intended to collect traces and a future time in which the progress of studies would have brought this systematisation of knowledge to the fulfilment of its raison d’être. A movement of temporal hierarchization was therefore present in a double direction: aimed at the reconstruction of an already unattainable past – surrogate for unavailable historical evidence, and programmatic – projecting its documentation projects into the future.


[1] T. Jefferson, Life of Captain Lewis, in [Lewis and Clark], History of the expedition, I, pp. vii-xxiii, cit. xvi and xvii.

[2] Sheehan, Seeds of Extinction; Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians; P. S. Onuf, Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood, Charlottesville and London, University Press of Virginia 2000, pp. 28-37.

[3] C. B. Keller, Philanthropy Betrayed: Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Origins of Federal Indian Removal Policy, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 144, 1, 2000, pp. 39-66, especially pp. 41-42, 58-59.

[4] S. P. Harvey, “Must not their languages be savage and barbarous like them?” Philology, Indian removal, and race science, Journal of the Early Republic, 30, 4, 2010, pp. 505-532;.

[5] G. M. Sayre, Jefferson and Native Americans: Policy and Archive, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson, ed. by F. Shuffelton, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2009, pp. 61-72.

[6] Harvey, “Must not their languages”.

[7] Jefferson to Hawkins, Philadelphia, March 14, 1800, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private, ed. by H. A. Washington, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2011, pp. 325-327, cit. 326.

[8] Possible examples from the expedition period include Jefferson’s words about the Cherokee in the 1970s: ‘The chastisement they then received closed the history of their wars, and prepared them for receiving the elements of civilisation, which, zealously inculcated by the present government of the United States, have rendered them an industrious, peaceable, and happy people’, Jefferson, Life of Captain Lewis, viii.

[9] Jefferson, Life of Captain Lewis, xv.

[10] E.g. ‘This chief possesses more firmness, intelligence, and integrity, than any Indian of this country, and he might be rendered highly serviceable in our attempts to civilise the nation’, History of the expedition, I, 159.

[11] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the state of Virginia (1783), Edited and with an Introduction and Notes by William Peden (1954), Chapel Hill and London, University of North Carolina Press 1982, p. 101, italics added. In this sense, the documentation of linguistic evidence, even if it does not significantly act as a corrective or barrier to the process of extinction that it outlines, presents elements of contiguity with practices of ethno-conservationism, trophies and the exhibition of human specimens in the flesh. G. Abbattista, Trophying human ‘otherness’. From Christopher Columbus to contemporary ethno-ecology (fifteenth-twenty first centuries), in Encountering Otherness: Diversities and Transcultural Experiences in Early Modern European Culture, ed. by Abbattista, Trieste, EUT 2011, pp. 19-42.

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, "Archiving American diversity," in Geographies of Time, 01/12/2022,

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

Smallpox and medical knowledge in the Lewis and Clark expedition

A new post in the smallpox and American otherness series.

At the time of organising the expedition, which aimed to explore the interior of the continent from west of the Mississippi as far as the Pacific coast of what is now British Columbia, Jefferson told Lewis to take with him “some matter of the kine-pox”, adding: “inform those of them with whom you may be, of it’s efficacy as a preservative from the small pox; and instruct & encourage them in the use of it”.[1] Vaccination programmes are part of a broader presence of medical interests in the expedition, which unfolds both in terms of gathering detailed information on the populations encountered, and in the use of practical medical knowledge as a means of gaining credit and prestige, and establishing diplomatic relations.[2]

The use of medical preparations and practices in diplomacy was certainly not an invention of the expedition: in North America, for example, there were cases of vaccinations by a delegation from Shawnee and Delaware in Washington in 1802, and material sent to the Five Nations in Canada by Jenner himself.[3] The circulation of knowledge in the field of medicine and public health between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was – at various levels and latitudes – part of the cultural and administrative apparatus of European colonial expansion around the world.[4]

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