“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:

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "“I have lived among them in the raging time of the small pox”," in Geographies of Time, 01/06/2022, https://ian.hypotheses.org/2086.

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

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.

John Brickell too, in his 1737 Natural History North-Carolina, largely based on Lawson’s text,5 developed Lawson’s attention to medical matters and added some original considerations. Speaking of the diseases afflicting European settlers and Indian nations in Carolina, while treating more extensively the most widespread at the time, gout and syphilis, he mentioned smallpox as a plague imported from Europe. The consequences in terms of demographic dynamics, in favour of the European colonists, were already clear: “The Small Pox proved very fatal amongst them in the late War with the Christians, few or none ever escaping Death that were seized with it. This Distemper was entirely unknown to them before the arrival of the Europeans amongst them”.6  The disease was fatal: “neither has the small Pox ever visited this Country but once, and that in the late Indian War, which destroyed most of those Savages that were seized with it”.7

The Plague seemed to have remained unknown, but the contribution of smallpox to the rapid decimation of American populations was clearly identified alongside other causes, which were part of the stereotypical image of the American “savage” in the eighteenth century: wars between nations – a state of perpetual belligerence – and intemperate alcohol consumption above all:8

[…] the Small Pox, their continual Wars with each other, their poysoning, and several other Distempers and Methods amongst them, and particularly their drinking Rum to excess have made such great destruction amongst them, that I am well informed, that there is not the tenth Indian in number, to what there was sixty Years ago.

The diachronic and diatopic variations in terminology are clear indications of the stratification and upheavals affecting the cultural construction of American societies as instances of a pre-civilised humanity on the part of Euro-American observers. The variety of American societies flattens out under labels such as ‘Indian’ or ‘Savage’9 Alongside the linguistic-conceptual category used to designate the ‘other’, there is an oscillation between the traditional designation of the colonists as ‘Christians’ and the use of a category that is decidedly less consolidated but destined to particular fortune: that of ‘Europeans‘. This agglutination is conspicuous in a colonial context in which the competition between imperial powers, British and French above all, was still far from being resolved. 10 An epidemiological aspect was at work in the conceptual schematisation of a European self in the mirror of American otherness.

John Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina (London 1709). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).


[1] For Native American nations, the exonyms currently used in secondary literature are adopted in the text, giving in brackets any variants adopted in primary sources. In general on nomenclatural confusion: M. Duchet, Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des Lumières, 1971; Paris, Albin Michel 1995, pp. 26 and ff..

[2] J. Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina, edited and with an Introduction by H. Talmage Lefler, 1709; Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press 1967, pp. [24-25], see also editorial note 22.

[3] New Style calendar year, for Lawson was 1700.

[4] Lawson, A New Voyage, p. [17], see here editorial note 11 on Sewees.

[5] J. Brickell, The Natural History North-Carolina: With an Account of the Trade, Manners, and Customs of the Christian and Indian Inhabitants […], Dublin, Printed by James Carson 1737. On the vexata quaestio of plagiarism of Lawson see: P. G. Adams, John Lawson’s Alter-Ego: Dr. John Brickell, «The North Carolina Historical Review», 34, 3, 1957, pp. 313-326.

[6] Brickell, The Natural History, p. 397.

[7] Brickell, The Natural History, p. 253.

[8] Brickell, The Natural History, p. 308.

[9] On the conceptual and linguistic evolution of ‘savage’: S. Landucci, I filosofi e i selvaggi, 1972; Turin, Einaudi 2014, p. 4 and passim; J.G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1999-2015, 6 vols., vol. 4: Barbarians, Savages and Empires, 2005, pp. 2-3, 158 and ff. On the ‘savage’ and the formulation of ideas of development and progress and with the framing of human variety within a universalist perspective in the eighteenth century: S. Sebastiani, The Scottish Enlightenment: Race, Gender, and the Limits of Progress, New York, Palgrave Macmillan 2013.

[10] Dynamics that can usefully be read in terms of a complex interaction between «inner-European process of Europeanization and something once referred to as the “Europeanization of the Earth”», W. Schmale, Processes of Europeanization, 2010, in EGO – European History Online, http://ieg-ego.eu, ad vocem, par. 2.

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, "Plagues from the Old World and European identities in North America," in Geographies of Time, 01/05/2022, https://ian.hypotheses.org/2073.

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

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search