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  • Pox Americana, Pox Churchill

    Posted by Ginny on June 20th, 2007 (All posts by )

    James McCormick’s charming review of Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map reminded me of a series of incidents I was trying to make sense of when I wrote the “Gospel as Gossip.” These thoughts were prompted by a comment on another blog: “Yes, the United States must be above even ‘false stories’ of torture. We are the United States.” Well, that sounds noble and I can understand how we should avoid the appearance of impropriety. At this point, we are a powerful nation and with that comes a grave responsibility; with it also comes the likelihood of unforeseen consequences and hubris. However, being above being questioned is problematic: this ambition misunderstands human nature. While little bad is breathed about candidates with 99% of the vote, I doubt that is a good thing. And myths can permeate our thinking – that Alger Hiss was pursued by witchhunters long dominated thought about the fifties and remains a valid example to many. Can a court system ever be above murmurs that an innocent is found guilty? We would not want to live in a society in which such thoughts were never spoken; one of the reasons is that, given man’s fallibility and nature, such a fact would be true at times.


    Twice this spring, at English conventions, the encounter between Native Americans and Europeans came up. Each time, I murmured something about small pox. While I have had trouble getting through Elizabeth Fenn’s Pox Americana (the record of deaths upon deaths may be illuminating but also disturbing). She concludes

    In a New World environment where acquired immunity was rare, Variola was a virus of empire. It made winners and losers, at once serving the conqueror and determining whom they would be. Smallpox reshaped political and military relations across the continent, even as the Revolution reshaped such relations around the world. In the short term, even such Native American groups as the Sioux and the Blackfeet could benefit from the devastation smallpox left behind, but in the long run, the pestilence seemed invariably to favor the great imperial powers of Europe and the United States.

    The decimation had begun far before anyone conceived of “the United States.” Indeed, she argues, the epidemic that spread across the continent in 1775-82 is “another piece in the larger puzzle of Native American population decline. . . It clearly shows that the enormous losses of the early postcontact era were followed by continued losses at a lesser level. Nearly three centuries after Columbus sailed, indigenous depopulation remained far reaching and ongoing.” (275-76)

    The force of her argument reshaped our understanding. Of course, I’d known small pox was important. We often misunderstand our ancestors and small pox provides interesting paradoxes: in the early 1700’s Cotton Mather inoculated his family, arguing the whole community should undergo this procedure; for this prescience, his home was set upon by a mob, inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s brother. Jonathan Edwards, encouraging students at Princeton where he had just been named president, stepped forward to be inoculated and died from it. (Ironies abound.) .

    But both times I mentioned Fenn, someone turned to me and said, Oh, you mean the blankets. The ones the soldiers sent. The first time, I said, given that this was before the germ theory, the Americans must barely have known what they were doing. (I admit also dimly remembering a movie that dramatizes this narrative.) Another English teacher said, Ah, they knew what they were doing, in a voiced dripping with disdain. And then he rose to praise a Marxist interpretation of domestic nineteenth century literature. Oh, well, I thought. That wasn’t the impression I got from Fenn.

    Going back the last couple of days, I found he was right. – or partially so. First of all, Fenn points out that the Europeans may not have understood germ theory, but long acquaintance had taught them the importance of quarantine. The Indians hadn’t that experience, so hadn’t learned that tough lesson – one of the many ways they were more vulnerable and died in higher percentages.

    And the infection of Indian adversaries was at least considered and quite possibly promoted. The British understanding of transmission was sufficient for Jeffrey Amherst, in the French and Indian Wars, to send “two blankets and a Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital” (Fenn 88). This was in 1763, when reimbursements were approved by General Thomas Gage for “Sundries” used “to Convey Smallpox to the Indians.” Not surprisingly, this led to some paranoia by American revolutionaries a few years later, especially since small pox decimated their ranks but had less effect on the English (though it felled many in the English Ethiopian regiments – African Americans in the south, like their masters, had not been exposed in the percentages the English had.) Fenn suspects Benjamin Franklin was right when he accused the British of waging germ warfare in the epidemic of 1775-82; certainly it played to their advantage. (132)

    However, the story of blankets spread by the U.S. Army appears less likely to be true. For one thing, smallpox had done much of its work earlier, though through the 19th century it still had the power to devastate a tribe. Fenn observes that the epidemic during the Revolutionary War was “thus a relatively late development in a region (North America including Mexico) that had already witnessed considerable depopulation thanks to a plethora of Old World diseases.” (6) Charles Mann’s 1491 describes the effect of smallpox on tribes throughout the Americas. These epidemics were repeated throughout the 1500’s – for instance, Tawantinsuya was hit in 1524-5, 1533, 1535, 1558, and 1565. (Mann 96-98). And Nathaniel Philbrick, in Mayflower, describes the effect of smallpox in 1618 and then in 1634, an epidemic that ravaged the Pilgrims but, as always, felled far more Indians.

    My research consisted mainly of picking up books from around the house, but I was struck that the only one that seemed to buttress my colleagues’ beliefs was Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel; his remark, however, has little particularity, and is rather flatly certain: “the skin lesions caused by smallpox similarly spread microbes by direct or indirect body contact (occasionally very indirect, as when U.S. whites bent on wiping out “belligerent” Native Americans sent them gifts of blankets previously used by smallpox patients.” (199)

    Being a lazy blogger, I did the lazy blogger’s research and looked at google. Probably the negative can never be proven, but a specific incident often cited as proof – the staggering death toll of the Mandan in 1837, situated near Pierre, South Dakota – appears false. For one thing, this was a trading post, with no soldiers around. If anyone infected the Indians, it was the traders. Some modern writers believe the motive was wiping out the “middle men” in the fur trade. Others argue that the traders tried to protect the Indians and stop them from boarding the ship on which two had died from smallpox; the Indians, not understanding their danger, swarmed aboard. Not surprisingly, some believe the traders gave the Indians the blankets to infect them, others that the Indians stole the blankets when they came aboard the ship. Whatever the cause, the death toll – as so often with small pox – was horrendous. Some accounts placed the pre-small pox Mandan number at 1600; some the after small pox one at 31. Still, the army was no where around. This was hardly the army’s fight. Are we surprised that this charge, apparently made from whole cloth, was by Ward Churchill in the nineties? He makes a stirring but obfuscating defense of it when its factual problems were cited as one of the reasons for his dismissal. Those who find his argument flawed appear to include those of Churchill’s political persuasion as well as opponents, academics and Indian activists. There is much else they disagree about, but they don’t find grounds for his conclusion.

    While his dark shadow may not be surprising, we are left with a question: how, exactly, can we defend ourselves by proving a negative? Charges leveled by someone with Churchill’s limited credibility have still been accepted. Given the breadth of this country, the vulnerability of the Indians to disease, and man’s flawed nature, that something bad happened at some time would be fairly inevitable. Indeed, we are pretty sure much bad happened many times over. But the only “proven” use of smallpox as a bio-weapon was by the British. Indeed, if the question is bio-warfare, the rebels who became the United States appear to be more likely victims than aggressors.

    If we view this simply in power terms, of course, the Europeans profited from the horrendous death tolls. And what became the United States profited the most. Indeed, we are a hyperpower today partially because those many epidemics in the 1500’s and 1600’s devastated the tribes roaming this broad, big land Europeans had come across the sea to possess. Does this huge fact mean that charges such as Churchill’s, weak and demonstrably untrue as they might be, should be taken as the responsibility, the fault, of those who didn’t lose in that great drama of disease and history?

    On another note, I am struck by the number of books lately like The Ghost Map and like Pox Americana, like the half dozen since 2000 on the influenza of 1918: these are intent on showing how sickness defined history. They are useful and insightful; however, I wonder if we aren’t made more aware of their importance by the difference in our early 21st century experience. Our belief is that health is the natural state of man and peace that of nations. Certainly, when smallpox hit America’s shores it produced a devastation unlike any disease the inhabitants had seen before or since; certainly, we think of the deaths of WWI as devastating a generation of Europeans and are only coming to understand the additional effects of the disease which took an even greater toll. But our forefathers hadn’t our perspective on their experience and they began with a sense of the frailty of life – they couldn’t have expected a good portion of their children to reach maturity nor to be relieved of that nagging pain in their backs; they were (had to be) stoic and certainly fatalistic. Shannon’s moving post about his son’s sickness gave us that perspective early in his blogging here. We are surprised when our world lurches: our forefathers assumed that lurch was part of a harmonious order they were merely too small to understand; we think someone is at fault and should be held to account. But then, without that sense, how would tort lawyers and investigative journalists make a living?