Wednesday, June 30, 2010

No Mustard with Them Taters

It is rare, in my research, to encounter primary narratives that evoke a visceral reaction, and such occasions are all the more memorable for it. I still recall the discomfort I felt twelve years ago when I read a letter by Northwest Territorial Governor Arthur St. Clair, explaining that he could not attend an Indian council because he had fallen hard on the pommel of his saddle and "ruptured [his] private parts most dreadfully." I had a similarly immediate, though more muted, response to an entry I read a few months ago in British fur trader George Nelson's memoirs. While traveling to an Indian hunting camp on the Kettle River, in northern Minnesota, Nelson and his partners joined an Ojibwa party for a meal. One of the Ojibwas was a woman whose young child was suffering from loose bowels. "The little black devil was running about the lodge squettering out yellow stuff like mustard; she [the mother] scolded and laying the brat on her lap opened the cheeks & with the back of her knife scraped off the stuff." She then released the child, washed her hands in the cooking kettle, wiped off the knife, and resumed cutting meat with it. After that Nelson found he didn't have much of an appetite. (My First Years in the Fur Trade: The Journals of 1802-1804, ed. Laura Peers and Theresa Schenck [Saint Paul, 2002], 65-66.)

Nelson later recorded this anecdote to illustrate, I think, the "savage" Indians' tolerance for filth and disease. In reflecting on it, I have come to the conclusion that the Ojibwa mother in Nelson's story was instead expressing a rather common maternal belief - that her child's exudations couldn't really harm anyone, since they hadn't harmed her - coupled with sufficient exhaustion to wear down any scruples she have about her guests' dining experience. The tired and overworked cooks in George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, one might well note, prepared food in even more squalid conditions than Nelson's hosts, and received greater compensation for it.

Also, "squettering" is an awesome word.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Retrospective Review: Pox Americana (Part Two)

(Continued from earlier post:)

The epidemic in the east, for all its gruesome qualities, was mild in comparison to the outbreak that appeared in Mexico City in August 1779 and spread throughout the hemisphere. Fenn doesn't speculate whether there was a connection between the Mexican smallpox epidemic and the British North American one, though New Orleans, where there were a number of American rebels trading throughout the war and where smallpox broke out in late 1778, may have been a junction between the two. What is certain is that "arrival in Mexico City was key to [the virus's subsequent] success" (142). From thence it could be spread by a large transient population of workers, farmers, and other travelers, down to the coasts and up the caminos reals, throughout Spanish America and into the trading networks of its aboriginal neighbors.

Expanding northward from Mexico City, smallpox reached the Spanish borderland colonies of New Mexico and Texas by early 1781. The disease claimed 46,000 lives within the boundaries of modern Mexico, and killed at least 5,000 mission Indians in New Mexico and Texas. Sometime in 1780 or '81, smallpox broke out among the horse-mounted expansionists of the vast Comanche nation, who probably contracted it from the mission-dwelling Lipan Apaches of western Texas. The Comanches then spread the disease throughout the Great Plains, where it had a particularly fatal impact on the agricultural nations of the Upper Missouri River.

The most geographically significant victims of the smallpox were the Shoshones, who carried the variola virus into Canada – and thus into the trading network of the Hudson Bay Company, thereby killing thousands of Cree and Chipewyans – and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Northwest. While exact numbers are impossible to come by, Fenn thinks smallpox killed about 60,000 Native Americans north of Mexico.

Altogether, 130,000 North Americans died of smallpox between 1775 and 1782. Only 10% of them, however, were Anglo-Americans, which helps explain why this episode remains obscure in U.S. historiography, preoccupied as U.S. historians are with the American Revolution. Beyond the limits of the Thirteen Colonies, however, the epidemic was vastly important: it led to a marked decline in marriage ages in New Spain (as Mexicans tried to replace their population losses), compelled the now-diminished Comanche "empire" to make peace with Spain, and allowed the Sioux to supplant the Mandans and the Blackfeet the Shoshones as the premier hunters and traders of their respective homelands. Throughout Indian country, Fenn concludes, smallpox was a "virus of empire" (275).

One point that Fenn does not make as pointedly as she might, and which is particularly useful to students of colonial America, is that the pattern of variola's spread reveals a great deal about transportation and trade in early America. In British North America, smallpox moved by water from seaport to seaport, then spread slowly inland – except in the case of Canada, where the disease moved fairly quickly up the Saint Lawrence River to the Great Lakes. In Spanish America, smallpox spread rapidly north and south from Mexico City, and was carried almost to the Arctic Circle by horse-borne Indian nomads and their trading partners. Fenn's book thus helps confirm and extend April Hatfield's observation (in Atlantic Virginia [2004]) that the British American colonies were more like an archipelago of outposts than a continuous area of settlement, and that the most extensive networks of human contact within the continent were Native American ones. It also reminds us that epidemic disease was - and remains today - one of the most unfortunate side-effects of improvements in trade and communications; the parts of North America that had the best roads or the most mobile populations were also the regions most susceptible to smallpox, while the more isolated settlements of British North America were most effectively able to control the disease.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Retrospective Review: Pox Americana (Part One)

The American smallpox epidemic of 1775-82, one of the most widespread outbreaks of that disease in recorded history, remained an obscure episode for more than two centuries after its subsidence. In 2001, Elizabeth Fenn, then of George Washington University (now at Duke), finally brought this event to a large readership with her deeply-researched, engagingly-written book Pox Americana. Dr. Fenn's book received much publicity when it was published, owing to its appearance in the immediate aftermath of September 11th and the October 2001 anthrax scare. I recently reread Pox Americana, to see how well it holds up now that the initial publicity has faded - and in light of nearly ten years of subsequent scholarship. The short answer is that it's even better than I remembered the first time. Over the next entry or two, I'll be reviewing Pox Americana, analyzing its findings, and suggesting why the plague at the center of Fenn's book, which spread from Hudson Bay to Peru and killed over 100,000 people, remained obscure for so many years.

Smallpox was a relentless and terrifying killer in the early modern period, and one which apparently grew in virulence between 1500 and 1800. It was particularly dangerous to isolated rural populations - like most of the white settlers in North America - and to populations with homogeneous immune systems, like American Indians. In the disease's early stages, those infected with smallpox suffered from aches, fever, and anxiety; as the disease progressed, its victims broke out in hundreds of oozing sores concentrated on the hands, feet, and face. The sores could lead to dehydration (if they appeared in the throat) or blindness; if they flowed together, they doubled the victim's chances of dying; and they almost invariably left disfiguring scars, whose only benefit was that they branded the survivor as permanently immune. There was no way to cure smallpox in the eighteenth century, and only two ways to fight its spread: quarantine and inoculation. Since inoculation actually gave inoculees a mild version of the disease and rendered them temporarily infectious, it was a controversial procedure and usually only available to the wealthy.

When the epidemic of Fenn's subtitle first broke out in the Atlantic seaboard cities of Boston, Montreal, Philadelphia, and Charleston (1775-79), Americans' first impulse was to quarantine the infected areas through controls on public movement, particularly the movement of soldiers. This proved impossible, given the cycling of volunteers in and out of the Continental Army and the movement of refugees to or from areas under rebel control. As a result the disease spread from its coastal enclaves into the hinterland, though it raged with greatest virulence on the coast, on British prison ships and in encampments of black Loyalist refugees - runaway slaves who sought freedom with British but often (in about 5,500 cases, Fenn estimates) found death instead.

As the smallpox death toll slowly grew, some white Americans came to believe that the British Army was using the disease as a weapon of war, dispatching sick Loyalist refugees to infect rebel-controlled areas. Fenn thinks this accusation was true; she presents evidence that at least one British commander, late in the war, sent infected slaves into rebel lines to spread the disease to his enemies. That smallpox posed so great a threat to American military effectiveness that the British tried to use it as a weapon helps explain George Washington's crucial decision of 1777 to inoculate all soldiers in the Continental Army against the disease (92-98). Fenn argued that this was "among [Washington's] most important decisions of the war" (134) and helped secure the rebels' eventual victory.

(To be continued...)