May 3, 2015

Smallpox, war and American Indians


When University of Kansas researcher Paul Kelton came across a description from missionary Daniel Butrick that documented a Cherokee ritual aimed at fighting smallpox, it changed Kelton’s thinking about the role diseases played in European colonization of the Americas.

“There are a lot of books out there that are dedicated to how Europeans came to acquire so much land in the Americas, but it seems lately that these books are beholden to this idea —  that it was germs above all else that allowed Europeans to come and take over,” Paul Kelton, KU associate professor of history, said.


Kelton found the idea problematic because it was based on anecdotal-type evidence rather than a thorough investigation of how diseases spread and how indigenous peoples experienced disease.

As part of his new book, “Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation’s Fight against Smallpox, 1518–-1824,” Kelton disputes the idea that infectious diseases, such as smallpox, gave Europeans an advantage over American Indians because indigenous peoples didn’t have the right medicine or knowledge to fight them.

Kelton uncovered evidence that the Cherokees’ smallpox and other medicine dances were significant because they involved villages cutting themselves off from the outside world for a period of time, thus acting as an effective quarantine against smallpox or other potential epidemic diseases.

However, as colonialism became more intense, several things began to interrupt the Cherokees’ ability to perform the smallpox dance and quarantine villages if needed, he said.

“They knew to quarantine. In fact, they knew to avoid places where the disease lurked,” Kelton said. “Colonialism, however, often prevented them from taking those constructive actions.

“If you’re being sought after as a source of slaves, if you’re now dependent on guns and ammunition to protect yourself, if your villages are being overrun by European armies or American militias, it gets difficult to protect yourself from disease.”

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