Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492–1715 • By Paul Kelton • Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007
Reviewed by James D. Rice, professor of history at SUNY Plattsburgh. He is the author of Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson (2008).
During the initial flowering of environmental history in the 1970s and 1980s, such writers as Alfred Crosby and William Cronon offered several basic insights that no responsible student of early America can now ignore: first, that Native Americans actively reshaped ecosystems by farming, fishing, hunting, and burning woods; second, that colonists' land uses were inherently in conflict with those of Indians; and third, that large numbers of Indians died from newly introduced diseases to which they had limited resistance.
Recently, however, historians have begun to demand more specificity about the third of these great truths—the timing, extent, and consequences of particular outbreaks of smallpox and other newly introduced diseases in the Americas. After all, generalizations about the death toll among Native Americans tell us nothing about particular times, places, diseases, or communities; if our accounts of the past are not specific about such things, then they can hardly be considered history. Thus writers have begun to treat plague years not just as examples of a general tendency but also as singular events, not unlike wars or treaties in that they grew out of, and led to, still other unique events.
Epidemics and Enslavement revolves around one such event, "The Great Southeastern Smallpox Epidemic of 1696." Kelton begins by demonstrating that the deadliest new diseases were not easily introduced into Native American communities, both because the vectors by which those diseases were transmitted were not available (smallpox, for example, normally burned through a ship's crew before it could cross the Atlantic) and because conditions in the Southeast were not conducive to their spread. Endemic warfare in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries limited contact between groups and led to the creation of large buffer zones physically separating them from one another. Consequently, "smallpox and other acute infectious diseases . . . did not spread outside the Catholic mission system" until the 1690s (p. 48).
All too often, writers have assumed that imported diseases destroy native communities simply because that is what diseases do. Kelton, however, shows that the causes and consequences of epidemics depend not only on the ecology of particular diseases, but also on the social, economic, cultural, and political contexts that foster their introduction and shape communities' responses to each outbreak.
In this case, argues Kelton, it was the spread of English colonialism in the Southeast that brought catastrophic epidemics to the region. Beginning with the establishment of the Virginia deerskin trade in the Carolinas in the 1650s, and expanding with the rise of a far-flung trade in Native American slaves captured in intra-Indian wars during the last quarter of the seventeenth century, increasingly close trading and diplomatic relations between First Nations, Carolinians, and Virginians linked southeastern Indians into a "chain of infection that stretched from the James River to the Gulf Coast and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi Valley" (p. 159). Thus when smallpox appeared in Virginia in 1696, it spread quickly along this chain and wreaked havoc among dozens of communities that in previous generations would have remained epidemiologically isolated from one another.
Had colonists simply let smallpox and other diseases run their course, Native American populations would have soon recovered, and subsequent visitations of these diseases would have been blunted as some people developed resistance or even immunities to them (and as improved methods of treatment emerged). This is what happened, for example, when the plague struck Europe.
Colonists, however, did not give Native American communities the opportunity to recover. Instead they exploited the opportunities created by population loss, the deaths of important leaders, and the psychological shock of such a catastrophe to move in on Indian lands, force survivors into diaspora, and pull many of the survivors into the very trade in Indian slaves that had set the stage for these epidemics in the first place. Such treatment, coupled with additional epidemics in the early eighteenth century, created a sense of hopelessness and anger among Native Americans that found expression in the Yamasee War of 1715, a massive push-back against the Carolina colony not unlike the Powhatan uprising of 1622 in Virginia.
Epidemics and Enslavement is an important book. Though not directed at a popular audience, it is essential reading for students of Native America, early America, the American South, and environmental history. It will help significantly to reshape scholars' understanding of native-colonial relations; from thence, one hopes, it will help modify the oversimplified accounts of the role of disease in the conquest of the Americas that are currently found in standard accounts of the subject.