Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation's Fight against Smallpox, 1518-1824

Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation's Fight against Smallpox, 1518-1824

by Paul Kelton

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How smallpox, or Variola, caused widespread devastation during the European colonization of the Americas is a well-known story. But as historian Paul Kelton informs us, that’s precisely what it is: a convenient story. In Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs Kelton challenges the “virgin soil thesis,” or the widely held belief that Natives’ lack of immunities and their inept healers were responsible for their downfall. Eschewing the metaphors and hyperbole routinely associated with the impact of smallpox, he firmly shifts the focus to the root cause of indigenous suffering and depopulation—colonialism writ large; not disease.

Kelton’s account begins with the long, false dawn between 1518 and the mid-seventeenth century, when sporadic encounters with Europeans did little to bring Cherokees into the wider circulation of guns, goods, and germs that had begun to transform Native worlds. By the 1690s English-inspired slave raids had triggered a massive smallpox epidemic that struck the Cherokees for the first time. Through the eighteenth century, Cherokees repeatedly responded to real and threatened epidemics—and they did so effectively by drawing on their own medicine. Yet they also faced terribly destructive physical violence from the British during the Anglo-Cherokee War (1759–1761) and from American militias during the Revolutionary War. Having suffered much more from the scourge of war than from smallpox, the Cherokee population rebounded during the nineteenth century and, without abandoning Native medical practices and beliefs, Cherokees took part in the nascent global effort to eradicate Variola by embracing vaccination.

A far more complex and nuanced history of Variola among American Indians emerges from these pages, one that privileges the lived experiences of the Cherokees over the story of their supposedly ill-equipped immune systems and counterproductive responses. Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs shows us how Europeans and their American descendants have obscured the past with the stories they left behind, and how these stories have perpetuated a simplistic understanding of colonialism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806149295
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/08/2015
Series: New Directions in Native American Studies Series , #11
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 903,576
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Paul Kelton is Professor of History at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. He is the author of Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492–1715.

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Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs

An Indigenous Nation's Fight against Smallpox, 1518â"1824

By Paul Kelton


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4929-5



Smallpox raced ahead of colonizers, reached many Natives before they had even seen Europeans, and caused catastrophic yet undocumented epidemics, or at least that it is what the figurative language that pervades the historical literature attempts to demonstrate. "The disease spread like wildfire through a Native American population that was 100 percent susceptible," Dobyns asserts about smallpox. Crosby similarly compares colonial germs to "matches" and Native bodies to "tinder," to call up an image of disease conflagrations, engulfing indigenous peoples with inextinguishable fury. Later, he uses a metaphor drawn from European folklore to champion Dobyns's idea of an early hemispheric pandemic of Variola. "Smallpox is a disease with seven-league boots," he writes in reference to magical footwear that allows wearers to cover great distances speedily with each stride taken. Mann uses a colorful simile, when postulating that smallpox "radiated" through the Incan Empire "like ink spreading through tissue paper" before Pizarro began his conquest. James Axtell, a prolific historian of Native North America, employs a more militaristic metaphor when suggesting that indigenous peoples suffered in advance of actual colonization. Axtell characterizes smallpox as "microbic shock troops which swept unseen through defenseless Indian villages with lethal ruthlessness, reducing dramatically the natives' numerical superiority." David Kennedy and his coauthors in their popular college textbook choose a completely different depiction. "Lethal germs spread among the New World peoples with the speed and force of a hurricane," the American Pageant teaches its students, "swiftly sweeping far ahead of the human invaders." Such vivid imagery has much interpretive appeal: it lures readers to believe that nothing existed to stop smallpox once Europeans inadvertently introduced it to an inexperienced Native population.

Such characterizations also lead one to assume that the virus must have initially arrived among Cherokees before its first documented occurrence in 1738. But when? The Cherokees had been engaged in sustained trading with the English since the late 1690s and smallpox broke out in the nearby colonies of Virginia and South Carolina in 1696, 1711, and 1718. Colonial officials and settlers took note of its impact on a variety of Native groups, except Cherokees who would remain unmentioned as victims but who nonetheless may have been infected. Colonialism's most dreaded disease may have reached them even earlier. To the north, Variola arrived in the 1630s, spreading westward from the recently established Massachusetts Bay Colony to the Five Nations or Iroquois Confederacy in what is today upstate New York and then traveling even farther to encompass the peoples of the Great Lakes. Around the same time, colonial germs devastated thousands of Natives of Spanish Florida. Introduced diseases spread within a Catholic mission system that by 1630 stretched northward from Saint Augustine to near the Savannah River and westward to the Apalachicola River. Another possibility even more distant in time is that sixteenth-century Spanish explorers directly introduced smallpox to Cherokees. Two separate Spanish expeditions, one led by Hernando de Soto in 1540 and the other by Juan Pardo in 1567, crossed the mountains near where Cherokees were located in the eighteenth century. But perhaps Variola beat them there. In 1518 and 1519, smallpox struck Spain's Caribbean Island colonies and then traveled to Mexico where it sparked a massive outbreak among the Aztecs. During the early 1520s, it possibly spread through a universally vulnerable population from Canada to Chile. As one goes back further in time, more opportunities seem to exist for smallpox to have caused one or more epidemics among Cherokees that Europeans did not record.

It must be remembered, however, that no matter how many scenarios existed for smallpox to make an undocumented arrival, each one remained only a possibility. Conclusive evidence cannot be marshaled to prove that smallpox arrived for the first time among Cherokees as late as 1718 or as early as the 1520s or sometime in between. But, what can be developed is a most likely scenario. To do this, one must eschew the metaphors and other literary devices that figure so prominently in the "virgin soil" literature. These oversimplify how and why epidemics actually occurred. Colonialism's most dangerous germ did not have wings that magically propelled it from place to place but instead depended on a chain of human-to-human contacts; with any break in this chain, the virus found no more hosts, its replication stopped, and the epidemic burned out. In order for an indigenous group to have an encounter with the deadly disease, their communities had to be a link in a continuous communication network that stretched from the place of smallpox's introduction. Settlement patterns, political organization, trading practices, warfare, and other characteristics of aboriginal society that affected a particular group's connections with the outside world must be considered. The issues in determining smallpox's arrival to a particular group thus become far more complicated.

A lack of acquired immunity alone in other words cannot account for indigenous susceptibility. The "virgin soil" concept obscures vast differences among indigenous societies that scholars must take into account. Some Natives lived in empires with hundreds of thousands of people; others lived in small independent towns with only hundreds. Some had extensive trading ties that brought foreign items into their communities from great distances; others had little involvement with exchange outside of their immediate location. Some groups moved hundreds of miles in search of food; others lived in permanent settlements and made only short trips from their residences. The notion of "virginity" also homogenizes the varied experiences Natives had with colonialism. Some had their lives quickly and dramatically changed through military conquest, enslavement, trade, or missionary activity; others felt colonialism's effects more gradually and piecemeal. All of these factors—both aboriginal and colonial—played roles in determining the timing and impact of smallpox's arrival.

While investigating these multiple issues can only lead to most likely yet still nondefinitive answers, there is much importance in addressing them. The interpretive stakes are high. On one hand, if an indigenous group suffered an epidemic soon after 1518 and experienced repeated bouts with Variola before its members developed regular and sustained relations with nearby Europeans, then germs and not the colonizers themselves were overwhelmingly responsible for the depopulation that occurred. In the case of the Cherokees, this would mean that the 10,379 Cherokees that the British counted in 1721 represented only a shattered shell of their Nation as it existed before European contact. On the other hand, if smallpox did not arrive until after Europeans established a presence near a particular indigenous group and consequently altered its members' way of life, then germs played a less independent role, one necessarily tied to the broader aspects of colonialism including trading, warfare, and diplomacy. In this case, the overall depopulation would have been of a smaller magnitude but the agency of the colonizers would deserve more scrutiny.

* * *

Metaphoric and hyperbolic characterizations of smallpox's first introduction obscures vast differences among Native societies, differences that must be taken into account when considering any possible chain of infection that facilitated a hemispheric smallpox pandemic in the 1520s. Then, Variola found in central Mexico the densely populated Aztecan Empire and consequently sparked a massive epidemic. The capital of Tenochtitlan alone held some two hundred thousand to three hundred thousand people in which a contagious disease could easily spread. The virus also found its way outside of the city into the Aztec's subordinate dominions. A system of tribute and military rule kept these subordinates closely connected to their leaders and thus provided the necessary traffic to transmit smallpox from the center to the peripheries of the empire. Documentary evidence, although with some ambiguity regarding the symptoms and exact timing, also indicates that the pandemic devastated the Mayans of Central America and reached the Isthmus of Panama. Given the Mayans' location, their extensive trading activities, and their homeland being among the most densely populated areas in the Americas, they certainly were vulnerable to contracting the epidemic and sustaining a major epidemic. Some evidence points to smallpox's spread even farther to the south. Although with some dissent, scholars generally believe that the pandemic reached the Incas, a populous and expansive empire that dominated the Andean Mountain chain from Ecuador to Chile. Scholars give less support to Variola's spread northward out of central Mexico. The virus certainly made it as far as the Tarascan Empire of Michoacán, but beyond there its spread would have become increasingly improbable. Geographic barriers such as deserts, swamps, and mountains posed discontinuities in human communication, while populations became sparser and trading ties became weaker.

Even if smallpox made it to the Rio Grande or to the shores of the Gulf or Atlantic Coast in the 1520s, the likelihood that the pandemic continued to spread through the remainder of the North American continent appears negligible. No polities such as the Tarascan, Aztecan, or Incan empires existed within what becomes the United States. Most people living in the Southeast, for example, belonged to simple chiefdoms. These polities generally consisted of four or five towns united together under the leadership of a central community and an elite that may have inherited its status. This central community usually had at least one earthen mound where priests oversaw activities such as fertility, military, and mortuary rituals that held the chiefdom together. Priests did not rule with military force as did leaders in states but instead used religious persuasion. They were believed to have sacred knowledge that allowed their followers to have abundant harvests, military successes, and good health. Typical chiefdoms occupied about twenty kilometers of territory and had villages with populations ranging between 350 and 650 people, making a total polity population of 2,800 to 5,400. Sometimes simple chiefdoms allied with others for mutual defense and cooperation, and sometimes these alliances developed into paramount chiefdoms. One of these polities once existed at Cahokia, just east of present-day Saint Louis. At its height in the twelfth century, Cahokia contained 120 mounds arrayed over 1,600 hectares. Multiple communities and tens of thousands of people living in the highly fertile area of southern Illinois paid homage to Cahokia's leaders. Cahokia, however, was exceptional in scale and complexity. It also collapsed before 1492. At the time smallpox ravaged the Aztecs, no other polity in the Eastern Woodlands came close to possessing Cahokia's size and complexity.

The Cherokees, in particular, had little vulnerability to an infectious disease introduced at a faraway location. They remained a collection of independent simple chiefdoms with limited connections to the world outside of their rugged mountainous homeland. Their towns were economically redundant and self-sufficient. That is each community relied on the same set of activities to produce food, and each produced enough to feed its own residents. Women cultivated fields of maize, beans, and squash that provided the majority of calories that their respective communities consumed, while men brought in the bulk of protein through hunting. White-tailed deer supplied the most meat, while turkeys, bears, squirrels, and raccoons also provided significant quantities. Gathering remained a valuable activity as well. Nuts, roots, wild fruits, and berries provided valuable calories and nutrients, especially during the relatively lean time between the end of the winter hunting season and the ripening of the first crops during the summer. A particular community occasionally relied upon another community for sustenance when one of its subsistence activities had poor results, but because little environmental variation existed with the Cherokees' homeland, the flow of food products from one town to the next was an exceptional case. Towns were arrayed in a linear fashion along a river that flowed out of the mountains, and each had equal access to the soil in the floodplain and wild game in upland forests. In normal times, horticulture, hunting, and gathering supplied each community with enough food for its residents to survive.

Cherokees thus engaged in very little trade among their own villages and even much less with other groups. Each town had relatively the same access to lithic resources, firewood, salt, and other essential nonfood items and did not rely on gaining these from neighboring Cherokee communities much less from outside groups. To be sure some long-distance exchange in more exotic items and materials occurred. Southern Appalachian towns, for instance, acquired marine shell from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and copper from the Great Lakes region, while sending mica, deerskins, turkey feathers, and other things to outsiders. Long-distance exchange, though, should not be inflated. Archaeologists have found that an overwhelming majority of grave goods in sites across the Southeast were made from local materials. Nonlocal items, on the other hand, remained uncommon components of archaeological sites and were rarely transformed into utilitarian objects. Instead, exotic materials were made into status or ceremonial items, which often came to symbolize the power of leading individuals and families. Gorgets made of marine shell, headdresses adorned with images cut from sheet copper, and copper plates decorated with powerful cosmological symbols, for example, were included in several elite graves. The presence of such goods, though, does not change the fact that exchange occurred at a low volume and at irregular intervals.

Making aboriginal exchange even more irregular was the impact that warfare had on the social landscape in which Cherokees lived. Southeastern polities were more likely to fight than trade with each other. Scholars propose a variety of reasons why indigenous peoples warred with each other: communities used military action to acquire territory and control resources; young warriors depended on success in battle to gain status; families sought vengeance for the loss of their kinsmen; and leaders exercised force to defeat and humiliate their rivals as well as gain tribute from subordinate towns. Whatever the cause of such conflict, years of endemic warfare created contested spaces or buffer zones between rival polities, where humans could not live, hunt, or travel safely. Buffer zones particularly existed in upland areas between rival polities inhabiting parallel river valleys. Such contested areas could also be found within river valleys themselves as polities often found themselves, warring with others either up- or downriver from them. At times conflict became so intense that vast areas of some river valleys, which held great horticultural potential, lay vacant. These areas consequently served as sanctuaries for wild game, which multiplied more rapidly in the relative absence of human predators.

Buffer zones existed across the Southeast and particularly limited communication between Cherokees and their neighbors. Sometime before European contact, residents of the central Savannah Valley, for example, vacated their 0settlements and moved elsewhere, leaving an agriculturally valuable area for safer locations. Warring chiefdoms in the South Carolina and Georgia piedmont made it unsafe for the area to be resettled. Endemic warfare also created buffer zones between the Cherokees and their neighbors to the west. Along the Tennessee, lower Little Tennessee, and lower Hiwassee Rivers, an assortment of towns could be found that in general had very different cultural traits from Cherokee villages found deeper in the mountains. Scholars largely believe these people to have been Muskogean-speaking peoples, who for reasons explained later in this chapter moved farther south and became part of the confederacy known to the English as "Creeks" in the late seventeenth century. At the time of European contact, several of these towns tended to be compactly settled and surrounded by palisades, a strong indication of their having hostile relations with Cherokees. In general, it made more sense for Native communities to scatter their households along flood-plains so that they could make more efficient use of soil, but times of war forced people to adopt less desirable settlement patterns. Cherokees, especially, had an ecological imperative to live in dispersed settlements as the river valleys they inhabited were fairly narrow and had more scattered patches of fertile soil, but even they resorted to fortified, compact villages to protect themselves from their multiple enemies.

Given that they lived in simple chiefdoms, had limited connections to communities outside of southern Appalachia, and had buffer zones around them, one would expect Cherokees to be safe from exposure to a deadly germ introduced at a distant location. That Cherokees were an isolated exception among a North American population that smallpox destroyed, however, remains seriously doubtful. Even the larger chiefdoms of the Mississippi Valley should not strike anyone as particularly vulnerable to receiving smallpox from a distant location. These polities had much more in common with Cherokees than they did Aztecs and Incas. They were warring chiefdoms amid a maze of contested zones and were composed of economically redundant and self-sufficient communities, which engaged in limited long-distance trade. This trade certainly did not reach Mexico—to date no objects of Meso-American origin have been found in any southeastern archaeological site. A hemispheric pandemic from Canada to Chile then is a story that metaphor and figurative language might convincepeople to believe but not a story that makes sense when one conducts a sober examination of the similarities and differences among Native societies of the Americas. For smallpox to arrive in the Southeast and particularly for it to reach southern Appalachia, European colonization had to have a more direct and significant impact on the region and its people.


Excerpted from Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs by Paul Kelton. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Arrival,
2. Response,
3. War,
4. Revolution,
5. Vaccine,

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