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Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  1,214 ratings  ·  98 reviews
The astonishing, hitherto unknown truths about a disease that transformed the United States at its birth

A horrifying epidemic of smallpox was sweeping across the Americas when the American Revolution began, and yet we know almost nothing about it. Elizabeth A. Fenn is the first historian to reveal how deeply variola affected the outcome of the war in every colony and the l
Paperback, 384 pages
Published October 2nd 2002 by Hill and Wang (first published 2001)
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3.83  · 
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 ·  1,214 ratings  ·  98 reviews

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Caitlin Marineau
May 12, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, history
During the years of the Revolutionary War, while the American colonies attempted to wrest their independence from Britain and King George, a shadow much smaller and more terrifying than British soldiers was spreading across the continent. Smallpox, or Variola major, as the virus itself is called, quickly infected citizens in besieged Boston, cut down the Continental Army in Canada, swept it’s way into the South, to New Spain, and up trading routes through the Great Plains, into Canada, and all t ...more
Dec 27, 2010 rated it it was ok
The smallpox epidemic that covered the continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and from Canada to Mexico in the late 1700s is something that very few people have covered and this book could have been very very interesting. As it was I learned a lot about not only the smallpox epidemic, but also about what was going on elsewhere on the North American continent at the time of the American Revolution. It was very interesting to learn how the smallpox epidemic affected the Revolution ...more
Charlotte Osborn-bensaada
Dec 24, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, 2014-read
I am giving this 4 stars for breadth rather than readability. Pox Americana is worth reading but be prepared for a lot of statistical detail.

Thoughts on the book:

-Colonial history often rests on the idea of the 13 colonies on the eastern seaboard, this book explores a broad interwoven system of trade and conflict between native tribes that proved to be a powerful highway for the virus. We so often think of globalization as being a modern concept, the spread of small pox in only a few years acro
Heather C
This originated as an opinion essay for class and I have adapted it for a review, but because of this it is a little different in tone than my regular reviews.

The experience of reading Pox Americana was a very different one for me as I was not all that sure how this epidemic would relate to American history during the Revolution. I soon found myself thoroughly engrossed in the material and actually interested in learning more. Disease is always a common factor in war, but for me, the association
Mar 02, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Pox American follows the smallpox epidemic that spread through North America from 1775-1782, tracing its impact on the Revolutionary War and Native American and Colonial society. Historian Elizabeth Fenn is meticulous in chronicling the devastation, using firsthand accounts and surviving records to sketch out the death and fear that followed the disease.

The impact of smallpox on the Revolutionary War occupies much of the book. Epidemiologically, the Americans were at a disadvantage. Smallpox was
May 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: history buffs, epidemic lovers
Recommended to Jenna by: Goodreads List
Shelves: history
Enjoyed learning about the smallpox epidemic of the 1700s and liked how the author divided the book into three sections through the chapters; the Colonies, then Mexico and finally the Indian natives on the Pacific coast / Alaska.

Sprinkled through out the book are some individual stories, and (in my copy at least) there are a few photographs of paintings, pictures and other smallpox plague items.

She has added some maps along with the pictures, but while they are fine being included with the oth
Feb 08, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: histories
The first part of the book, which describes the impact smallpox had on the American Revolution, was extremely interesting and added another dimension to my understanding of the war. Unfortunately the story went downhill from there and seemed to merely relate one outbreak after another without making a larger point.
Shea Mastison
Mar 14, 2012 rated it it was ok
Technically, this is a good book. Ms. Fenn researched her topic thoroughly and offered up interesting observations of the Revolutionary period and how the spread of small pox influenced the course of American history.

However, it is an extraordinarily dry read and should probably be pursued only by those serious history buffs.
Nov 25, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
This exhaustively researched tome will tell you more than you want to know about small pox during the American Revolution. If diseases are your thing, this is a must read. History is my thing, so I found the focus a bit narrow. Interesting, but dry.
Emily Graves
Sep 02, 2014 rated it it was ok
Subject matter: fascinating. Writing: awful. Pages upon pages of speculation about how the smallpox didn't get to native Americans in Washington State. Lots of similar details that make it, honestly, read more like a thesis than a book.
jordan gallader
Nov 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Amazing historical tragedy and eventual critical decision on thw newborn matter of Smallpox innoculation, and how this trned the tide of the Revolutionary War.
A book to read more than once and; this should be taught in every pre-med class.
Apr 03, 2015 rated it liked it
I have been seeing this in used bookstores for years, and I always kind of wanted to read it. Though I notice of late that my reading choices have been horrendously depressing. I was simultaneously reading this book about epidemic smallpox, Drew Faust's book on death and the Civil War, and "The Killing Zone" which is about Cold War murder in Latin America. I need some light comic novels or something.
So I finally bought this at one of the bookstores, and having read it, I can't decide if it is im
Mar 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: england, history, america
As a museum interpreter, I’ve long related aspects of the story of George Washington and his dogged determination to win the Revolutionary War. Then a friend loaned me her copy of Pox Americana, and now I’ve learned about yet another obstacle that Washington had to vanquish alongside the British forces. I knew that smallpox afflicted the American population for a couple of centuries, but not to the extent that, between 1775 and 1782, it was as deadly as one of the black plague outbreaks that so ...more
May 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This excellent work shows readers how the American colonists had to overcome more than just Loyalists, escalating war debt, often poor logistics, and the might of the British Regulars and their Hessian mercenaries and Indian allies in order to procure independence. Indeed, Smallpox ravaged the colonies during the struggle for independence and at times placed the outcome of the war in highly unfavorable terms for the revolutionaries.

Smallpox was the deadliest of Old World pathogens transmitted a
Apr 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Ambitious, fascinating, well researched, well presented. I was familiar with tales of Small Pox in Central America afflicting the Aztecs, and the effects of the more modern Spanish Flu, but this was all new to me.
David Bates
Jun 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
In this work Elizabeth Fenn patiently assembles a previously unknown picture of an epidemic that rolled across North America during the years of the Revolutionary War. Beginning with New England's rebellion against the crown, she charts its passage into the Southern colonies, the urban centers of New Spain, through the west by way of Shoshone horsemen and finally north into the remote villages of the Pacific Northwest and the Hudson Bay fur trading networks below the sub-arctic.

Information abou
Mar 18, 2017 rated it it was ok
It's a PhD dissertation that's been published for wider consumption but desperately needed another round of editing. The first half of the book is the most interesting, the most on-topic, and the best edited. This focuses tightly on the period and geography of the American Revolution, as the title would suggest the whole book was about. The author clearly lays out how smallpox was transmission and the impact it had on both sides during the conflict.

The second half of the book branches away geogr
Jan 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
Elizabeth Fenn's "Pox Americana" covers the widespread North American outbreaks of Smallpox during the time frame of the American Revolutionary War. These outbreaks ranged from Mexico to Canada, and from the Eastern seaboard to Puget Sound.

And what threads she weaves! Tracing the death and destruction of the epidemic as it affects Native Americans and Europeans in Canada. As it destroys major English military initiatives along the Atlantic Seaboard. As it depopulates remote Mexican villages. As
Nov 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
If nothing else, Pox Americana strengthened my resolve never to catch smallpox. Elizabeth Fenn's descriptions of the deadly, agonizing havoc wrought by the disease are the stuff of nightmares. But the book has a lot more to offer than scares. Fenn's dogged, painstaking research shows that the disease was an equal opportunity scourge throughout North America during the Revolutionary War era. Smallpox devastated a force of Virginia slaves the British hoped to deploy against the upstart Americans; ...more
Sep 01, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Viruses make history. Smallpox is discussed in any decent history of the American Revolution, but here the virus takes center stage. Fenn expertly pieces together primary accounts to show how every aspect of the seven-year conflict was shaped by infection, suffering, inoculation, and fear of contracting smallpox. (I had recently read some harsh stuff about Benjamin Lincoln's surrender at Charleston, this account essentially vindicates him.) The second half of the book details the spread of small ...more
Jan 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
I learned that smallpox was a major danger to the Continental army forces by the time the Declaration of Independence was signed 7-4-1776. I was far greater killer than the British forces and a large problem for George Washington who himself was immune because he already had smallpox on a trip to Barbados in his young life in 1751. I wondered why there was so little on this in high school and college history. The British practiced germ warfare against native Americans and colonists even during e ...more
Dec 24, 2015 rated it did not like it
More a collection of incidents than a narrative, and little to tie to a greater picture than death, the book is interesting, but not compelling. Having read Octavian and histories of the American Revolution earlier this year, the book helped tie those together, but as a stand alone, it's just death.

* - Reserved for nonfiction. Worth a read if you're interested in the subject. Check out from library.

** - Good. May be inconsistent and flawed, but overall worth a read if you're in the mood for that
Pox Americana is about a massive smallpox epidemic that ravaged North America coast-to-coast around the year 1780.
The research presented is both exhaustive and exhausting. The author not only presents her conclusions, she goes into great detail as to how she arrived at said conclusions. She also presents alternate theories, explains why people support them, and then explains why they are probably wrong. The same points are hit over and over.
While I found it very interesting, I also found it hard
Jul 31, 2011 rated it really liked it
I didn't know that smallpox was a significant factor in the Revolutionary war, mentioned just once in another serious book about the War. Yet it could have changed everything and certainly did for the native Americans where high mortality changed the balance of power.

This author has clearly done prodigious research and, although the density of statistics can sometimes seem overwhelming, the overarching story is a powerful one. If smallpox could have such an impact in a time when horses made a dr
Jun 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
Could not put this down. The book itself is lovingly written, with searing indictments of people careless with contagion, and tragic accounts - both personal and sweeping - of the effects of the virus, and how it effected people by accident, or how it was intentionally wielded as a weapon in the Revolutionary War. However, Fenn's search for the invisible narrative of Smallpox in the Americas over the course of colonization at large was more troubling to me, from a research point of view, but ult ...more
Jan 15, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: historical
One of those big picture histories that takes a whole bunch of different threads and ties them together. This one tracks a smallpox epidemic that changed the course of the American Revolution, crippled the U.S. invasion of Canada, doomed Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment of freed slaves, devastated everything along New Spain's royal highways, raced through Native American trade routes and allowed the Sioux to create their imperium of the plains, and more. On top of the excellent history its a pr ...more
Isadora Deese
Apr 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fenn tells this tragic epic in human history with just the right balance of distance and heart. She imparts the immense toll of this disease through her indefatigable research of community death records while using personal correspondences to connect the reader to individuals who succumbed or survived. She shows the direct impact of fluctuations in outbreaks on key turning points in the American Revolution, including how critical Washington's decision to inoculate the patriots while at Valley Fo ...more
Nov 09, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
While the book starts out with how smallpox effected the Continental Army, subsequent chapters go into how it spread through Mexico, Canada, the plains, and the Pacific Northwest and Eastern Russia. Each chapter beings with a contemporary scene, such as a recount of American soldiers captured by the British, Catholic missionaries among the Southwestern tribes, and in the final chapter a berdache who claimed to have to power to inflict smallpox. The author also focuses on inoculation or variolati ...more
Samuel Brown
Dec 30, 2012 rated it liked it
A great and important book, though it still bears some of the stigmata of the PhD dissertation format. Glad to have the whole range of American experience represented in this book, an impressive reminder of the global interconnections exposed by epidemic disease that has been part of human experience long before the "globalization" of the latter twentieth century. Generally readable prose, though it sometimes bogs down on the lack of sources and desire to replicate each analysis in each populati ...more
Todd Van Meter
Aug 12, 2011 rated it liked it
This book while interesting, was somewhat difficult to read due to the author's staid writing style. Nevertheless I kept returning to the book and found its revelatory nature regarding smallpox and its horrendous effects on native Americans and their culture very interesting. In fact, the book was very informative regarding smallpox and its effects upon the entire North American continent, the development of the continent's interior, the Revolutionary War, modern medical practice, and our result ...more
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