1775–82 North American smallpox epidemic

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The New World of the western hemisphere was devastated by the 1775–1782 North American smallpox epidemic. Columbus' first voyage to America can be attributed for bringing this virus to America and led to its spread across most of the continent of North America.

The epidemic occurred during the years of the American Revolutionary War (1775–1782). At the time limited medicinal options existed to help stop the transmission, and therefore the fatalities from the smallpox epidemic were as common as those from the battles of the Revolutionary War. The article, “A Deadly Scourge: Smallpox During the Revolutionary War” states “During the Revolutionary War, one of the greatest threats to the Army came not from enemy bullets, but from [the smallpox] disease” (armyheritage.org).

It is not known where the outbreak began, but the epidemic was not limited to the colonies on the Eastern seaboard, nor to the areas ravaged by hostilities. The outbreak spread throughout the North American continent. In 1775 it was already raging through British-occupied Boston and among the Continental Army's invasion of Canada. During Washington's siege of Boston the disease broke out among both Continental and British camps. Many escaped slaves who had fled to the British lines in the South likewise contracted smallpox and died. In the South, it reached Texas, and from 1778–1779, New Orleans was especially hard hit due to its densely populated urban area. By 1779 the disease had spread to Mexico and would cause the deaths of tens of thousands. At its end the epidemic had crossed the Great Plain, reaching as far west as the pacific coast, as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico, infecting virtually every part of the continent.

One of the worst tragedies of the pandemic was the massive toll it took on the indigenous population of the Americas. “The spread of smallpox also affected civilians and Native American Indians. The tragic results of smallpox…continued into the 19th century.” (Savas and Dameron).[full citation needed] The disease was likely spread via the travels of the Shoshone Indian tribes. Beginning in 1780 it had reached the Pueblos of the territory comprising present day New Mexico. It also showed up in the interior trading posts of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1782. It affected nearly every tribe on the continent, including the northwestern coast. It is estimated to have killed nearly 11,000 Native Americans in the Western area of present-day Washington, reducing the population from 37,000 to 26,000 in just seven years.

Smallpox is a highly contagious disease that is caused by a virus that can be fatal to young children and young adults. There are two stages of the smallpox virus, the Variola Major and the Variola Minor. The article “Smallpox”, states that “[the] Variola major is a serious illness that can be life threatening in people who have not been vaccinated. [The] Variola minor is a milder infection that rarely causes death” (Damon). The disease has been found all over the world. Smallpox can be spread by saliva, but it can also remain virile on bed sheets, or even clothing. This quality allows smallpox to very easily spread to relatives, especially in the close-knit communities of the American-Indians.

In the Americas, efforts were made to control smallpox during the Revolutionary War. George Washington, at the time the leader of the Continental Army, chose to take some calculated risks. One method he used was to avoid the disease through quarantine. If any of his soldiers caught the disease, the exposed soldiers were removed from duty and sent to an isolated hospital designated for those with small pox. The other method, which was many times more dangerous yet more effective, was to use the process of inoculation. The process of inoculation involves exposing people to the disease, hoping that the exposed do not die. If the exposed lived, which many of them did, they would most likely be immune to the virus. It was a very effective way to slow down the disease, however, it still caused problems for the army that are best stated in the web article, “A Deadly Scourge: Smallpox During the Revolutionary War.” “The inoculated would be unfit for weeks, and if the British attacked, the army could be destroyed” (armyheritage.org). It turned out to be the right choice.

Washington also suspected that the British were using the smallpox disease as a form of "biological warfare" by placing disease infested people into the American encampment. Smallpox was considered more of threat to the Americans. The British admitted that their commanders ordered the smallpox operations. (Savas and Dameron).

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