337 Cohen Hall
Andrew Isenberg, Temple University
“An Empire of Remedy: Vaccinating Indians in the Antebellum American West”
Between 1832 and 1841, United States government physicians administered the smallpox vaccine to approximately 50,000 American Indians, or about ten percent of the native population in the United States. For historians who are concerned with the expansion of the U.S. into the West, the program defies simple explanation. The delivery of life-saving medicine occurred while the federal government was engaged in removing Native Americans from their lands in the eastern United States to territories in the West--a removal policy that most historians have rightly characterized as ethnic cleansing. Further complicating a search for an explanation, several generations of historians have argued that Americans welcomed outbreaks of smallpox and other diseases among the Indians, because epidemics cleared the continent for settlement. While these explanations presume the might of an inexorably expansionist U.S., “An Empire of Remedy” argues that the vaccination program can be understood only by taking account of the weaknesses of the U.S. on its 1830s frontier. The program reflected antebellum American fears and a sense of powerlessness. Despite American trumpeting of the inevitability of westward expansion, in the 1830s, the U.S. maintained a relatively weak presence on its periphery, where it was forced to contend not only with powerful, autonomous native groups but with competing British and Mexican empires. The U.S. offered vaccines in part to natives in an effort to detach them from their allegiances to other imperial powers. Moreover, Americans had to contend with smallpox itself--a disease that afflicted American settlers as well as natives. Americans articulated their trepidations and explained their support for vaccinating Indians in stories they told of encountering smallpox on the frontier. Narrative provided a structure that allowed Americans to give voice to their fears and at the same time contain them. In the 1830s, journals, captivity narratives, and frontier travelogues became vehicles for Americans to express their fears of smallpox, natives, and their own expansion into the West. Through narratives of vaccination, Americans hoped to convince themselves, in the midst of Indian removal and their encroachments into Mexican territory, of the safety, certainty, and benignity of United States expansion.