How Smallpox Created Canada

Canada is an independent nation; and not part of the United States, today because of smallpox.

Smallpox kept Canada in the British Empire by destroying an American Army early in the Revolutionary War. To elaborate, it was smallpox, a destructive disease caused by the variola virus defeated the first American invasion of Canada in 1775 and 1776.

In 1775, the American Army of the North invaded Canada, and captured Montreal, the center of the lucrative fur trade. The Army of the North moved onto Quebec City, then Canada’s capitol.*

The Army’s commander, General Richard Montgomery, hoped to emulate the British victory in the French and Indian War by capturing Quebec City. In 1759, British General James Wolfe destroyed France’s North American Empire by capturing Quebec City.

How Smallpox defeated an American Army and saved Canada

However, Montgomery’s forces lacked heavy artillery to demolish Quebec City’s walls, so they settled in for a siege. That’s when smallpox attacked the cramped American camp on the Plains of Abraham outside the city.

By early January 1776, smallpox was spreading through the American camp. By February, a smallpox epidemic was out of control in the American camp. By May 1776, 900 of the 1,900 American soldiers in the American army were sick.

Meanwhile, the British were still in control of Quebec City. When a British fleet arrived with reinforcements on 6 May 1776, the Americans fled.

Had smallpox not weakened their army, the Americans could have taken Quebec City and Canada. Instead, smallpox forced the Americans to abandon Montreal and Canada.

The United States lost its best chance to conquer Canada because of smallpox. Thus, Canada stayed a British colony, and eventually became a British Dominion and an interdependent country because of a virus.

The United States could never invade Canada again; in either the Revolution or the War of 1812. In fact, Canada became an important base from which the British and their Native American allies attacked the United States.

The United States of Smallpox

Smallpox played a major role in the American Revolution and wrecked both sides’ military strategies.

Besides driving the Americans out of Canada, smallpox wrecked a game-changing British military strategy. In 1775, Virginia’s Royal Governor Lord Dunmore began recruiting a regiment of African-American slaves to fight for the King.

Dunmore hoped his Ethiopian Regiment could be the first of many. Dunmore’s plan was to offer African-American men freedom, in exchange, for wearing the King’s uniform. Predictably, Dunmore attracted many recruits. However, smallpox wiped out the regiment, making impossible for Dunmore to organize his army of freed slaves.

How Smallpox Saved Slavery

Recruiting slaves could have given the British enough native-born American soldiers to crush the American Revolution.

To explain historians estimate there were around 500,000 slaves in the 13 colonies during the Revolution. In contrast, the total population of the colonies was around 2.5 million. Thus, the British could have recruited 50,000 or 100,000 black soldiers.

Both sides had trouble recruiting troops during the Revolution. The manpower shortage forced the British to import enormous numbers of Germany mercenaries to fill their ranks, while the Continental Army had to bribe recruits with the promise of free land.

Dunmore’s plan could have given the British enough manpower to win the war if smallpox had not decimated his Ethiopian Regiment. However, the British would have had to reward the black soldiers with citizenship which would have made America a multiracial dominion in the 18th Century.

Unfortunately, for the blacks; but fortunately for the Americans, smallpox, put an end to Dunmore’s schemes. Consequently, the abolition of slavery and citizenship for African Americans had to wait until the Civil War, 90 years later. Notably, the Union won the Civil War by recruiting enormous numbers of black soldiers.

How Smallpox made America

The Revolution was only one of many events in American history, smallpox shaped.

Smallpox made European settlement of North America possible by depopulating much of the continent in the 16th Century. Settlers found empty wildernesses because smallpox killed most of the indigenous people.

Similarly, a massive smallpox epidemic destroyed the armies of the Triple Alliance (Aztecs) and cleared the way for Cortez’s Spanish conquest of Mexico. Later smallpox epidemics in the 17th Century weakened the Native American nations and made them incapable of resisting British colonization of the East Coast. Both the Mexicans and the East Coast natives found it is impossible to wage war when all your soldiers are already dead.

Hence, George Washington’s fears that smallpox could destroy his armies and kill the Revolution were legitimate. Washington was well aware of recent American history and smallpox’s ability to destroy a fighting force. Washington, who survived smallpox as a young man, understood the disease’s power.

Why Smallpox was so deadly during the American Revolution

Smallpox was a deadly disease because it did not stick around, as contagions such as influenza can. Instead, smallpox came and went every 25 or 50 years.

Without constant exposure to smallpox, people could not develop immunity to it. New generations without immunity to smallpox appeared, so when variola returned it could devastate the same community again and again.

Smallpox was even deadlier in Colonial America because most people lived in isolated rural areas with no exposure to the disease. When large numbers of American men left home to fight in the Revolution, they had no immunity to the smallpox.

In uniform those men lived in cramped army camps that were ideal smallpox breeding grounds. The variola was as deadly a threat to George Washington’s Army as the British. Early in the war, American soldiers were vulnerable to smallpox because the Continental Army did not inoculate men against variola.

Fighting Smallpox 18th Century Style

During the 18th Century, doctors could make people immune to smallpox with a procedure called inoculation or variolation. In inoculation, doctors would rub a small amount of puss from a smallpox victim into an open wound on an uninfected person.

The hope was that the uninfected person would develop a mild case of smallpox that could give him or her immunity. However, around 2% to 5% of the inoculated developed full smallpox and died.

The great drawback to inoculation was that those treated were contagious with smallpox for weeks. Thus, they had to quarantined until the disease ended.

During the Revolutionary War, British Regulars had an advantage because His Majesty’s Army inoculated them against smallpox. Later in the war, the British lost that advantage because the Continental Army began variolating American Regulars.

Did the British Practice Germ Warfare during the American Revolution?

Similarly, many Americans believed the British used smallpox as a biological weapon during the Revolutionary War. Most people in the 18th Century knew smallpox spread from person to person, so a crude germ warfare was workable.

For example, in 1781 The Pennsylvania Gazette accused the British General Lord Cornwallis of spreading smallpox to infect American and French soldiers at Yorktown.* Specifically, The Gazette alleged Cornwallis turned slaves infected with smallpox loose in hopes they could transmit variola to the American and French forces besieging his army.

In 1778 a British officer named Robert Donkin wrote a book recommended His Majesty’s Government use “arrows dipped in smallpox” as weapons.* Fortunately, the British commanders ignored Donkin’s horrendous suggestions. However, British General Alexander Leslie mentioned his plans to distribute “negroes (Africans) with smallpox to Rebel plantations.”*

Therefore, people in the 18th Century were aware of smallpox’s power and tried to harness it as a weapon of war. Smallpox played an important role in the American Revolution and helped create the United States and Canada.

*For a detailed account of Smallpox’s role in the American Revolution, see Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1776-1782 by Elizabeth A. Fenn.

*See Pox Americana page 131

*See Pox Americana page 132