Small Pox

In January 1776  smallpox made an appearance in Virginia. Although smallpox had been present in the colony at times before there had never been such a serious and widespread outbreak. Inoculation was common in England in the eighteenth century, but had been so bitterly resisted in Virginia that the procedure was all but banned in the colony. When the disease first appeared in Dunmore’s overcrowded camp at Tucker’s Point the British were largely immune and the Virginians highly susceptible. The disease hit the black recruits serving with the British especially hard. They died by the hundreds. Reporting the epidemic with relish, Purdie’s Virginia Gazette noted that bodies were “tumbled into the deep, to regale the sharks.” In order to isolate the sick after his surgeons had inoculated his recruits en masse, Dunmore moved his base to Gwynn Island, in late May. He left behind him the graves of almost 300 people.1
Of all epidemic diseases, smallpox held particular horror. From the moment the distinctive rash appeared, it rapidly covered the entire body, sometimes hemorrhaging under the skin, causing bleeding from the gums, eyes, nose, and other orifices. Most cases broke out with ugly pustules on the palms of the hands, the face, forearms, neck and back. After two weeks of acute suffering, scabs started to form and flesh came away in evil-smelling clumps with the victims emitting such a pungent smell healthy people could not tolerate the stench. Sixty percent of cases died, usually after ten to sixteen days of suffering, although patients remained contagious until the last scab fell off. Survivors carried numerous scars, some were blinded and lame, but at least they then remained immune for life. Inoculation, in which live variola was implanted under the skin, caused a milder version of the disease, with much less scarring, yet the same level of subsequent immunity. It was risky business, as the inoculation process caused debilitating sickness which could kill the sufferer, or leave the innoculated vulnerable to epidemic typhus and typhoid fever.2
The scene of mass inoculation on Gwynn Island was anything but festive, with hundreds of sick men and women enduring the awful progress of the disease in hastily constructed huts. Dunmore reported to his superiors that “there was not a ship in the fleet that did not throw one, two or three or more dead overboard every night.” Virginia Patriots found diseased bodies drifting ashore on the tide the next day, as many as a dozen at a time. On Gwynn Island the dead were buried in shallow mass graves. Tragically, Dunmore continued to draw fresh black recruits at the rate of six to eight each day, most of whom succumbed to the disease as soon as they arrived. Those who recovered from the inoculation fell victim to an outbreak of “fever” which Dunmore lamented “carried off an incredible number of our people, especially the blacks.” Had this not happened, he told the Secretary of State, he would have had 2000 men under arms in his Ethiopian Regiment. In this dreadfully weakened condition, Dunmore’s force was driven from the island in early July 1776, and they took refuge on the fleet once again. The British commander of the fleet reported that the “distress and confusion” of the hasty evacuation was beyond his powers to describe.3
The Virginia militia encountered a gruesome sight when they entered the hastily evacuated camp. A report in Purdie’s Virginia Gazette indicated that bodies “in a state of putrefaction” were strewn about an area of two miles, “without a shovelful of earth upon them.” One person claimed to have found 130 graves, many of them large enough for mass burials, near the site of the camp. The fear of contamination caused the Patriots to set fire to the flimsy brush huts which still held sick runaways. As a consequence even more people burnt to death. Eyewitnesses concurred that the death toll on the island from one cause or another was “near 500 souls.” 4
Of the 87 people from the Willoughby estate in Norfolk for example there seems to have been less than twenty survivors after the camp at Gwynn Island. The preacher Moses, who had run from Mills Wilkinson must have fallen victim to smallpox here and survived, although he was blind and unable to walk unaided.


1 Purdie’s Virginia Gazette, March 8, 1776. Narrative of Andrew Snape Hamond, Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. 5, 321-2 and Dunmore to Germain, March 30, 1776, CO 5/1373. For evidenced of the 300 graves, Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (New York, 2001), 58. 

2 For background on the smallpox epidemic, Fenn, Pox Americana and Phillip Ranlet, “The British, Slaves, and Smallpox in Revolutionary Virginia,” Journal of Negro History, 84 (1999), 218.

3 Purdie’s Virginia Gazette, May 31, 1776; Dunmore quotes in Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. 5, 669 and Dunmore to Germain, June 26, 1776, CO 5/1373. Narrative of Andrew Snape Hamond, Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. 5, 839-41, 1079.

4Purdie’s Virginia Gazette, July 19, 1776.