R. G. Robertson’s Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian relates the 1837-1838 smallpox epidemic that devastated the Native American population. The topic certainly fills a void in the smallpox and Native American literature. Robertson reveals the interdependent relationship between the Native Indians and the settlers’ fur trade. Other secondary elements surface as well such as the power of an Indian woman and the amount of interracial mixing that took place outside of the towns.
Robertson tracks every step of the epidemic as smallpox attacked “ like a scythe mowing the summer hay.” I appreciate the attention to detail in everything from the fur trade hierarchy, to smallpox symptoms to an Indian chief’s attire. However, at times the author’s pain-staking details prove to be a fault and make for tedious periods in the book.
In addition, the work is written for the general public as essential terms applicable to smallpox and Indian history are clearly defined. Robertson does plainly admit some potential inaccuracies in his statistics and references due to an incomplete record of Native American history. Although he makes this disclaimer, he makes many assumptions and relates them in the format of “ No doubt Chardon felt…” and “No doubt Chardon thought…”, a bit of an excessive liberty in my opinion.
Despite the criticisms, I would recommend this book because it adds an untold piece to the puzzle of smallpox history and American history.