OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Elizabeth Fenn

Portrait of Elizabeth Fenn

Elizabeth Fenn is the Walter and Lucienne Driskill Professor of Western American History at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is the author of Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82 (2001) and, more recently, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People (2015), which won the Stubbendieck Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize, the Colorado Book Award in History, the Albert J. Beveridge Award, the Caroline Bancroft History Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize for History. Fenn is now at work on a biography of Sakagawea.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

"The More I Learn, the Less I Know: Rethinking Scholarly Authority” uses personal experience to uncover some of the hidden truths of academic life. Professor Fenn makes the case for making these truths transparent and for incorporating uncertainties, insecurities, personal struggle, emotions, ambiguities, and social commitments into the scholarship we produce. This lecture is aimed at academics, especially grad students and faculty. But it is accessible across disciplines and is not an “academic” lecture in its own right.
Elizabeth Fenn's illustrated slide-lecture derives from her Pulitzer Prize-winning book Encounters at the Heart of the World, which tells the story of North Dakota’s Mandan Indians. Widely known for hosting Lewis and Clark during the winter of 1804-05, the Mandans proved resilient and adaptable in the face of challenges that included epidemics of smallpox and whooping cough and invasions of Norway rats.
Elizabeth Fenn tells the gruesome, riveting story of smallpox during the era of the American Revolution. Few people know that a terrible epidemic ravaged North America in these years, influencing the Revolutionary War, dashing the dreams of freedom-loving African Americans, and wreaking havoc on Native Americans across the continent. Fenn also addresses eighteenth-century biological warfare in her talk.
In this illustrated slide-lecture, Elizabeth Fenn uses the circumstances of Sacagawea’s capture to illuminate a deeper history of the northern plains and Rockies. Fenn discusses indigenous warfare, hunting techniques, environmental conditions, horse-borne interactions, and plains power dynamics as they pertained to a one-month period of Sacagawea’s life. This lecture makes the deep history of the West accessible to broad audiences.