A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did whites ever give Native Americans blankets infected with smallpox?

October 24, 1997

Dear Cecil:

As a volunteer worker with PWAs (people with AIDS) I've been solemnly assured that AIDS was created in a lab by the CIA/KKK/KGB, etc., to kill off all the commies/blacks/capitalists, etc. Obviously this is just a modern take on that ancient and dishonorable tradition of blaming disaster and disease on your least favorite minority, as the Jews were blamed in the Middle Ages for the Black Death. It did bring to mind, though, the stories that some Native Americans tell about the deliberate introduction of smallpox as a form of genocide. One version I've read has Custer's cavalry handing out infected blankets on the reservations, and on the Pacific Northwest coast, where I live, some of the First Nations believe this sort of thing was going on as recently as the 1930s. I'm skeptical, not because I attribute any high morality to the Europeans, some of whom would have cheerfully infected natives if they thought they could get away with it, but precisely because of the boomerang effect. Even today it seems to me the only thing keeping a lid on biological warfare is the fact that it will potentially kill as many of your people as of the enemy. Bearing in mind that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, is there any "smoking gun" in the form of documents, eyewitness testimony recorded at the time, or guilt-wracked confessions, to indicate that whites ever really did attempt such a germical holocaust?

Cecil replies:

A common reaction to this story is that it has to be folklore. Giving infected blankets to the Indians — why, that's awful! That's disgusting! That's … ethnic cleansing. Hmm. Maybe this story bears a closer look.

Fact is, on at least one occasion a high-ranking European considered infecting the Indians with smallpox as a tactic of war. I'm talking about Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British forces in North America during the French and Indian War (1756-'63). Amherst and a subordinate discussed, apparently seriously, sending infected blankets to hostile tribes. What's more, we've got the documents to prove it, thanks to the enterprising research of Peter d'Errico, legal studies professor at the University of Massachusetts at (fittingly) Amherst. D'Errico slogged through hundreds of reels of microfilmed correspondence looking for the smoking gun, and he found it.

The exchange took place during Pontiac's Rebellion, which broke out after the war, in 1763. Forces led by Pontiac, a chief of the Ottawa who had been allied with the French, laid siege to the English at Fort Pitt.

According to historian Francis Parkman, Amherst first raised the possibility of giving the Indians infected blankets in a letter to Colonel Henry Bouquet, who would lead reinforcements to Fort Pitt. No copy of this letter has come to light, but we do know that Bouquet discussed the matter in a postscript to a letter to Amherst on July 13, 1763:

P.S. I will try to inocculate the Indians by means of Blankets that may fall in their hands, taking care however not to get the disease myself. As it is pity to oppose good men against them, I wish we could make use of the Spaniard's Method, and hunt them with English Dogs. Supported by Rangers, and some Light Horse, who would I think effectively extirpate or remove that Vermine.

On July 16 Amherst replied, also in a postscript:

P.S. You will Do well to try to Innoculate the Indians by means of Blanketts, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race. I should be very glad your Scheme for Hunting them Down by Dogs could take Effect, but England is at too great a Distance to think of that at present.

On July 26 Bouquet wrote back:

I received yesterday your Excellency's letters of 16th with their Inclosures. The signal for Indian Messengers, and all your directions will be observed.

We don't know if Bouquet actually put the plan into effect, or if so with what result. We do know that a supply of smallpox-infected blankets was available, since the disease had broken out at Fort Pitt some weeks previously. We also know that the following spring smallpox was reported to be raging among the Indians in the vicinity.

To modern ears, this talk about infecting the natives with smallpox, hunting them down with dogs, etc., sounds over the top. But it's easy to believe Amherst and company were serious. D'Errico provides other quotes from Amherst's correspondence that suggest he considered Native Americans subhumans who ought to be exterminated. Check out his research for yourself at www.nativeweb.org/pages/l egal/amherst/lord_jeff.html. He not only includes transcriptions but also reproduces the relevant parts of the incriminating letters.

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