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The Facts About Blankets with Smallpox

There's been much in Native circles about Anglos intentionally infecting Indians with smallpox-laden blankets. These acts are often considered the worst example of genocide against Indians.

Since these acts have become huge symbolically, it's important to understand what actually happened. The following is a good posting on the subject. As far as I know, it's accurate:

Plains Indian Smallpox Genocide

O. Ned Eddins

The only documented case of smallpox blankets being given to Indians was by Captain Eucyer of the British army. I challenge anyone to offer documented proof, except for the two blankets given out by Captain Ecuyer at Fort Pitt, of smallpox infected blankets being deliberately given to Indians as a means of spreading smallpox. Letters by General Amherst and Colonel Bouquet mentioning spreading smallpox to Indians does not mean that this was ever carried out. Assumptions derived from letters and oral traditions are not proof of anything.

In a letter (1763) to Colonel Bouquet, Lord Amherst wrote, "Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them".

Bouquet replied that he would try and use infected blankets as a means of introducing the disease among the Indians, but was wary of the effects that it would have on his own men...at least twenty-five percent or more of Bouquet's soldiers would have been susceptible to the smallpox virus.

The Amherst letter has been used to support the proposition of germ warfare or genocide against native populations. Amherst may have discussed it in correspondence with Bouquet, but there is no evidence that Colonel Bouquet carried it out. As he mentioned in his reply, Bouquet was afraid of what it would do to his own men and with good reason. 1763 was twenty-three years before Jenner's work on vaccination, and one hundred years before Pasteur advanced his germ theory. The only thing known about smallpox in 1763 was…age, color of skin, social status meant nothing to the smallpox virus...an infected person died or, if lucky enough to survive, was often disfigured for life. No matter how bad Amherst may have wanted to be rid of the Indians, it seems doubtful that he would unleash a disease on his soldiers that had already killed millions of his own countrymen.

There is no evidence that Col. Bouquet took any action on Amherst's letter, but there is evidence that Captain Ecuyer at Fort Pitt did.

"Out of our regard for them (two Indian chiefs) we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect (William Trent)."

The incident with Captain Ecuyer occurred during the Pontiac Rebellion. There is also evidence that Ecuyer tried to control the spread of smallpox, at least from his own men.

In a letter to Bouquet, Captain Ecuyer writes that Fort Pitt is in good state of defense against all attempts from Savages, who are daily firing upon the Fort; unluckily the Small Pox has broken out in the garrison, for which he has built an Hospital under the Draw Bridge to prevent the Spreading of that distemper (Peter d'Errico, nativeweb.org).

In 1763, Fort Pitt was under siege by Indian forces under the command of Chief Pontiac...Pontiac Rebellion (Tebbel). With smallpox in the garrison at Fort Pitt and Indians attacking the fort, two blankets would have had little to do with the spread of smallpox among the Indians. A by far greater source for spreading the smallpox virus would have been infected blood from mutilated soldier and settler bodies, scalps, clothing, and in some cases cannibalism, which occurred during the Pontiac Rebellion. Every warrior that returned from Fort Pitt to Indian villages up and down the East coast with smallpox infected war trophies carried the smallpox virus with them. Contaminated warriors spreading the smallpox virus is never mentioned by proponents of Indian Genocide; it does not fit their biased agenda. This statement on smallpox is going to make a lot of people furious...good, that is the purpose. Before venting your ire, take a few minutes to read the entire article, think about it with an open mind, and then please respond with facts to back up your argument.

Ward Churchill's claims
Ward Churchill has also claimed that the Army started the smallpox epidemic of 1837 by giving infected blankets to the Mandan Indians. Thomas Brown has convincingly refuted this claim:

Assessing Ward Churchill's Version of the 1837 Smallpox Epidemic


This essay analyzes Ward Churchill's accusations that the US Army perpetuated genocide. Churchill argues that the US Army created a smallpox epidemic among the Mandan people in 1837 by distributing infected blankets. While there was a smallpox epidemic on the Plains in 1837—historians agree, and all evidence points to the fact—that it was accidental, and the Army wasn't involved.

That means there's still only one documented case of smallpox transmitted via blankets, not several.

Native journalist Jodi Rave has denounced Churchill's scholarship. Yet she also thinks he may have stumbled onto a real example of genocide against Indians. As she explains:

Colorado professor fabricates Native history -- Sunday, June 18, 2006

It's not always easy for university administrators to discern authentic Native professors from those who wish they were -- or try to be.

Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado tops the list of poseur professors. Throughout the years, he's become a magnet for lost Indians and Native romanticists.

But his disputed personal claim of being Cherokee falls below a damning list of professional problems.

And on Tuesday, a CU committee recommended firing the ethnic studies professor for research misconduct.

This is no light charge.

It's the first time the CU Standing Committee on Research Misconduct has voted to ax a professor in its 17-year history.

The committee found Churchill guilty of plagiarism and fabricating material in his academic writings. Among his sloppy research, Churchill invented details about my tribe, the Mandans.

Tribal oral tradition deserves its due.

Churchill, however, succeeded in mangling it.

I've never been a fan of Churchill, a professor I met as a journalism student attending CU in Boulder.

My mother was a Spotted Bear, a Mandan-Hidatsa from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. I'm a daughter of the Maetsi-Dogah, or Knife Clan. My great-great-grandfather, Spotted Bear -- the son of Raven Chief -- descended from the Mandan villages typically built along the tributaries of the upper Missouri River. My great-great-grandmother, Stella Tail, was Hidatsa.

Most people know my tribes through the explorers Lewis and Clark, who wintered with my people in 1804 and 1805. The Mandan and Hidatsa villages along the Knife River in present-day North Dakota were the center of a vast trade network on the Northern Plains.

By the time Lewis and Clark arrived in 1804, we had already been in contact with white traders. A smallpox outbreak hit our tribes in 1782, more than 20 years before we ever saw men from the Corps of Discovery.

A smallpox epidemic in 1837 nearly wiped out my Mandan ancestors, reducing their numbers from about 2,000 people to fewer than 150.

Our oral histories speak of a time of incomprehensible despair.

This story needs no embellishment. But Churchill decided to make up his own details.

Among his fantasies: The U.S. Army intentionally spread smallpox among the Mandan by distributing infected blankets from an infirmary in St. Louis -- goods hauled up the Missouri on the St. Peter's steamboat.

He then pawned his lies to other scholars.

First, the army wasn't even posted around our villages at the time Churchill claims. And no proof exists, orally or in text, to show blankets came from a hospital.

But our tribal people have long said the spread of smallpox was intentional.

I recently talked with Gerard Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa and leading oral historian for our tribes. Baker, park superintendent at Mount Rushmore, is a fluent Hidatsa speaker and comes from a traditional family. He's also lived and worked at many of our historical village sites along the Missouri.

Baker has talked with tribal elders and spent countless hours looking at the journals of the fur traders. He's convinced traders deliberately spread smallpox to eliminate us as middlemen in the trade network.

Bernard Pratte Jr., captain of the St. Peter's, was the son of an American Fur Company owner who bought the Missouri branch in 1834. Three years later, Pratte insisted on keeping a smallpox-ridden man on board as the crew made its way toward the Mandan and Hidatsa villages.

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara populations -- known today as the Three Affiliated Tribes -- were nearly eliminated within months. The white trade flourished in our area well into the 1850s, said Baker.

A CU committee investigating Churchill's work devoted 44 pages to smallpox and Mandans in its 125-page report released last month. The committee concluded Churchill's Mandan writings "created myths under the banner of academic scholarship."

Churchill made feeble attempts after the fact to acknowledge the oral history of my people.

In his defense, he told an investigative committee he never tried to corroborate any of his writings because he considered his account to be "rather self-evident -- such stories have been integral to Native oral histories for centuries. I've heard them all my life."

Among his sources, he cited a TV series, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman."

The committee said he "disrespectfully introduced Indian sources only belatedly as a defense against this allegation."

Far be it for Churchill to seek out a real Native expert, such as Baker.

But Churchill has already done his damage in trying to be a voice for Native people. My tribe's oral history fades in light of his self-made scandal.

The CU professor demonstrates how artificial Native thought can damage legitimate indigenous views.

More on colonial germ warfare

Colonial germ warfare

CML Army Chemical Review, Oct. 2004 by Harold B. Gill, Jr.

"The humanizing of War! You might as well talk of the humanizing of Hell ... As if war could be civilized! If I'm in command when war breaks out I shall issue my order—'The essence of war is violence. Moderation in war is imbecility. Hit first, hit hard, and hit everywhere.'" (1)

—Sir Reginald Bacon

When armies get in desperate situations, the usual civilized rules of warfare are often thrown out the window. In the 1520s, Italian politician and author Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that when speaking of the safety of one's country, there must be no consideration of just or unjust, merciful or cruel, or praiseworthy or disgraceful; instead, setting aside every scruple, one must follow to the utmost any plan that will save her life and keep her liberty.

During Chief Pontiac's uprising in 1763, the Indians besieged Fort Pitt and burned nearby houses, forcing the inhabitants to take refuge in the well-protected fort. (2) The British officer in charge of the fort, Captain Simeon Ecuyer, reported to Colonel Henry Bouquet in Philadelphia that smallpox had already broken out and that he feared the crowded conditions would result in the spread of the virus. On 24 June 1763, William Trent, a local trader, recorded in his journal that two Indian chiefs visited the fort and urged the British to abandon the fight, but the British refused. Instead, when the chiefs departed, they were given blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital.

It is not known who conceived the plan, but there is no doubt that it met with the approval of the British military and may have been common practice. After the incident at Fort Pitt, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British forces in North America, wrote that the event was contrived to send the virus among the Indians. Sir Jeffrey ordered the extirpation of the Indians (without taking prisoners). About a week later, he wrote to Colonel Bouquet and recommended the additional inoculation of Indians with smallpox-infected blankets, in addition to every other method used to extirpate the "execrable race."

Though a connection cannot be proven, a smallpox epidemic erupted in the Ohio Valley that may have been the result of distributing infected articles at Fort Pitt. Whatever its origin, the outbreak devastated the Indians. Although modern readers may find such tactics atrocious and barbaric, these methods were acceptable during this time period. And all-out war was not foreign to the Indians. During Pontiac's rebellion, Indian warriors killed about 2,000 civilian settlers and 400 soldiers in an attempt to extirpate the enemy.

The Fort Pitt incident is the best-documented case of deliberately spreading smallpox among unsuspecting populations, but it was likely not the first time such a stratagem was employed by military forces. It appears that both Captain Ecuyer and Sir Jeffrey proposed the same idea independently at about the same time, suggesting that the practice was not unusual. The spread of sickness and disease among enemy forces has a long history. The ancient Assyrians and Greeks poisoned enemy water supplies; the Greeks used the herb hellebore to cause violent diarrhea. In 1340, attackers used a catapult to throw dead animals over the walls of the castle of Thun L 'Eveque in Hainault (now northern France), causing such a foul, unendurable odor that the defenders negotiated a truce.

In 1623, Dr. John Pott, a physician at Jamestown, Virginia, was said to have poisoned Indians in retaliation for a Powhatan uprising in which 350 English died. On 22 May 1623, Captain William Tucker and 12 other men went to the Potomac River to secure the release of English prisoners held by Indians. To conclude the peace treaty, the English invited the chief and his men to drink a sack prepared for the occasion. But the Indians demanded that the English interpreter take the first drink, which he did from a different container. Afterward, a group of Indians, including two chiefs, were walking with the interpreter when the interpreter suddenly dropped to the ground while the English soldiers discharged a volley of shots into his Indian companions. The English estimated that about 200 Indians died of poison and 50 from gunshot wounds; however, Chief Opechancanough, the mastermind of the uprising, was not found among the dead. (3) Some Englishmen expressed reservations about using such tactics, even against the Indians, and Dr. Pott was later criticized for his actions.

By the 17th century, European military leaders were becoming conscious of ethics in warfare and rules for carrying out civilized war slowly developed. In 1625, a Dutch legal scholar, Hugo Grotius, published his codification of accepted rules of peace and war. Grotius departed from the classical view of war and did not regard the entire population of the antagonist state as the enemy. Other writers also made attempts to better define the term enemy, believing that a distinction between military forces and civilians needed to be established.

The next significant work on the rules of war was Emmerich de Vattel's The Law of Nations, published in 1758. De Vattel believed that the enemy could be deprived of his property and strength. Further, he believed that laying waste to a country and destroying the food supply prevented the ability of the enemy to subsist. De Vattel believed that such measures, used in moderation, were often necessary to attain the war objective.

Both Grotius and de Vattel thought women, children, the elderly, and the infirm should not be considered the enemy. They thought it was an improper practice to poison weapons and contaminate drinking water. Neither of the writers specifically condemned the intentional spread of disease among the enemy, most likely because, with the exception of smallpox and syphilis, it was not known how diseases were spread. What impact these writers and other philosophers made on military leaders is not known, but it appears that leaders were aware that public opinion regarded the practices as immoral and attempted to hide any evidence of the actions.

There is no decisive proof of attempts to spread disease within enemy troops during the American Revolutionary War, but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence. Almost from the beginning, Americans suspected that the British were trying to infect their army with smallpox. Just before Virginia's last royal governor, Lord John Dunmore, departed from his base at Norfolk in 1776, the Virginia Gazette reported that his lordship infected two slaves with smallpox and sent them ashore to spread the virus. The incident was unsuccessful.

Most British troops were inoculated or were immune to the virus due to previous illness. In Europe, smallpox was endemic. Nearly everyone was exposed to the virus at an early age, so most of the adult population had protective antibodies. On the other hand, most American soldiers were susceptible to the virus. Due to the sparse population. Americans often reached adulthood without coming in contact with the smallpox virus. This placed General George Washington with a dilemma: if he ordered an inoculation of the Continental Army, most of the soldiers would be in the hospital at the same time—a certain disaster if the British learned of it. General Washington tried to get around the problem by ordering all new recruits who had not experienced the virus to be inoculated before joining the main army. Hospitals were set up at various locations In undertake the work. Even with these precautions, at one lime about one-third of the army was incapacitated with the virus or undergoing inoculation.

When the American siege of Boston began in April 1775. smallpox was epidemic among civilians living there. Most British soldiers were immune to the virus, but General Washington suspected that some of the civilians leaving the city had been infected in hopes of spreading the virus in the Continental Army. In December, deserters coming to the American lines confirmed those suspicions. One week later. General Washington informed John Hancock of the enemy's malice intentions. A Boston physician later admitted to administering the virus to people leaving the city. Rumors and suspicions of British efforts to spread the virus were persistent throughout the war.

Smallpox also played a role in the failure of American forces to capture Quebec. It was rumored that General Guy Carleton, the British commander in Quebec, deliberately sent infected people to the American camp. Thomas Jefferson was convinced that the British were responsible and later wrote that he was reformed by officers that the virus was sent into the Continental Army by the British commander. After the defeat at Quebec, American troops gathered at Crown Point where John Adams found deplorable conditions with disease and few, if any, provisions.

In most cases, the evidence against the British was strong but circumstantial, yet some evidence was quite explicit. When the British sent an expedition to Virginia in 1781, General Alexander Leslie revealed to General Charles Cornwallis his plan to spread disease among the Americans by sending 700 Negroes down the river with smallpox to infect the plantations. Leslie's motive was clear, but it is not known if he actually carried out his plan, though it is evident that the British had few qualms about the tactic of infecting the army and the general population. In 1777, a British officer, Robert Dunkin, published Military Collections and Remarks. In the book, Dunkin offered the shocking footnote suggestion of dipping arrows in the smallpox virus and shooting them at the Americans in an effort to disband the rebels.

In an article by a professor of history at George Washington University, the author points out that because the Americans were referred to as savages, any means was justified to exterminate them? Such attitudes were probably often talked of, but were not put in writing, as evidenced by the fact that the offending footnote has since been removed from all but three copies of the book.

But what was considered an acceptable military tactic in the colonial period might not have been acceptable to later generations. Eighteenth-century warfare was conducted by relatively compact armies and with less loss and harassment to civilians. The laws of war were more concerned with the protection of noncombatants and the unnecessary suffering of military personnel. By the end of the 19th century, efforts were being made to prevent the horrors of chemical warfare.

The first Hague Peace Conference of 1899 issued a declaration prohibiting the use of poison and materials causing unnecessary suffering. The Geneva Protocol adopted in 1925 prohibited the use of asphyxiating, poisonous, or other gases; all analogous liquids, materials, and devices: and biological methods of warfare. Most countries have accepted the Geneva Protocol, though the guidelines are not always followed.


(1) Reginald Bacon. The Life of Lord Fisher of Kilverstone, Admiral of the Fleet. Doubleday. Doran, Garden City, New York, 1929, Vol. 1, pp. 120-121.

(2) Pontiac was chief of the Ottawa. Allied with the French forces during the French and Indian War (the North American branch of the Seven Years' War), Pontiac was hunted by the British alter the French withdrawal. He led the Conspiracy of Pontiac in 1763.

(3) Opechancanough was chief of the Powhatan Confederacy from 1618 through 1644. He was responsible for the abduction of Captain Smith in 1608 and the massacres of 1622 and 1644.

(4) Elizabeth A. Fenn, "Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffrey Amherst, "Journal of American History, Vol. 86, No. 4, March 2000. pp. 1552-1580.

Mr. Gill is the consulting editor of the Colonial Williamsburg Journal and the author of more than fifty articles and five books on American history. He is the recipient of the 1998 North American Society for Oceanic History, John Lyman Book Award. Mr. Gill resides in Williamsburg, Virginia.

COPYRIGHT 2004 U.S. Army Maneuver Support Center
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group


Rob's comments
Ned Eddins and I exchanged a few comments over these postings:

>> Letters by General Amherst and Colonel Bouquet mentioning spreading smallpox to Indians does not mean that this was ever carried out. <<

It means that government (military) officials were openly contemplating how best to commit genocide against Indians. If this were an exception, they would've been condemned as surely as if they had proposed the same actions today. The fact that they weren't rebuked strongly suggests that military leaders were pondering the best way to eradicate the Indians.

These officers may or may not have gone further than than their peers. Based on the scanty evidence, we don't know if they were the only ones to think of this idea or merely the only ones to commit it to paper. But the historical record implies that their notions were not considered unthinkable or undoable. In fact, many people contemplated the removal of the Indians by one means or another.

>> As Mr. Gill states and is stated on my site, the only documented case of smallpox being given to Indians was by Captain Eucyer at Fort Pitt during an Indian siege of the fort. <<

One documented case and other cases definitely contemplated and possibly executed. But I'm not one to charge Americans with conducting biological warfare against the Indians based on one example. The smallpox blanket thing is a minor crime in the grand sweep of things. I try to focus on the major crimes.

Since you seem to be into the smallpox question, you may enjoy my posting at Genocide by Any Other Name.... I quote someone who knows more about the subject than I do.

Correspondent Al Carroll sums up the smallpox issue:

>> A US military journal itself admits the biowarfare happened, and that the British likely did this routinely not only to Indians but to US forces during the Revolution. <<

Right. But still, there seems to be only one documented case, which is unfortunate. Until more evidence is uncovered, people shouldn't talk as if this form of genocide was widespread.

But if not via infected blankets, genocide took place in many other ways. See Genocide by Any Other Name... for details. On a related subject, see my debate with Eddins over the definition of "genocide."

More on Indians and smallpox
Indians and smallpox (8 posts) (xIEAHCNET)

Related links
Guns, Germs, and Steel
Was Native defeat inevitable? (Mexican version)

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