GENERAL AUTHORISES USE OF SMALLPOX TO KILL NATIVE AMERICANS

Jeffrey Amherst – Painting by Thomas Gainsborough –
National Portrait Gallery – via Wikimedia
.

7 July 1763

In 1763, Major General Jeffrey Amherst, was the highly respected governor general of British North America and commander-in-chief of British forces. In 1760, he had led the successful campaign to drive the French from North America and now he was infuriated when Native Americans challenged the new British hegemony, by resisting the occupation of their lands to the south of the Great Lakes in the Ohio Valley. Here, in late June 1763, the Delewares began besieging Fort Pitt, where the city of Pittsburgh stands today, after the British refused to honour a pledge to leave once the French had been defeated.1

Amherst dispatched Colonel Henry Boquet to relieve the garrison, reminding him that no quarter was to be given to any Native Americans they captured. On 7 July, he sent further instructions with an ominous suggestion. ‘Could it not be contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians ?’ On 13 July, Boquet responded positively, although anxious in case he himself might be contaminated in the process. ‘I will try,’ he informed Amherst, ‘to inoculate the Indians with some blankets that may fall into their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself.’ He also suggested that cavalry accompanied by hunting dogs might also ‘effectually extirpate or remove that vermin.’ On 16 July, Amherst responded, instructing the colonel that, as there was no time to ship hunting dogs from England, he should ‘try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.’2

It is possible that Amherst knew that Simeon Ecuyer, the captain of the garrison, had already approved of measures to the same effect. William Trent, the captain of the militia who may have originally concocted the genocidal plot, noted in his journal on 24 June, that delegates from the Deleware tribe, who came to urge their departure to avoid an otherwise imminent siege, were knowingly given tainted gifts, two blankets and a silk handkerchief from the smallpox hospital. Ecuyer even issued a written explanation in the accounts justifying their use and this was later signed off by General Thomas Cage, after he succeeded Amherst as commander-in-chief. Although it is not known whether the planned mechanism of transmission worked, during the winter of 1763-64 the Native American communities in the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes were devastated by the lethal disease, just as General Amherst and other British officers had hoped.3

FOOTNOTES

  1. Barbara Alice Mann, The Tainted Gift: The Disease Method of Frontier Expansion, ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara, 2009, pp. 1-18.
  2. Philip Ranlet, ‘The British, the Indians and Smallpox: What Actually Happened at Fort Pitt in 1763,’ Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol 67, No 3, pp. 427-439, David S. Jones, Rationalizing Epidemics: Meanings and Uses of American Indian Mortality since 1600, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004, p. 95 and Colin G. Calloway, The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, p. 73.
  3. Barbara Alice Mann, op. cit., and Philip Ranlet, op. cit..

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