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Memories of the 28th Century

Jeffrey Amherst, smallpox blankets, and the Indians

Rating: 6 votes, 5.00 average.
Just because everyone thinks something happened is not a good reason to think that it did occur.. For decades I had believed that Lord Jeffrey Amherst had spread smallpox among American Indians by giving them smallpox infested blankets in an effort to reduce their numbers. I don’t remember when I first encountered that story; it might have been in elementary school. But I never bothered to look into the matter until recently, when an acquaintance, who is not the most credible person I have ever met, repeated the claim; I started to wonder.

It didn’t take long to learn that the rumor is derived from letters that Amherst wrote to one of his subordinates, Bouquet, in 1763. Amherst was in Detroit and Bouquet was at Fort Pitt, which was under siege. The first summary that I read put it together into a neat story, but Peter d’Errico’s page with his research makes the matter more complicated. Either something of the timing was lost or permission was request after the fact.

Colonel Henry Bouquet to General Amherst, dated 13 July 1763 suggests in a postscript the distribution of blankets to "inoculate(sic) the Indians"; Amherst to Bouquet, dated 16 July 1763 approved this plan in a postscript.

An additional source of information on the matter is the Journal of William Trent, commander of the local militia of the townspeople of Pittsburgh during Pontiac's siege of the fort. Trent's entry for May 24, 1763, includes the following statement: “... we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.”

“In the spring of 1763, during the Indian uprising led by Ottawa Chief Pontiac, a party of Delawares ringed British owned Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), calling for its surrender. Captain Simeon Ecuyer, a Swiss mercenary and the fort's senior officer, saved the garrison by giving the Delawares a gift—two blankets and a handkerchief. The Indians readily accepted the offering, but still demanded that Ecuyer vacate the stockade. They had no inkling that the blankets and kerchief were more deadly than a platoon of English sharpshooters. Ecuyer had ordered the presents deliberately infected with smallpox spores at the post hospital. By mid July, the Delawares were dying as though they had been raked by a grape cannonade. Fort Pitt remained firmly in English hands.” [with footnote to Robert M. Utley and Wilcomb E. Washburn, Indian Wars (New York: American Heritage, 1977; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987)] The JSTOR article disputes this assertion, saying that there were not many deaths from smallpox among the Indians or in Fort Pitt in 1763

From the quote from Trent it appears that Amherst was asked about the smallpox after the fact. And there was another letter” Bouquet to Amherst, dated 23 June 1763, three weeks before the discussion of blankets to the Indians, stating that Captain Ecuyer at Fort Pitt (to which Bouquet would be heading with reinforcements) had reported smallpox in the Fort.” Taking this together with quote from Trent’s journal makes a strong case that Amherst had nothing to do with the spreading with smallpox (even if he would have been happy to extirpate the Indians), but Ecuyer and Trent did that on their own, and Bouquet asked for authorization after the fact.

If anyone interested, then read Peter d’Errico’s page and see what you think. This appears to be an excellent example of the evidence telling a different story from what has been common knowledge. The article in JSTOR by Philip Ranlet is to be even better, and it describes how and when the blankets were given. Among other things it appears likely that the blankets would not have infected anyone, because they had been exposed to the air, and smallpox treated that way dies in a week, while blankets closed in a box have been shown to be contaminated even after sixty-six days. From the information available it appears that Trent and Ecuyer tried to spread smallpox to the Indians through contaminated blankets, but that failed, and it appears that there were few deaths from smallpox among the Indians around Fort Pitt in 1763, and it appears likely that those cases were from contact with some infected person.

I believe that if this situation happened these days, and if Trent, Ecuyer, Bouquet, and Amherst were brought before courts martial. The results would be uncertain. There was an attempt to use biological weapons, but nature was more effective. The charge of genocide would have to be dropped, but there were other possible charges. In any case, Amherst was an excellent commander, and there were excellent reasons for him being considered a hero.

This was not an attempt to whitewash Amherst. I was just looking at where the evidence pushed me. I wonder what others would conclude from the evidence that is now available. Read the article on JSTOR if you have a chance; it is interesting, and it is much more complete. I never heard of Trent before researching this post. It might be a good idea for information about him being presented to the world at large.

My overall conclusion is that one should look carefully at evidence. What you thought was true may not be.

Summary timeline:
5/24/1763 Journal of William Trent ... we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.
6/23/1763 Bouquet to Amherst, dated 23 June 1763 smallpox in Fort Pitt
7/13/1763 Colonel Henry Bouquet to General Amherst, dated 13 July 1763 discussion of smallpox blankets
7/16/1763 Amherst to Bouquet, dated 16 July 1763 Amherst's approval of Bouquet’s suggestion
7/26/1763 26 July 1763, Bouquet acknowledges Amherst's approval [

The British, the Indians, and Smallpox: What Actually Happened at Fort Pitt in 1763? This site has considerable detail about the whole matter.

This page by Peter d’Errico did a fair job of summarizing the matter.


  1. Dreamwoven's Avatar
    This is interesting, as I have also thought the action was hostile, and of course it may have been for some, while for others quite the opposite. This is one of many issues that divided white america at the time of settlement-building. Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee is a book that also looks at how from the perspective of the native Americans the Eastern Frontier retreated westward.

    There are always two sides to every story, sometimes more than two...
  2. PeterL's Avatar
    It is one of those matters where it changes as one learns more about it.
  3. Billy Morris's Avatar
    The diary entry by CPT William Trent referenced above is dated 24 June 1763, not May. Diary entry here:

    Furthermore, CPT William Trent made another entry on 22 July 1763 reporting that two Delaware, Turtle's Heart (a principal warrior) and Mamaltee (a chief), had returned to Ft Pitt. These are the same two men CPT Trent presented the infected blankets and handkerchief to. A month had passed, and neither man was sick. The incubation period for smallpox is two weeks. Diary entry here:

    Other witnesses, Gershom Hicks and John McCullough who were captives, reported the smallpox outbreak among the Delaware and Shawnee began in the spring (before June 24) of 1763, and McCullough attributed the outbreak to raids on infected settlers along the Juaniata.
  4. PeterL's Avatar
    Thanks, I hadn't read the whole journal. Smallpox contaminated things lose the contamination in as little as a week if they are exposed to open air, but the contamination remains longer on things that are packed in containers.

    The more one learns of this episode the more it looks like a complete waste of time.

    But I thank you for posting the additional information.