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Memories of the 28th Century

Persistence of Ignorance

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Earlier today I was shocked to learn that there still are people in Amherst, Massachusetts who think General Jeffrey Amherst had something to do with spreading smallpox among the Indian, and even worse some even think that he did that in Western Massachusetts.

I previously blogged about this at:
And there is an excellent article about the matter at:

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 Bouquetís suggestion
7/26/1763 26 July 1763, Bouquet acknowledges Amherst's approval

From reading the article by Mr Ranlet it appears that there was an attempt to spread smallpox among the Indians around Fort Pitt, but it failed. The story that Jeffrey Amherst had something to do with it was first spread by a historian in the 1820ís or 1830ís, even though there is no evidence that Amherst had anything to do with spreading, or trying to spread, smallpox.

This libel of Jeffrey Amherst seems to be more persistent that it should be. Last year the students of Amherst College voted to drop Lord Jeffrey Amherst as a school symbol in part because they thought he spread smallpox among the Indians, even though there were a few articles available to the students that indicated the facts. As I mentioned, I started this because of comments by a longtime Amherst resident that indicated that he thought that Amherst was responsible for spreading smallpox, but this guy got it even more wrong, because he thought that it had happened here in Western Massachusetts. He seemed somewhat surprised that that whole idea was completely wrong.

If you bother to look into the matter, then you probably will be shocked to find out that there were no reliably reported examples of biological warfare in North America. There were quite a few times when Indians caught diseases that colonists had, but it was not by design it was the ordinary accidental spread of disease. As it happens, here in Western Massachusetts the major Indian tribe, the Pocumtucks, were greatly reduced by an epidemic of measles around 1700 (alas, there isnít much about the Pocumtuck tribe on-line). There werenít many Pocumtucks left by the French and Indian War, so General Amherst wouldnít have been able to kill many of them, if the had operated in this area, but he wasnít even in the area.

There was a very good reason why biological weapons never became popular. The biggest reason is that it is difficult to control who contracts the disease; no, not difficult, impossible. The results are different from what was desired. It is interesting that one of the biggest epidemics ever, The Black Plague of the Fourteenth Century) started as a little biological warfare. The Mongols were laying siege on Odessa in Ukraine, and they also had a problem with plague. They got rid of the bodies of the victims by tossing them into the city with catapults. Plague became widespread in the city, and foreigners fled. Some of the foreigners were Venetian merchants, who took to their ships. A few of the ships made in back to Venice before everyone died, and the Plague spread to Venice, and from there it spread through most of Europe. The mongols waited a little while and took Odessa easily, because there were few defenders left. Well, thatís what itís like with biological warfare.