Smallpox, Indians, and Germ Warfare

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The story of the British spreading smallpox as a form of germ warfare against the American Indians in the years before the Revolutionary War has received wide attention in recent years. But is it true or merely politically-inspired disinformation?

Lord Jeffery Amherst was the commanding general of British forces in North America during the final battles of the French and Indian war (1754-1763). During this war, the French allied with the Indians in an attempt to drive the British out of North America. The evidence that suggests a possible "germ warfare" tactic during this war consists entirely of postscripts attached to the ends of two letters from Colonel Henry Bouquet during Pontiac's Rebellion:

Colonel Henry Bouquet to General Amherst, dated 13 July 1763:

P.S. I will try to inocculate the 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.

Amherst responded to Bouquet, in a letter dated 16 July 1763:

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 effect, but England is at too great a Distance to think of that at present.

A third letter on 26 July 1763 from Colonel Bouquet acknowledges receipt of the approval:

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

The original letters were microfilmed in Britain during World War II to protect them from possible damage. Assuming that these letters are authentic, it seems clear from the foregoing that Amherst was caught up in war fever, and not at all fond of Indians, and that plans were made to inoculate them with some disease. This disease is presumed to be smallpox, because one earlier letter contains the line:

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.

However, there is not a shred of evidence that this plan was actually carried out. Conspicuous by its absence is any letter indicating that either of them took any action on the plan. It is inconceivable that such a letter, if it existed, would not have been found, with the armies of revisionist historians undoubtedly searching for it. Since smallpox was known to be in the area at the time, any disease outbreak among the Indians would prove little. It is also not clear why Lord Amherst hated Indians so much. Although there were often conflicts between the settlers and native Indians, history shows that in most cases both sides went to great lengths to maintain peaceful relations. Thomas Jefferson, for example, had a Romantic conception of the Indians, speculating at one point that they might be one of the lost tribes of Israel. One possibility for the anger is that the British may have felt betrayed by the Indians, who sided with their mortal enemies, the despised French.

In those days, smallpox was epidemic throughout Europe and North America. Contact between the two continents spread this and other diseases through the population. Just as the European continent had been ravaged by plague after contact with Asia, the Indian population had been decimated by smallpox and other diseases unintentionally brought from Europe. Pocahontas, for example, an Indian who was idolized by the British, died tragically in Britain from pulmonary disease.

In this era of frenetic Western civilization-bashing, however, the smallpox story has taken on a life of its own, with any document containing the word "blanket" being reinterpreted to generate a sort of conspiracy theory. For example, the diary of William Trent, who was a commander of the militia of the townspeople of Pittsburgh during Pontiac's siege of the fort, contains an entry from which the following line is often quoted: "We gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect." (May 24, 1763). Taken out of context, this sounds quite sinister. But the entire diary entry shows that this was clearly intended as a gesture of friendship:

The Turtles Heart a principal Warrior of the Delawares and Mamaltee a Chief came within a small distance of the Fort Mr. McKee went out to them and they made a Speech letting us know that all our [POSTS] as Ligonier was destroyed, that great numbers of Indians [were coming and] that out of regard to us, they had prevailed on 6 Nations [not to] attack us but give us time to go down the Country and they desired we would set of[f] immediately. The Commanding Officer thanked them, let them know that we had everything we wanted, that we could defend it against all the Indians in the Woods, that we had three large Armys marching to Chastise those Indians that had struck us, told them to take care of their Women and Children, but not to tell any other Natives, they said they would go and speak to their Chiefs and come and tell us what they said, they returned and said they would hold fast of the Chain of friendship. Out of our regard to them we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect. They then told us that Ligonier had been attacked, but that the Enemy were beat of
The diary entry clearly shows that the "desired effect" was to express their friendly regard for the Indians, not to kill them. Of course, with what we know today about contagious diseases, the gesture was a horribly misguided one. But only the most cynical and biased reader could interpret this paragraph as evidence of germ warfare.

Indeed, in those days, the idea that microorganisms caused disease had not even been imagined. In 1796 Jenner performed the first vaccination against smallpox, with no clue about its actual nature. The concept that diseases were caused by living organisms was unknown. In fact, the theory of spontaneous generation was widely held until Louis Pasteur's famous experiment in 1859. Robert Koch was the first to prove that a bacterium caused disease, in this case anthrax, in 1876. Viruses were not conceptualized until the late 19th century.

Given today's knowledge of smallpox as a disease, we must also ask whether it is even possible to spread smallpox with blankets. Since American scientists led the drive to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s, the average person today has little intuition for how effective a blanket would be at spreading contagion.

The Poxviridae family of viruses, which includes the variola virus that causes smallpox, are DNA-containing viruses that are among the largest and most complex of all animal viruses. The virus particles consist of an outer coat consisting of proteins crosslinked by disulfide bonds. These particles, isolated from cells, are called intracellular naked virions or IMV. Virus particles isolated from tissue culture medium are called extracellular enveloped virions (EEV), and contain an additional lipoprotein envelope. Both types of particles are infectious. EEVs would be the particles that would be shed into the environment by infected patients.

According to the U.S. Government's book Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare, the smallpox EEV is highly stable and can retain its infectivity for long periods outside the host; however, sunlight and air greatly reduce the viability of virus particles. Smallpox is highly infectious when spread by aerosol, but infectivity from contaminated cotton bedding is infrequent (Bull. WHO 1957, 16:247-254), because the virus must enter through the nose to create infection. Thus, although it is certainly not impossible for a blanket to carry smallpox, transmission by blankets would be inefficient at best.

The Amherst letters suggest that Colonel Bouquet undoubtedly considered the possibility of infecting Indians with smallpox. In legal terms, this shows ``intent''. But continuing the analogy to a legal case, much more is needed to prove that a historical event occurred than intent. Even to indict someone for conspiracy, in which an actual crime need not be committed, a prosecutor still has to prove that some action took place in furtherance of the conspiracy. It's not too much to ask that historians, whose goal is (or should be) to determine whether an event occurred, be held to a similar standard. If the only evidence we had for World War II was a letter by some guy in Austria saying how nice it would be to start a war and kill off all the Jews, few would believe that WWII had actually occurred. Yet even without evidence, many are willing to believe this act of biological warfare took place.

It's important to maintain a skeptical attitude of the uncertainty surrounding events such as this. To this day, for example, many people still believe the politically-motivated stories, now known to be false, of J. Edgar Hoover being a transvestite, and of Nixon and Kissinger having overthrown Chilean president Salvador Allende. While we can recognize that our ancestors were often brutal, we must also guard against politically-inspired disinformation masquerading as historical fact.

Last updated: July 27, 2003