Repost from the old site.
Oh, how the American Indians love this story! I’ve heard it endlessly.
Did you know that the US gave these evil blankets to Indians all over the country, even here in California? Or Hudson Bay traders gave them to Indians in Canada? That those blankets wiped out “generations” of Indians? That the US gave them out to reservation Indians in the 1800’s? That Puritans gave out the blankets to Massachusetts Indians?
Neither did I.
Ward Churchill said the US Army gave Indians them diseased blankets. He lied, and he should have known better.
It’s always nice to track down a myth, or is it really a myth?
So let’s track it down.
Turns out, Americans never gave smallpox blankets to any Indians anywhere at anytime. Not the government, not the Army, not anyone. So we are absolved on that one. The incident in question occurred in 1763, before there even was a USA, before there even were Americans. And American colonists (pre-Americans) didn’t do it either. It was the British that done the deed, and the one man who is always accused of doing it never even did it.
Further, it was in the midst of a horrible and genocidal war (on both sides) called Pontiac’s Rebellion, which occurred around the Great Lakes area during this time.
It was really an extension of the French and Indian War, with which it is often incorrectly associated. In the aftermath of that war, that area, which had been ruled by the French, was now ruled by the British. And the Indians, far from reflexively every White man around, had adjusted well to French rule and were angry about now being ruled by the British.
They essentially wanted the French back. Towards the end, they may have even wanted freedom.
But freedom for Indians was never going to work out, at least in the short term, because they were so stupid. Stupid? Yes, which is why in the mid-1700’s, when the civilized world was starting to get themselves a country, or something like a country (monarchical empires) no way could the American Indians have made one.
Why? Because they were so stupid that they had endless deadly blood feuds with most of the surrounding tribes such that they spent way more time fighting and killing each other than they did the White man. Any country they would have gotten would have fallen immediately into mad civil war, with no adults around to sort it out and send one to one room and another to the other.
Anyway, the Indians really hated the deal they were getting from the British, who were basically treating the Indians very poorly. There were only a few settlers around back then.
If you ever find any of those old adolescent novels about the settling of the pre-US Upper Midwest and Appalachia (forget the name), they are a great read. I spent my early adolescence at the library reading those books.
It’s really interesting that in the mid-1700’s, these Indians were well-supplied with firearms. They didn’t invent any firearms, but they were smart enough to figure out their great value as a weapons real quick, and they even got to the point where they were expert gunsmiths – experts at stocks, barrels and even gunpowder and pellets.
In Pontiac’s War, they added firearms to knives, hatchets (not a bad weapon), bow and arrow, flaming bow and arrow and even rocks and clubs. They ingeniously sawed off their muskets into sawed-off shotgun-type muskets so they could hide them under their blankets.
The Indians were absolutely horrible, vicious monsters in the course of this war, and the British were too. But it was the British who were really getting pounded. Whole forts were being overwhelmed by 300-strong Indian armies, and the Indians would kill everyone in the place, soldiers, women, kids, anyone.
The Indians were raiding towns, settlements and schools and killing every White they could find. These were some of the most hard-ass Indians in the whole history of the Indian Wars. Further, the Indians actually made an alliance of many tribes living in the area during this war, which is incredible, since the Indians usually hated their neighbors so much they would not even ally with them to fight the Whites.
The Whites were selling and giving the Indians all sorts of muskets, pellets and gunpowder in this part of the colonial US at this time, but the stupid Indians were mostly using the firearms to kill their Indian enemies rather than to fight the Whites. This situation went on for decades in the US and seriously hampered the Indians anti-colonial wars of national liberation against the White invaders.
In the course of the Pontiac Rebellion, a famous British general named Lord Jeffrey Amherst wrote a letter to the besieged British troops in one of the forts suggesting that they give the Indians smallpox-infected blankets. Turns out that this had already been done by that very subordinate. Simeon Ecuyer, the Swiss-born British officer in command of Fort Pitt, was the guy that did it.
Although we do not know how the plan worked out, modern medicine suggests that it could not possibly have worked. Smallpox dies in several minutes outside of the human body. So obviously if those blankets had smallpox germs in them, they were dead smallpox germs. Dead smallpox germs don’t transmit smallpox.
In addition to the apparent scientific impossibility of disease transmittal, there is no evidence that any Indians got sick from the gift, not that they could have anyway. The two Delaware chiefs who personally received the blankets were in good health later. The smallpox epidemic that was sweeping the attacking Indians during this war started before the incident. The Indians themselves said that they were getting smallpox by attacking settler villages infected with smallpox and then bringing it back to their villages.
So, it’s certain that one British commander (British – not even an American, mind you), and not even the one usually accused, did give Indians what he apparently mistakenly thought were smallpox-infected blankets in the course of a war that was genocidal on both sides.
Keep in mind that the guys who did this were in their forts, cut off from all supplies and reinforcements, facing an army of genocidal Indians who were more numerous and better armed than they were, Indians who were given to killing all defenders whether they surrendered or not. If a fort was overwhelmed, all Whites would be killed, often except for a few who were taken prisoner by the Indians who took them back to the Indian villages to have some fun with them. The fun consisted of slowly torturing the men to death over a 1-2 day period while the women and children watched, laughed and mocked the helpless captives. So, these guys were facing, if not certain death, something pretty close to that.
And no one knows if any Indians even died from the smallpox blankets (and modern science apparently says no one could have died anyway). I say the plan probably didn’t even work, and almost certainly didn’t kill any of the targeted Indians at all, much less 50% of them. Yes, the myth says that Amherst’s germ warfare blankets killed 50% of the attacking Indians!
Another example of a big fat myth/legend/historical incident, that, once you cut it open – well, there’s just not much there.
Here is a perfectly horrific period telling of Pontiac’s War, written from the White POV in the vernacular of the day, is here. The tactics in this war were downright terrifying. At one point the city of Detroit itself was surrounded and besieged for weeks on end.
Pontiac was a master tactician, and the history of the war is full of all sorts of evil acts of deception. Fake peace treaties and fake peace delegations. Devious Indian women working as undercover spies for both sides. Indian mistresses tipping off their White lovers to Indian attacks. And the converse, Indian undercover female agents, disguised as workers in the forts, secretly letting the Indians in to massacre the Whites, and Indian mistresses deviously leading their White officer-lovers and the soldiers under them to their deaths.
It took forever for the British to resupply the forts, and many reinforcement missions were ambushed and annihilated by Pontiac’s men. It was not a good time to be White in the Great Lakes region, no sir.
At the end of the day, no one really won, neither the Indians nor the British.
The Indians had foolishly allowed themselves to become dependent on the fickle Whites for gunpowder and pellets, which the Indians quickly ran out of when the Whites wisely quit supplying them during the hostilities.
Lesson: don’t buy your war supplies from the enemy. When war breaks out, he’ll cut you off.
A little-known aspect of US colonial history.
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