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Smallpox, Indians, and Blankets


From an Internet post by Mary Ritchie (ritchie@cs.uwp.edu) Fri, 2 Jul 1993. She addressed the question of whether Smallpox was really spread by blankets to American Indians

This reference [for the story of American Indians and deliberate smallpox spreading ]is from American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492, by Russell Thornton, 1987 (Norman: U. of Oklahoma Pr.) pp.78-79

It is also during the eighteenth century that we find written reports of American Indians being intentionally exposed to smallpox by Europeans. In 1763 in Pennsylvania, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of the British forces....wrote in the postscript of a letter to Bouquet the suggestion that smallpox be sent among the disaffected tribes. Bouquet replied, also in a postscript,

"I will try to innoculate the[m]...with some blankets that may fall into their hands, and take care not get the disease myself."

....To Bouquet's postscript, Amherst replied,

"You will do well as to try to innoculate the Indians by means of blankets as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this exorable race."

On June 24, Captain Ecuyer, of the Royal Americans, noted in his journal:

"Out of our regard for them (i.e. two Indian chiefs) we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect."

(quoted from Stearn, E. and Stearn, A. "Smallpox Immunization of the Amerindian.", Bulletin of the History of Medicine 13:601-13.)

Thornton goes on to report that smallpox spread to the tribes along the Ohio river.


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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu