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From The Journal of American History Vol. 86, Issue 4: 1552-1580. (March 2000)
Biological Warfare in
America: Beyond Jeffery Amherst
Elizabeth A. Fenn
Did he or didn't he? For generations, the Amherst-smallpox blanket episode has elicited animated debate both within and beyond academic circles. In books, journals, and now in internet discussion groups, historians, folklorists, and lay people have argued the nuances of the case. Some have contended that at Gen. Jeffery Amherst's orders, British subordinates at Fort Pitt in 1763 did indeed infect local Indians with items taken from a nearby smallpox hospital. Others have argued that they did not, that the British lacked the knowledge, the ability, or the desire to do so. Still others have claimed that regardless of intent, the timing is wrong, that the Indians around Fort Pitt came down with smallpox well before the damning exchange of letters between Jeffery Amherst and his subordinate Henry Bouquet, and that in fact they were sick even before they received "two Blankets and an Handkerchief" out of the post's smallpox hospital. Finally, and perhaps predictably, a recent article has focused on the incident's genesis as a highly mutable cross-cultural legend that reflects deep anxieties about encounters with the "other." (1)
What follows is not an attempt to condemn or exonerate Jeffery Amherst. The man's documentary record speaks loudly enough regarding his character, if not regarding his ultimate culpability for the smallpox that struck Indians near Fort Pitt in 1763 and 1764. Nor is this essay an exhaustive accounting of all the accusations and incidents of biological warfare in late-eighteenth-century North America. It is, however, an attempt to broaden the debate and to place it in context. (2) Our preoccupation with Amherst has kept us from recognizing that accusations of what we now call biological warfare—the military use of smallpox in particular—arose frequently in eighteenth-century America. Native Americans, moreover, were not the only accusers. By the second half of the century, many of the combatants in America's wars of empire had the knowledge and technology to attempt biological warfare with the smallpox virus. Many also adhered to a code of ethics that did not constrain them from doing so. Seen in this light, the Amherst affair becomes not so much an aberration as part of a larger continuum in which accusations and discussions of biological warfare were common, and actual incidents may have occurred more frequently than scholars have previously acknowledged.
Fort Pitt, 1763
The most famous "smallpox blanket" incident in American history took place in the midst of Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763. In May and June of that year, a loose confederation of tribes inspired by the Ottawa war leader Pontiac launched attacks on British-held posts throughout the Great Lakes and Midwest. On May 29, 1763, they began a siege of Fort Pitt, located in western Pennsylvania at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. The officer in charge at Fort Pitt was the Swiss-born captain Simeon Ecuyer. On June 16, 1763, Ecuyer reported to Col. Henry Bouquet at Philadelphia that the frontier outpost's situation had taken a turn for the worse. Local Indians had escalated the hostilities, burning nearby houses and attempting to lure Ecuyer into an engagement beyond the walls of the well-protected post, where traders and colonists, interlopers on Indian lands, had taken refuge. "We are so crowded in the fort that I fear disease," wrote Ecuyer, "for in spite of all my care I cannot keep the place as clean as I should like; moreover, the small pox is among us. For this reason I have had a hospital built under the bridge beyond musket-fire." Henry Bouquet, in a letter dated June 23, passed the news on to Jeffery Amherst, the British commander in chief, at New York. "Fort Pitt is in good State of Defence against all attempts from Savages," Bouquet reported, but "Unluckily the small Pox has broken out in the Garrison." (3) By June 16, then, from sources unknown, smallpox had established itself at Fort Pitt. It is likely that Amherst knew of the situation by the end of June.
But it was not Amherst, apparently, who first proposed the use of smallpox against the Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo Indians surrounding Fort Pitt. Nor was it Amherst who executed the scheme. While the actual provenance of the plan remains unclear, a brief description of the deed itself appears in the diary of William Trent, a trader and land speculator with ties to the more prominent George Croghan. On June 23, the very day that Bouquet penned his letter to Amherst from Philadelphia, Trent reported that two Delaware dignitaries, Turtle's Heart and Mamaltee, visited Fort Pitt late at night and asked to speak with post officials. A conference took place the following day, June 24, in which the Indians urged the British to abandon the fort, and the British, for their part, refused. The parleys came to a close, and the Indians asked for "a little Provisions and Liquor, to carry us Home." The British obliged their request. "Out of our regard to them," wrote William Trent, "we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect."(4) He does not mention who conceived the plan, and he likewise does not mention who carried it out, but Fort Pitt account books make it clear that the British military both sanctioned and paid for the deed. The records for June 1763 include this invoice submitted by Levy, Trent and Company:
To Sundries got to Replace in kind those which were taken from people in the Hospital to Convey the Smallpox to the Indians Viz(t):
2 Blankets........... @ 20/ £2" 0" 0
1 Silk Handkerchef... 10/
& 1 linnen do:....... 3/6 0" 13" 6
Captain Ecuyer certified that the items "were had for the uses above mentioned," and Gen. Thomas Gage ultimately approved the invoice for payment, endorsing it with a comment and his signature.(5)
Had Jeffery Amherst known of these actions, he certainly would have approved. From the safety of his New York headquarters, he laid forth his own strategy for biological warfare in early July, prompted no doubt by Bouquet's letter of June 23 informing him that smallpox had broken out at the Monongahela post. In an undated memorandum that is apparently a postscript to a letter of July 7, 1763, Amherst proposed the following to Bouquet: "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." Bouquet, now at Carlisle en route to Fort Pitt with reinforcements, replied on July 13, also in postscript: "I will try to inocculate the Indians by means of Blankets that may fall in their hands, taking care however not to get the disease myself." To this Amherst responded approvingly on July 16. "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 Execreble Race."(6) Unbeknownst to both Bouquet and his commander in chief, their subordinates at Fort Pitt had already conceived and executed the very plan proposed. If the garrison at Fort Pitt perpetrated a second, later act of biological warfare at Amherst's behest, the documents currently available make no mention of it.
Sir Jeffery Amherst, K.B., painted by Joshua Reynolds, engraved by James Watson. In July 1763, Amherst asked Col. Henry
Bouquet whether it could be "contrived" to "Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes" around Fort Pitt.
Courtesy National Archives of Canada / C-040905.
Col. Henry Bouquet responded warmly to General Amherst's proposal to spread smallpox, but he expressed concern over the possibility that he might catch the contagion himself. Because smallpox was endemic in Europe, most Europeans went through it in childhood and thus were immune as adults. The Swiss-born Bouquet must have somehow escaped the disease. The documents currently available do not reveal whether he ever carried out Amherst's suggestion.
Courtesy National Archives of Canada / C-004464.
What the documents do show, however, is that smallpox struck hard among the Indians around Fort Pitt in the spring and summer of 1763. On April 14, 1764, a man named Gershom Hicks arrived at the British post, having escaped from the Shawnee and Delaware Indians who had held him captive since May 1763. In a deposition taken the day of his arrival, Hicks reported "that the Small pox has been very general & raging amongst the Indians since last spring and that 30 or 40 Mingoes, as many Delawares and some Shawneese Died all of the Small pox since that time, that it still continues amongst them." Five months later, in September 1764, the epidemic continued to wreak havoc among the Shawnees. "Ye poor Rascals are Dieing very fast with ye small pox," reported Col. Andrew Lewis from Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains; "they can make but Lettle Resistance and when Routed must parish in great Numbers by ye Disordere." Accounts of the plague continued to circulate as late as 1765, when Killibuck, a prominent Delaware leader, told the Indian agent William Johnson of the destruction it had wrought. "The Shawanes lost in three Months time 149 Men besides Women & Children by Sickness above a year ago," Killibuck reported; "also many of them dyed last Summer of the Small Pox, as did Several of their Nation." As the historian Michael McConnell has pointed out, it is possible and perhaps likely that the epidemic stemmed from multiple sources of infection. John M'Cullough, a fifteen-year-old captive among the Indians, reported that the disease took hold after an attack on some settlers sick with the smallpox along central Pennsylvania's Juniata River. The timing, however, is uncanny: the eruption of epidemic smallpox in the Ohio country coincided closely with the distribution of infected articles by individuals at Fort Pitt.(7) While blame for this outbreak cannot be placed squarely in the British camp, the circumstantial evidence is nevertheless suggestive.
Usually treated as an isolated anomaly, the Fort Pitt episode itself points to the possibility that biological warfare was not as rare as it might seem. It is conceivable, of course, that when Fort Pitt personnel gave infected articles to their Delaware visitors on June 24, 1763, they acted on some earlier communication from Amherst that does not survive today.(8) The sequence of events, however, makes it more likely that Amherst and Fort Pitt authorities conceived of the idea independently. In each case, the availability of contagious material (thanks to the smallpox epidemic at the post itself) seems to have triggered the plan of infection. Ecuyer reported the outbreak at Fort Pitt on June 16, and the attempt to communicate the disease took place eight days later. Amherst learned of the outbreak in Bouquet's letter of June 23, and the commander in chief proposed his own scheme on July 7. The fact that a single wartime outbreak could prompt two independent plans of contagion suggests that the Fort Pitt incident may not have been an anomaly. Evidence from other fields of battle indicates that in the minds of many, smallpox had an established, if irregular, place in late-eighteenth-century warfare.
As the twenty-first century begins, smallpox remains the only disease known that is appropriately discussed in the past tense. On May 8, 1980, the World Health Organization confirmed that after two thousand years of human suffering, smallpox had been eradicated from the world. A physical reminder of this triumph still appears in the mottled vaccination scar that most Americans born before 1971 bear on one upper arm. In 1971, the United States dropped smallpox from its routine immunization protocol, and unless they have traveled abroad, Americans born after that date have no such scar. Today, despite rumors of clandestine supplies of the virus, smallpox no longer poses an immediate public health threat.(9)
In the late eighteenth century, however, smallpox was the most fearsome disease known. In his characteristic prose, the British historian Thomas Macaulay later described it as "the most terrible of all the ministers of death." The charge of deliberate propagation of the disease was thus extremely serious, but it was also surprisingly common. In this regard, smallpox was unique among plagues, for it stands nearly alone in the annals of eighteenth-century biological warfare. This was the case in part because of the nature of smallpox itself and in part because of the world's rather extraordinary understanding of the illness even before Edward Jenner developed cowpox vaccination in 1796 and published his findings in 1798.(10)
Smallpox was caused by a virus called Variola.(11) For twelve days after infection occurred, the Variola virus circulated through the body while victims remained unaware that they incubated the disease. Then, usually on the twelfth day, influenza-like symptoms struck, typified by fever, headache, backache, vomiting, and, in some patients, a profound emotional despondency. Unless sufferers knew they had been exposed to smallpox, the diagnosis often did not become clear until day fifteen or sixteen, when the classic rash appeared.
The physical presentation of the rash served as a fairly accurate indicator of a patient's prognosis. If it turned inward and hemorrhaged beneath the skin, death was nearly inevitable and came quickly. This was rare, but it occurred most often among pregnant women. More typically, the characteristic pustules pushed through the skin surface, covering all of the body but concentrating most densely on the face and extremities, including the soles of the feet and palms of the hands. Some individuals developed confluent smallpox, in which the pustules ran together into one painful, oozing mass. Most of those unlucky sufferers died.(12) More frequently, however, the pustules remained discrete, and the disease pursued its course. The rash began drying out sometime in the third week. By the time a month had passed (four to five weeks after the initial infection occurred), most of the scabs had fallen off, leaving telltale scars behind to mark the patient as a survivor.
The consequences varied. Besides scarring and death, they could include blindness and bone deformity. For expecting mothers, smallpox usually resulted in premature termination of pregnancy. For children, there are indications that the disease may have stunted growth.(13) But for all smallpox survivors, the negative consequences of the disease had to be balanced against its ultimate reward—lifelong immunity. An individual who had lived through smallpox would never get the disease again.
This twentieth-century smallpox patient was photographed in the Ivory Coast. The disease usually left its victims scarred for life.
World Health Organization photograph, A014034.
Courtesy National Library of Medicine.
Infection with Variola occurred by direct or indirect contact between human beings. There was no animal reservoir for smallpox. Nor was it transmitted by food, water, or a nonhuman vector such as the mosquito. Most often, Variola gained entrance to a potential victim through the respiratory tract, either by direct inhalation or by finger-borne contamination. Transmission could also occur through an open wound in the skin, but with the exception of deliberate cases of inoculation, this was relatively rare. In "naturally" acquired smallpox, respiratory tract contamination was far more common.(14)
Typically, infection took place when a sick person coughed or sneezed in the presence of a susceptible individual, especially during the first week of the rash when the mucous membranes of the mouth and throat were severely affected. Viral shedding was heaviest in such oropharyngeal secretions, but patients also released viable virus in urine, scabs, and the fluid of unhealed skin lesions. Scabs were probably the least infectious of these forms, because they buried the Variola virus in dried pustular matter. Far more contagious were desiccated droplets from skin lesions, nasal secretions, and saliva.(15)
The survival of viable virus in these dried-out bodily secretions meant that while face-to-face contact was the most common way of transmitting smallpox, it was certainly not the only way. Susceptible individuals might contract the disease by shaking out bedclothes, sweeping the floor, or doing anything else that caused viral particles to become airborne. Documented twentieth-century smallpox outbreaks have occurred among workers handling hospital laundry at a considerable distance from the hospital itself.(16) The implications for eighteenth-century studies are clear: the disease certainly could have spread by means of "two Blankets and an Handkerchief" from a smallpox hospital. And it could have spread by other means as well.
Eighteenth-century Americans, regardless of ethnic, social, or economic background, had never heard of a virus. In 1683, Anthony van Leeuwenhoek had observed bacteria, which he called "animalcules," through his microscope, but germ theory was barely nascent. Nevertheless, when it came to smallpox, hard experience had taught people important principles of both contagion and prevention. Because its features were so distinctive and because incidents of smallpox usually came after some kind of contact with a sick individual, the contagious nature of the disease was relatively easy to discern. This was not the case with infections such as typhus (usually transmitted by lice), bubonic plague (transmitted by fleas from rats), yellow fever (transmitted by mosquitoes), malaria (also transmitted by mosquitoes), cholera (transmitted by water), or even tuberculosis (which might remain latent for years).(17) Such diseases, obscure in their etiology, might well be attributed to swamp gases, moral turpitude, or astrological phenomena. But not smallpox.
"No condition of air &c can produce the small-pox," wrote Dr. William Douglass of Boston in 1722, "without some real communication of infection from a small-pox illness." Most eighteenth-century Americans familiar with the disease understood this; hence they implemented quarantine when smallpox struck. In 1721, when two men sick with smallpox turned up on a ship in Boston harbor, the town selectmen isolated them in a house marked by a red flag and then hired a nurse and posted guards to enforce the quarantine. Similarly, when smallpox broke out among the Creek Indians of Georgia and Alabama in 1748, unaffected members of the tribe followed the trader James Adair's advice "to cut off every kind of communication" with the infected towns. Near Charleston, South Carolina, in 1760, the governor ordered sentinels stationed outside the home of a woman who came down with smallpox. Eight years later, to control a particularly deadly outbreak, officials in Williamsburg, Virginia, imposed a three-week quarantine on anyone with symptoms of the disease.(18)
Even where legally imposed quarantine did not exist, susceptible Americans took pains to avoid contact with individuals and locales infected with the disease. In February 1763, a young Thomas Jefferson canceled his plans to visit Williamsburg when he learned that the ailment had taken hold there. "The small pox is in town," he wrote to Dr. John Page, "so you may scratch out that sentence of my letter wherein I mentioned coming to Williamsburgh so soon." When the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, Abigail Adams could barely contain her eagerness to return to the city, but she checked herself because the troops had left rampant smallpox in their wake. "Do not you want to see Boston," she wrote to her husband John; "I am fearfull of the small pox, or I should have been in before this time." Three years later the pox struck the Moravian settlement of Salem, North Carolina. "This condition practically cut off all intercourse with Salem, and if people came or passed through they were afraid," noted one diarist.(19)
If people understood that contact with sick individuals could spread smallpox, they knew that contaminated objects could pass on the disease as well. In November 1775, when an overzealous revolutionary took "hospital stores consisting of blankets, sheets and shirts" from the British barracks in New York, the Provincial Congress ordered the items returned. "If we had sent the Blankets up to the [Continental] Army we might in all Probability have Poisoned the Northern Army by sending the small Pox among them," the Congress explained. Less than a year later, in April 1776, the Virginia Committee of Safety authorized the payment of £38.18.6 to Capt. James Grier, "the amot. of the valuation of sundry clothes belonging to his Company, burnt at Fredericksburg . . . to prevent the spreading of the Small pox with which it was Supposed they were infected." When a soldier died of smallpox in Richmond in 1781, the commissary supplied the African American man who had nursed him with "a Jacket with sleeves, a pair of Breeches, a Shirt, and a pair of Stockings" in order "that his own may be destroyed."(20) Yet as the Fort Pitt incident shows, this valuable knowledge could serve two masters: while it helped people to control the disease, it also enabled them to spread it.
The same was true of inoculation, a powerful new weapon in the eighteenth-century anti-smallpox arsenal. In fact, inoculation was steeped in controversy precisely because it both controlled smallpox and contributed to its spread. Also called "variolation," inoculation had seen use for hundreds of years elsewhere in the world before Europeans learned of the procedure. Then, at virtually the same moment, in the four-year period from 1713 to 1717, Europeans around the globe latched onto the practice and sent word of it home. The timing was perhaps not coincidental, for smallpox had already begun a resurgence in Europe that would last through the rest of the century. Inoculation's two most famous popularizers were the Englishwoman Mary Wortley Montague and the American minister Cotton Mather. Montague learned of the practice in Constantinople, where her husband served as Britain's ambassador to Turkey. Mather learned of it in Boston from his slave Onesimus, one of thousands of Akan-speaking "Coromantee" slaves forcibly exported from Africa's Gold Coast to the colonies of the New World.(21)
The practice of inoculation was indeed remarkable, but modern readers must not confuse it with vaccination, the much safer procedure that Edward Jenner developed in 1796 utilizing the cowpox virus. Inoculation, by contrast, entailed deliberate infection with Variola. By implanting infectious smallpox material in an open wound, physicians learned that in most cases they could bring on a milder form of the disease than when the infection occurred "naturally." It is a phenomenon that eludes medical explanation to this day. The milder symptoms of inoculated smallpox cannot be explained simply by virtue of a cutaneous versus a respiratory route of infection. The Chinese had for centuries practiced variolation by "insufflation"—blowing infectious scab material up the nostrils of the patient. The patient still came down with smallpox, and there was still great risk involved. But the case fatality rate of 0.5 to 2.0 percent from inoculated smallpox seemed enviable by comparison to the case fatality rate of 20 to 30 percent from the natural form of the illness.(22) In the end, survivors of inoculation won the same highly cherished prize as other smallpox survivors: lifelong immunity to the disease.
Effective though it was, inoculation came at a price. Inoculees did come down with smallpox, and like anyone else sick with the disease, they could pass it on to others in the "natural" way. In the absence of strict quarantine, inoculation was as likely to start an epidemic as to end one. Because the symptoms could be mild, inoculees often felt well enough to circulate in public, and they frequently did so, despite knowing that the consequences for others might be fatal. Abigail Adams, for example, who had expressed her own fear of the contagion earlier, "attended publick worship constantly, except one day and a half" while she underwent inoculation in 1776. The Virginia outbreak of 1768 began when an inoculator allowed "some of his Patients to go abroad too soon," spreading the disease "in two or three Parts of the Country."(23) Such incidents were by no means unusual and meant that inoculation was highly controversial if not banned outright in many of the English colonies.
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