The last natural outbreak of smallpox in the United States occurred in 1949. Thanks to the development and distribution of a successful smallpox vaccine, the deadly disease has been considered eradicated for more than 40 years. The memory of its historic use as a biological weapon employed against Native American people lives on. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), smallpox is a highly contagious infectious disease caused by the variola virus. People who had smallpox suffered immensely, and three out of 10 died as a result. Victims usually had a high fever and a distinctive skin rash that got progressively worse. Smallpox survivors often had permanent scars over large areas of their body, especially their faces. Some were left blind. Historic records from the 1700s are scarce, so the nature and details of how smallpox was used against Indigenous people and to what effect aren’t entirely clear. The fact that the colonizers even considered smallpox as a viable weapon of war speaks volumes about the level of cruelty to which the settlers would sink in pursuit of their aims.

Was it germ warfare?

The most commonly shared historic account of smallpox blankets was first reported by 19th Century historian Francis Parkman. He came across correspondence in which Sir Jeffery Amherst, commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America in the early 1760s, had discussed its use with Col. Henry Bouquet, a subordinate on the western frontier during the French and Indian War. The account, as relayed by University of Colorado historian Elizabeth Fenn in her article in the Journal of American History, goes like this:

In the spring of 1763, warriors from the Delaware, Shawnee and Mingo tribes, attacked Fort Pitt, a military installment located on the site of what is now downtown Pittsburgh. The Fort’s commander reported in a panic-stricken message to his superior Bouquet that the situation was dire. The Fort’s hospital had patients with smallpox, and the commander feared the disease might soon spread throughout the population. Bouquet passed this news on to Amherst, who was his superior. Amherst offered a ‘solution’ for the problem. “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians,” Amherst wrote in response to the plea for assistance. “We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them.” The message was clear, and Bouquet responded to Amherst with a promise to try and spread the disease through the Indigenous population by gifting the Natives with infected blankets that had been used by smallpox patients. 

“We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them.”

Many subsequent historians have expressed doubt about these accounts, with some saying it happened but shifting the blame away from Amherst to some of his contemporaries. It isn’t possible to prove whether or not the plan even worked. Others have expanded on this recounting of events, claiming that the deadly tactic of using so-called ‘smallpox blankets’ as a biological weapon was widely used across Indian Country. That’s impossible to prove, of course. And if it did happen, it’s not the sort of thing one would want to advertise widely, is it?

The fact that the British military was willing to employ such crude tactics at all is abhorrent in and of itself. “Even for that time period it violated civilized notions of war,” wrote Paul Kelton, an historian at Stony Brook University and author of two books on the role of epidemics in the European takeover of the Americas. He noted that the disease “kills indiscriminately – it would kill women and children, not just warriors.”

Not surprisingly, tribal accounts about the smallpox blankets have been largely ignored in academic circles. After all, it is the colonizers who get to write the history. Natives share their history through storytelling, and there are plenty of retellings about these unspeakable acts. Native communities have numerous stories that were passed down through the generations about receiving or trading blankets and subsequently experiencing a deadly smallpox epidemic. The Hidatsa tell of a smallpox epidemic in 1837 that resulted after receiving blankets in trade with the colonizers. The Chippewa tell of receiving a keg of rum wrapped in a blanket and later experiencing an epidemic. The Incas in Latin America have documented history of receiving a box with nothing but scraps of paper inside and then contracting smallpox soon after. 

Kelton says the tactic, however callous and brutal, is only a small part of a larger story of brutality committed by American colonizers in the 1600s and 1700s. The burning down of houses. The cutting off of food supplies. The slaughter of the buffalo. The kidnapping of women and children as slaves. The list goes on. That they would sink to the use of germ warfare would be par for the deadly course.