Amherst College history professor Kevin Sweeney casts doubt on smallpox-infected blanket plot tied to Lord Jeffery Amherst

AMHERST — As the town gathered to celebrate its founding Feb. 20, a local professor cast doubt on the popular notion that its namesake Lord Jeffery Amherst actually decimated scores of Native Americans with smallpox-infected blankets, a legacy that has long vexed the community.

Pointing to the high number of smallpox outbreaks across North America in the 18th century, and detailing the way the disease is typically transmitted, Amherst College history professor Kevin Sweeney questioned the evidence linking the British military commander to a successful act of germ warfare.

In July 1763, during Pontiac’s War, the general infamously wrote: “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”

But this note, Sweeney said, is only part of the story.

His presentation came after years of fielding questions about the matter, Sweeney said.

“I’d get ‘the phone call,’ as I came to call it,” from members of the media wondering how Amherst was connected to smallpox, he said, Over the years, he said, he has read enough to question the way this piece of history is often relayed.

Speaking to about 50 people at the Jones Library, Sweeney said a modern epidemiological understanding of smallpox casts doubt on the idea it “spread like wildfire,” as is often claimed.

Contracted typically by inhalation, and with a 12-day incubation period during which people show no symptoms and are not infectious, smallpox is less communicable than measles, Sweeney said, explaining that the likelihood of blankets transmitting the disease was low.

Still, he said, it was a nasty disease, one that began with flu-like symptoms and then lesions that formed inside the nasal cavities and throat and then developed into the classic rash. Different forms of smallpox — which was declared eradicated in 1980 — were worse than others, with some involving massive amounts of skin loss and higher fatality rates.

In the latter half of the 18th century, smallpox outbreaks devastated dozens of communities throughout the colonies, including both Native Americans and colonists, particularly the French, who lacked the same immunity as the British, he said.

At the Siege of Fort Pitt in 1763, British officers did give Native Americans smallpox-laden bedding. William Trent, an officer at the fort, wrote in his journal: “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.”

But Sweeney said records show that two of the Native Americans who accepted the blankets were still alive at later meetings with the British, and although there are records of a couple of smallpox outbreaks in that region at the time, none was in the fort’s direct vicinity. Also, this transaction occurred before Amherst mentioned smallpox in his letter, Sweeney said, noting that there was no evidence to suggest his order was subsequently followed.

Though he does not question Lord Amherst’s “contempt” for Native Americans or desire to “extirpate” them, Sweeney said he finds little evidence that the general successfully weaponized smallpox.

Broad debate

Sweeney’s talk follows a broad public debate about the military commander’s controversial legacy, and an announcement last month by Amherst College that it would no longer use Lord Jeff as its mascot.

“Amherst College finds itself in a position where a mascot — which, when you think about it, has only one real job, which is to unify — is driving people apart because of what it symbolizes to many in our community,” Cullen Murphy, chairman of the board of trustees, wrote in a statement at the time.

At Jones on Feb. 20, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor emeritus Surinder Mehta said Sweeney’s talk made clear Lord Amherst’s “disdain and disrespect” for Native Americans, though he wished to have heard more about the man than the context of the disease.

Cyndi Harbeson, head of special collections at Jones, said she often faces questions about Lord Amherst’s military tactics and has come to see that it’s a complex issue.

“You can’t change history by whitewashing everything, so understanding within context is important,” she said. “The legacy remains whether something is called Amherst or not. He still is who he was.”

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.