Were smallpox blankets used as biological weapons against Native Americans?
While smallpox blankets may be a commonly accepted truth in American history, there is only one recorded case of settlers giving disease-infected blankets to Native Americans.
The arrival of white settlers in North America devastated Indigenous peoples. Over the centuries, settlers waged war on Native Americans, gobbled up their lands, and sent them to reservations. But did they also deliberately infect Native Americans with smallpox blankets?
Although the story of blankets infected with smallpox looms large in American history, with one doctor calling it “bioterrorism,” the truth is complicated. There is only one recorded case of settlers using smallpox blankets to deliberately spread the disease among Native Americans in 1763.
That said, it’s indisputable that smallpox ravaged the Native American peoples in the 18th century – and beyond. Not only did Native Americans suffer from later waves of the disease, but the scourge of smallpox also shaped how Native Americans view the federal government today.
How Colonists Used Smallpox Blankets in 1763
The only recorded incident of smallpox blankets being used as weapons occurred in Pennsylvania in the late spring and early summer of 1763. Then, according to the story, the Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo warriors, led by the Chief Ottowa Pontiac, besieged Fort Pitt in present-day Pittsburgh.
Although the warriors might not know it, smallpox had broken out inside the walls of the fort. And on June 24, 1763, the commanders of the fort decided to try to use the disease to their advantage.
According to History Net, the fort’s 22-year-old commander, Captain Simeon Esquire, gave Native American warriors several smallpox-infected items following failed peace talks.
“We gave them two blankets and a handkerchief from the smallpox hospital,” Capt. William Trent, a militia captain, wrote in his diary. “I hope this will have the desired effect.”
Although Esquire and Trent seem to have acted independently, their superiors had the same idea. Esquire’s superior, Colonel Henry Bouquet, told his superior, Sir Jeffery Amherst, about the Fort Pitt smallpox outbreak on June 23. And Amherst mused in his July 7 response to exploit the disease to fight Native Americans.
“Couldn’t it be invented to send smallpox among these disgruntled tribes of Indians?” Amherst wrote to Bouquet. “We must, on this occasion, use all the stratagems in our power to reduce them.”
Bouquet accepted. On July 13 he replied, “I will try to inoculate these bastards with blankets that may fall into their hands, and be careful not to catch the disease myself.”
Amherst responded a few days later, saying Bouquet should try using the infected blankets “as well as trying all other methods that may serve to root out this execrable one.” [sic] Race.”
However, it is unclear if Bouquet had Esquire use smallpox blankets a second time or if the original blankets had any impact on the Delaware warriors.
History Net notes that some 60 to 80 Native Americans fell ill and died during this time, but it’s possible they were infected with the smallpox already circulating in the region. They could also have caught the disease after taking items from settlers whom they killed and abducted.
But less than 100 years later, a more devastating wave of smallpox decimated Native American tribes, killing up to 150,000 people in the Midwest. Do smallpox blankets have anything to do with it?
Did the Americans use the disease as a biological weapon?
In the late 20th century, a historian named Ward L. Churchill claimed that the smallpox epidemic of 1837-1838, which wiped out tens of thousands of American Indians in North Dakota, was triggered by the American army.
“The blankets had been recovered from a military infirmary in St. Louis, where troops infected with the disease were quarantined,” Churchill wrote in his 1997 book. A small case of genocide.
“Although medical practice at the time required the exact opposite procedure, army doctors ordered the Mandan [tribe] disperse as soon as they showed signs of infection. The result was a pandemic among the Plains Indian nations that claimed at least 125,000 lives.
In other words, Churchill claimed that the US government intentionally used smallpox blankets to perpetrate genocide of Native Americans. But is it true?
Simply put, no. Churchill’s claim about the US military was later found to be fabricated, according to Salon. But smallpox devastated Native Americans in the 1830s.
According to History Net, the outbreak began when a steamer called Saint Pierre stopped at Fort Clark, North Dakota, along the Missouri River. The boat had infected passengers and the disease quickly spread to neighboring tribes.
But contrary to Churchill’s claim, US government officials actually sought to stem the outbreak. Thomas Brown, an assistant professor of sociology at Lamar University who helped discredit Churchill’s research, explained in a 2006 article published by the University of Michigan that an Indian Bureau sub-agent named Joshua Pilcher, who was on the boat, suggested an aggressive vaccination program to combat the disease.
Although he feared that Native Americans were suspicious of vaccines and blamed them for otherwise unrelated deaths, Pilcher wrote to his superior, “If given the means, I will gladly risk an experiment that could save the lives of fifteen or twenty thousand Indians.
Pilcher’s colleague William Fulkerson also warned that “smallpox has broken out in this country and is sweeping all before it – unless checked in its mad career, I would not be surprised if it wiped out the Mandan and the Rickaree”. [Arikara] Tribes of Indians clean from the surface of the earth.
However the outbreak began, it devastated Native Americans. Suspecting that European settlers had spread the disease intentionally but unable to stop its plague, they often turned to desperate means to prevent its spread. History Net reports that people have thrown themselves off cliffs, killed themselves or their families, and impaled themselves with arrows.
In the end, the epidemic killed tens of thousands of people. But he also did more than that. Rumors of smallpox blankets also sowed a seed of distrust among Native Americans of the federal government that remains to this day.
How the Legacy of Smallpox Blankets Lives On Today
Stories about smallpox blankets – both true and false – are important in our time. As The Washington Post pointed out, COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among Native Americans can be traced to events like smallpox.
The use of smallpox blankets, an Oglala Lakota doctor told the newspaper, was “the first documented case of bioterrorism for the purpose of killing American Indians.”
Similarly, many Native Americans felt far from reassured when Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, promised Americans that “ordeal” came to save them from the coronavirus during the development of vaccines.
In the end, while it’s undeniable that smallpox devastated Native Americans, white settlers often turned to much more vicious methods to evict Indigenous peoples from their lands. They burned their homes, slaughtered their people, and did not follow their own treaties.
In this way, the history of smallpox – and smallpox blankets – is only a small part of the larger legacy of white colonization in North America. Although infected blankets may have only been used once, white settlers relied on other violent means to conquer the continent.
After reading the fact and fiction of the smallpox covers, delve into the tragic story of the Trail of Tears. Or check out these stunning photos of American Indians taken by Edward Curtis.