Did Whites Ever Give Native Americans Blankets infected with Smallpox

Link to column.

It has been estimated that much of the Indian population (as much as 90%) were wiped out by European diseases. The native population never had immunity to diseases such as mumps, measles, or small pox, and these diseases proved deadly to the native Americans.

The Aztecs originally defeated Cortez and his Indian allies on June 1, 1520. However, after interacting with the Spanish, the Aztecs experienced a series of devastating plagues. These plagues severely weakened the Aztecs, and the next spring, the Spanish and their allies once again attacked Tenochtitlan. This time defeating the Aztecs and destroying their capital city.

By the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in the 17th century, the Wampanoag had already been ravaged by small pox. The original Plymouth colony was setup in an abandoned Indian village. There were unburied skeletons around. The weakened state of the local Indian population may have been one of the reasons that the English were able to settle New England.

I don’t believe that most of this devastation was done on purpose, but was simply the result of the natural transmission of disease. By the time of Colonel Henry Bouquet in the 18th century, the devastation had already occurred. it is likely that those Indians who remained by the 18th century were about as immune to small pox as the Europeans. Using blankets to infect the Indians would not have the devastating effect he would have hoped, and certainly could have easily backfired onto the colonists themselves.

The big question is why was this such a one-way transmission? Why didn’t the Europeans get sick and wiped out from native American diseases? Why was there no small pox American equivalent?

Jarad Diamond proposes a solution in Guns, Germs, and Steel on why the Europeans were the conquerers and not the Aztecs, and why diseases wiped out the native Americans, but not the Europeans.

Most of the devastating diseases were originally animal diseases. The Europeans had cows, pigs, chickens, horses, goats, and all sorts of domesticated animals. These diseases had previously revenged the Eurasian populations and the population that was left were capable of defending themselves from these diseases.

The native Americans didn’t have this wide spread animal domestication. The few animals that were domesticated (such as Llamas) lived in the fields while many Europeans would share their living quarters with their animals during cold winters. Thus, the Europeans have learned to live with these devastating diseases, but the native American populations never did.

North America was a largely isolated, ethnically homogenous continent. Every person here prior to European contact came from the same relatively small influx of peoples from a relatively small area of the old world. Such a journey makes many selections - of temperament, intelligence, resourcefulness and resistance to illness. So while the native population of North America had many well-filtered qualities, diversity and resistance to the rest of the world’s diseases weren’t among them. Of the many diseases that Europeans likely brought in, smallpox happened to be the one some very large part of the population was least resistant to.

I agree that it was not a deliberate (or deliberately-assisted) event; there is evidence that some 90% of the native population was wiped out before there was enough European presence to even consider such acts. But there is at least one documented case, and that means there were likely other without any smoking parchment. But these would be trivial events on the scale of the original pandemics.

There are some indications that syphilis was a North American disease until explorers carried it back to the old world, but I think the jury is still out on that one.

Wouldn’t giving smallpox infected blankets to a bunch of anglos have been pretty devastating, too?

Not as much; Europeans were more resistant to the disease - lower contagion rates and much higher survivability. (They went through more than one pandemic with horrifying death rates to get there.)

Even relatively mild diseases in one population can be devastating in one with no acquired immunity.

The blankets that Amherst gave the natives came from a European community (fort?) outbreak of smallpox.

Do you have any evidence of that actually happening?

Yes. See link to Cecil’s column in the first post. If you mean beyond those letters and the apparent disease history of the time, no.

There is evidence that in the Spring of 1763, during Pontiac’s Rebellion, Pontiac had laid siege to Fort Pitt, which was undergoing a smallpox outbreak. Some sources indicate that the local commander provide blankets and handkerchiefs that were infected to the Indians during a negotiations. There are also a series of letters between Amherst and subordinate commanders in which Amherst appears to give tacit approval of such tactics. According to this site, which purports to prove Amherst’s involvement, the letters with Amherst were from July 1763 and the diary entries indicating the spread of the blankets were from May. I leave it to you whether that’s evidence that Amherst ordered it.

As detailed in Charles C Mann’s 1491, there is much evidence including DNA that suggests that the Native American population of both continents in the new world had, nearly uniformly, a DNA maker that trades bacteriological and vira resistances with parasite resistance. Modern descendants of exclusive or near-exclusive ‘new world’ ancestry display a marker that makes them more susceptible to various viral attacks, but has an autoimmune response that can wipe out parasites such as tapeworms that in Europeans and Africans require modern medicine to fight.

This combined with a large amount of additional research and historical study detailed in the aforementioned book suggests that it’s likely the Western Hemisphere’s population in 1491 was as great or even greater than that of the Eastern Hemisphere, but contact with the viral diseases previously unknown in the west via Columbus and the various traders and explorers to follow caused massive pandemic killing millions and in a few generations killing off 90% of the population of the Americas. The remaining natives and their lifestyle was not so much a matter of traditional tribal nomadic lifestyles as it was the survivors of an apocalypse trying to figure out how to survive now that their cities and nations have been abandoned.

Smallpox innoculation (Variolation) was in use in Britain in the relevant period.

It preceeded Vaccination and was continued in some locations up until the 20th century.

One of the side-effects of innoculation was the recently innoculated were highly infectious and people catching the disease from them had the same or worse fatality rates as ‘wild-caught’

There has been more than one occasion when recently innoculated people were sent to enemy towns and forts to infect the defendants.

While using innoculated subjects to attack the natives may have been difficult in North America, it was by no means impossible by using released prisoners, and certainly more effective than blankets.

One of my hobbies is collecting journals of pioneers, fur traders and mountain men. I have aquired a few from different states. A passage from one such journal of Francis A. Chardon who was a commander of the American Fur Company also known as the Pratte,Chouteau & Company. They were located at Fort Clark on the west bank of the Missouri river in the 1800’s. In June of 1837 he wrote cases of small pox were being reported down the river and at Fort Clark. Some of his goods were from that fort. Some were blankets. Some of his crew began to show signs of small pox and they were isolated and treated. He tried to keep his boat in the river to isolate it from other trading posts. A tribe of Mandan indians became upset he wouldn’t come to shore and some natives swam out to the boat boarded it during the night and stole provisions to include blankets from the sick crew. This act started a infection of small pox through out their tribe. The tribe would not except the whitemans cure and which inturned made the infection spred to other tribes the Mandans traded with. By September their tribe of over 1600 was down to only 100. Chardon lost 3 of his own crew out of the 17 infected and his own child died of the small pox epidemic that year. It was never proved that it was the blankets that were infected or coming in close contact with the traders that passed it on. Many of the tribes blamed the forts they visited and the goods they traded as the well as the boats trading up and down the river. Since both whites and natives died from the small pox it was not purposely done…this is only one of many similar examples.

The small pox vaccination was known in the 17th century and even earlier. The Ming dynasty inoculated people by grinding the small pox scabs into a powder and inhaling it.

The inoculation process had an interesting history. In 1721, James Franklin (the brother of Benjamin Franklin) wrote an article in his The New England Courant spoke against Cotton Mathers’ effort at promoting inoculations. However, Benjamin Franklin promoted inoculations in his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. He was one of the people who advocated to George Washington to have the American army inoculated. (George Washington ordered the army inoculated in 1777).

This is all before Edward Jenners introduced the actual vaccine in 1798.

Can you infect a blanket with smallpox? That’s my question.

Unless the blanket is full of smallpox scabs or sopping with infected mucus, you can’t spread the disease, because a virus needs living cells to survive. If the blankets are kept in sunlight or a ventilated room, the virus will die off.

If the blanket is full of scabs or sopping with mucus, then the only people to get infected will the people handing out the blankets – and I doubt that anyone else will touch it.

The only resource I could find on it:
Infected blankets are not the most effective biological weapons. In the 1340’s Jani Beg catapulted plague-infected soldiers into Caffa to spread the disease. I think that was a more effective delivery system.

Biological warfare was primitive in the 1700s. Whether it was the blankets, other goods or contact with the white-eyes that delivered them, though, it was effective.

In one of T.A. Dodge’s books he talks about armies in the ancient world using catapults to throw infected bodies into the camps and cities of their enemies.

I don’t remember if it’s in the volume on Alexander, Hannibal, or Caesar, but it’s definitely in one of those.

Fascinating! Are these original, handwritten journals or printed? Either way, have they been recopied for electronic preservation? I’m sure that Project Gutenberg, for instance, would be pleased to carry them. I’m not sure that just donating them to a state historical society or museum before they have been preserved electronically will mean they will ever be available to the public, and I’d hate it if your grandkids threw them out thinking they were just Grandpa’s mouldering old junk.

The question seems to be the ethical dilemma of whether it was intentional or not, and while the letters Cecil mentions offer some evidence of intent, the execution is so problematic it still does not prove that Indians dying out were the result of “biological warfare”.
The obvious conclusion is that the high death rate was the result of the Indians’ lack of natural immunity and complete ignorance of medical knowledge such as the use of quarantine.
The disparity in historical records between the Indians and Europeans has allowed us to bare to the light all the sins of the Europeans, as they used the written word, and make up fantasies of the Indians before European contact as they had limited their records to cave paintings and campfire stories from the old to the young.
This same failure to utilize the written word doomed each generation of Indians to repeat the mistakes of the previous and make no meaningful progress as far as medicine or technology. This is what really caused them to lose the continent.