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Friday, June 10, 2016

A Pox on Both Your Houses



Last case of smallpox in Canada, 1962


Smallpox is no small thing. Until the WHO in 1980 declared it struck from the scarred face of the earth, it was one of the great fears of humankind. Come down with smallpox, and you had about a one in three chance of ceasing to be in any physical form. Survive, and you may have been rendered blind. Avoid that too, and you certainly had scarring on your face. And it was highly contagious. So much for friends and loved ones.

It was especially lethal to the American Indians. Current science says this is because they had not encountered it before and so had no immunity.

Here is how the Florentine Codex, completed in 1569 from eyewitness accounts, describes the outbreak in Mexico following the Spanish conquest:

Illustration of smallpox from Florentine Codex. Do not try this at home.

Some it indeed covered [with pustules]; they spread everywhere, on one's face, on one's head, on one's chest, etc. Many died of it. No longer could they walk; they only lay in their homes, in their beds. No longer could they move, no longer could they bestir themselves, no longer could they raise themselves, no longer could they stretch themselves out face down, no longer could they stretch themselves out on their backs. And when they bestirred themselves, much did they cry out. There was much perishing. Like a covering were the pustules. Indeed many people died of them, and many just died of hunger. There was death from hunger; there was no one to take care of another; there was no one to attend to another.

Jared Diamond says, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, that “the Indian population decline in the century or two following Columbus's arrival is estimated to have been as large as 95 percent” (p. 500). “The impact of these epidemics was stunning,” writes Elizabeth Fenn, “particularly in the first century of European contact. From a pre-Columbian population that may have been as high as twenty-five million, the population of central Mexico plummeted to only two million by 1600, .... Farther north, a similar pattern emerged, delayed by three-quarters of a century, but dramatic nonetheless. The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico saw their numbers drop from as many as one hundred thousand in 1600 to forty thousand in 1638 and only seventeen thousand in 1680. To the southwest, in the desert province of Sonora, one Jesuit missionary believed that the native population had declined more than 90 percent by 1706.” (Fenn, Pox Americana, p. 142).

So too a little later farther north. In Canada, the first outbreak witnessed by Europeans was at Tadoussac in 1616. The Jesuits record it passing through the Huron country in the 1630s: “two things occurred this year, which somewhat checked the progress of the gospel. The first was a pestilence, of unknown origin, which eight months ago spread through several villages, and caused the death of many. The divine providence even so dealt with us that we should not be exempt from the calamity. In fact, it almost began with us, or at least attacked both us and the savages at the same time. Of us who labor here,—six priests, and the four lay brothers then with us,—we saw seven confined to their beds at the same time, and near unto death” (Brebeuf, Jesuit Relations 11, p. 11). Among the victims was the first native Canadian saint, Kateri Tekakwitha, who was left with impaired eyesight and a damaged face.

World's last smallpox case, Somalia, 1977.

This was one of the greatest calamities in human history. In an oblique and passive sense, the newly-arriving Europeans can be blamed—they inadvertently brought the disease, and other diseases, with them. Then again, it could be argued that all of this was only a matter of time. The Americas could not have hoped to remain forever in a sealed bubble. If Europeans had not come when they did, Chinese, Japanese, Polynesians, Africans or Romanian Orthodox Jews eventually would. And the longer they took to get here, the worse the eventual outbreak would be.

But there is a tradition that the Europeans were to blame for the scourge and the suffering in a much more direct and literal way. It is, in fact, a matter of common knowledge on the political left, and among many Indians, that the smallpox was deliberately introduced and spread by the Europeans in order to pilfer Indian lands. That it was, in fact, genocide.

More specifically, it seems the Indians were given smallpox by consciously infected blankets.

The Montreal Gazette several years ago featured in its Arts section a story on a travelling exhibit by Marianne Corless, on the motif of Hudson's Bay blankets with red Canadian maple leaves pocked and bloody.

Subtlety was not involved.



“Artist Marianne Corless says while the blanket is steeped with national pride for the Canadian mainstream, some aboriginals view it as a grim reminder of the smallpox epidemic that ravaged their communities during the 1700s and 1800s - a dark consequence of the fur trade glossed over by history books but smouldering in native consciousness.

"It is not something that is really well known," Corless said in an interview from Victoria, adding some natives believe infected Bay blankets helped spread the epidemic.

...Her multimedia art exhibit, titled Further ... is a blunt critique [sic--as is often the case, they are misusing the term “critique” to mean “criticism.” It is the characteristic spoor of the pseudo-intellectual] of European colonialism and the fur trade.

Wall hangings feature five Bay blankets and explore themes of exploitation, disease and death.

In Blanket 1, a Bay blanket is transformed into a diseased Canadian flag. Hung striped side down, its central feature is a large maple leaf infected and bleeding with smallpox pustules.

..."I was trying to determine for myself what it meant to be a Canadian, to have this as part of our history," Corless said, noting the Bay, established in 1670, was instrumental in exploring and settling Canada.”

– (Rita Trichur, Montreal Gazette, May 25, 2004).


It's hard not to think of the Bay.


Buffy Sainte-Marie musically included the smallpox blankets charge in her 1966 protest song, “My Country ‘Tis of thy People You’re Dying.”

Hear how the bargain was made for the West
With her shivering children in zero degrees
Blankets for your land, so the treaties attest
Oh well, blankets for land is a bargain indeed
And the blankets were those Uncle Sam had collected
From smallpox-diseased dying soldiers that day
And the tribes were wiped out and the history books censored
A hundred years of your statesmen have felt
It's better this way

Nasty bunch, these Europeans.

The idea has become so much a feature of popular culture that it can be alluded to in passing to add colour to a description. Everybody will get the reference. “Consider this passage from a recent mystery novel by an African-American woman,” writes Adrienne Mayor. “'He held [the will] gingerly, as though it were one of those smallpox blankets the early settlers gave to the Indians.'” (Adrienne Mayor, “The Nessus Shirt in the New World,” Journal of American Folklore 108: 427, pp. 54-77).

There you are—established fact.

So where is the historical record on this?

There are indeed many Indian sources for it; the Indians all seem to know about it. Vine Deloria writes, in Custer Died for Your Sins, “In the old days blankets infected with smallpox were given to the tribes in an effort to decimate them.” (Deloria, 1970, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto [London: Macmillan] p. 54).

William Warren's History of the Ojibways, Based Upon Traditions and Oral Sources, published in 1885, includes this passage:

“To make up, ..., for their misconduct, as well as to avert the evil consequences that might arise from it, the Pillagers [a subtribe of the Ojibways, named such by the Indians in recognition of one particular bad habit] on the ensuing spring, gathered a number of packs of beaver skins and sent a delegation headed by one of their principal men to the British fort at Mackinaw [near Sault Ste. Marie], to appease the ill-will of the whites, by returning an ample consideration for the goods which they had pillaged.

“The British commandant of the fort received the packs of beaver, and in return he assured the Pillagers of his good will and friendship towards them, and strengthened his words by giving their leader a medal, flag, coat, and bale of goods, at the same time requesting that he would not unfurl his flag, nor distribute his goods, until he arrived into his own country. With this injunction, the Pillager chief complied, till he landed at Fond du Lac, where, anxious to display the great consequence to which the medal and presents of the British had raised him in his own estimation, he formally called his followers to a council, and putting on his chief's coat, and unfurling his flag, he untied his bale of goods, and freely distributed to his fellows.

“Shortly after, he was taken suddenly sick, and retiring to the woods, he expired by himself, as the discovery of his remains afterwards indicated. All of those who had received a portion of the goods also fell sick, one after another, and died. The sickness became general, and spreading to different villages, its fearful ravages took off a large number of the tribe. It proved to be the smallpox, and many of the Ojibways believed, and it is a common saying to this day, that the white men purposely inflicted it on them by secreting bad medicine in the bale of goods, in punishment for the pillage which the Leech Lake band had committed on one of their traders” (History of the Ojibways, Based Upon Traditions and Oral Sources, William Warren, 1885).

Pandora. Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


Ottawa traditions are similar. Andrew J. Blackbird, an Ottawa scholar, writes in 1887:

“It was a notable fact that by this time [1763] the Ottawas were greatly reduced in numbers from what they were in former times, on account of the small-pox which they brought from Montreal during the French war with Great Britain. This small pox was sold to them shut up in a tin box, with the strict injunction not to open the box on their way homeward, but only when they should reach their country; and that this box contained something that would do them great good, and their people! The foolish people believed really there was something in the box supernatural, that would do them great good. Accordingly, after they reached home they opened the box; but behold there was another tin box inside, smaller. They took it out and opened the second box, and behold, still there was another box inside of the second box, smaller yet. So they kept on this way till they came to a very small box, which was not more than an inch long; and when they opened the last one they found nothing but mouldy particles in this last little box! They wondered very much what it was, and a great many closely inspected to try to find out what it meant. But alas, alas! pretty soon burst out a terrible sickness among them. The great Indian doctors themselves were taken sick and died. The tradition says it was indeed awful and terrible. Every one taken with it was sure to die. Lodge after lodge was totally vacated - nothing but the dead bodies lying here and there in their lodges - entire families being swept off with the ravages of this terrible disease. The whole coast of Arbor Croche... was entirely depopulated....

“It is generally believed among the Indians of Arbor Croche that this wholesale murder of the Ottawas by this terrible disease sent by the British people, was actuated through hatred, and expressly to kill off the Ottawas and Chippewas because they were friends of the French Government or French King” (Andrew J. Blackbird's History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan, 1887. pp. 9-10).

Adrienne Mayor collects other examples of the claim. All seem to have come originally from Indian oral sources. “One oft-repeated tale concerned a trader who invited Indians to a peace parley but then gave them a keg of rum wrapped in a pox-infected flag, telling them not to unwrap it until they reached their village. Heagarty [writing in 1928] dates the incident to 1700 and identifies the man as a fur company agent in Minnesota” (Mayor, "The Nessus Shirt," p. 59). “In northeast Montana, Indians believed that rival Metis tried to spread smallpox as they migrated west between 1860 and 1870” (Mayor, "The Nessus Shirt," p. 60).

This is all suggestive. Where there is smoke, after all, there is usually fire. But on occasion, where there is smoke there are only mirrors. We have a general problem with using Indian sources to make the case. It is not just that Indian oral traditions are malleable over time and rely, by definition, on word of mouth at third and further hand. It is that, by the nature of things, Indians are not in a position to know. If smallpox was spread among them by European subterfuge, they obviously would not have been told this by the Europeans. All they have, necessarily, is suspicions. If the thing truly happened, the evidence must come from the Europeans themselves. We must seek original, European, documentary proof.

We seem to get this from Ward Churchill, former head of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado. “Churchill reports that in early 1837, the commander of Fort Clark ordered a boatload of blankets shipped from a military smallpox infirmary in St. Louis. When the shipment arrived at Fort Clark on June 20, U.S. Army officers requested a parlay with Mandan Indians who lived next to the fort. At the parlay, army officers distributed the smallpox-infested blankets as gifts. When the Indians began to show signs of the illness, U.S. Army doctors did not impose quarantine, but instead told the Indians to scatter, so that the disease would become more widespread and kill more Indians. Meanwhile, the fort authorities hoarded smallpox vaccine in their storeroom, instead of using it to inoculate the Indians (“Did the U.S. Army Distribute Smallpox Blankets to Indians?” Thomas Brown. Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library, 2006).

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

That sounds pretty clear, detailed, and damning.

Churchill argues a similar case against John Smith. “There are several earlier cases, one involving Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame. There’s some pretty strong circumstantial evidence that Smith introduced smallpox among the Wampanoags as a means of clearing the way for the invaders” (Churchill, “An American Holocaust? The Structure of Denial,” 2003). “Mysteriously—the Indians had had close contact with Europeans for years without getting sick—epidemics broke out in the immediate aftermath of Smith’s expedition” (“'Nits Make Lice’: The Extermination of North American Indians, 1607- 1996” in A Little Matter of Genocide, 2001, p. 169).

Unfortunately, these references do not pan out. After years of being publicly accused of falsifying his sources, Churchill was finally called before a disciplinary panel at his university, and dismissed for academic misconduct in 2007. On Churchill's claims against John Smith, the committee concluded that he “fabricated his account, because no evidence – not even circumstantial evidence – supports his claim” (“Report of the Investigative Committee,” p. 38). Ouch. On events at Fort Clark, Churchill cites another historian, Russell Thornton (American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492). Unfortunately, no one else seems to be able to find the claim in Thornton's book. Thornton himself calls the Churchill story of events at Fort Clark and Fort Union “out-and-out fabrication” (Brown, op. cit.).

Challenged by the disciplinary panel, Churchill's ultimate response seems to have been “everybody knows”: “[H]e made no effort to offer corroboration of anything other than the number of fatalities presented for the ensuing pandemic because he considered his account to be 'rather self-evident—such stories have been integral to native oral histories for centuries; I’ve heard them all my life'” (“Report of the Investigative Committee,” p. 67). But the panel concluded that Churchill had not consulted any actual natives for their oral histories, either.

So Churchill's claims cannot be accepted to show that the smallpox blankets story is something more than an urban legend. It sounds as though Churchill's claims might themselves be urban legend.

Fort Pitt, 1776

There is one definite documented irrefutable case of smallpox-infected blankets being given to North American Indians in order to knowingly spread the loathsome disease. It happened at Fort Pitt, what is now Pittsburgh, in 1763, during Pontiac's Rebellion. The British military post was under siege by the Delaware Indians, and when two chiefs came to ask for its surrender, they were sent away with several gifts, two of which were blankets taken from the station's smallpox infirmary—the fort being itself in the throes of an epidemic at the time.

Of this there can be no question. We have letters between Jeffery Amherst, the general in command of the British forces, and Colonel Henry Bouquet, commanding a relief column sent to the fort, calling for this to be done. We have the journal entry of militia captain Wiliam Trent, stating that blankets taken from the smallpox hospital were given to the two chiefs. And we have an invoice, submitted to British command by Levy, Trent, and Company, requesting reimbursement for two blankets and one silk handkerchief, “taken from people in the Hospital to Convey the Smallpox to the Indians.”

A smoking gun.

One anomaly: the correspondence between Amherst and Bouquet calling for the measure is dated to July, whereas the invoice, and Trent's journal entry, are from June, the prevous month. The thing was done before it was ordered? If anything, however, this suggests that we are dealing not with just one incident; that the idea was, shall we say, “in the air,” and so may well have been acted upon on more than one occasion.

On the other hand, why then is there not more of a paper trail? If blankets were used at other times, why only here, in this one instance, do we have an invoice? Above all else, the English are accurate accountants.

Those who believe there was a general plan to eradicate the Indians argue that it would all naturally have been concealed, and never set down on paper, because it would have been beyond the pale of civilized behaviour.

But that argument cuts both ways: if it was indeed thought by contemporary Englishmen to be unspeakably bad behaviour, does that not argue that they were unlikely to do it? If admitting having done it might get them into trouble, doesn't that already mean it cannot have been officially sanctioned?

In the absence of any such clear evidence, we can really never know whether the deed was ever done outside of Fort Pitt. It might have been. But we cannot take the absence of evidence as itself evidence. That way paranoia lies.

Moreover, in the absence of said evidence, decency requires us to give the Europeans, even if they happen to be us, the benefit of the doubt. For this is a terribly serious charge, and obviously promotes hatred towards an identifiable group. Without evidence, should we think such a thing of our neighbour?

Was there, for that matter, really a Jewish conspiracy to poison the wells?

The evidence is about the same. Which is to say, little or none.

Jew poisoning a well. I guess now we have documentary evidence.

And there are other, logical arguments that make the charge unlikely.

First of all, germ theory was still at this time relatively unknown. It did not become the dominant explanation for disease until the 1890s. Charles Darwin, no slouch on the current science, wrote in The Descent of Man, in 1871, “It further appears, mysterious as is the fact, that the first meeting of distinct and separated people generates disease.” Odd, that. I wonder why? Even at that much later date, Europeans did not really understand the matter.

The then-current theory of infectuous disease, established since Galen and classical times, was that it was spread by “miasma,” which is to say, “bad air.”

By this theory, blankets could indeed spread smallpox. But it was not because they were infected with germs, viruses, bacteria, or any other troublesome microorganisms. It was because of bad smells. In 1348, faced with the Black Death, a blue-ribbon panel from the University of Paris advised, “The present epidemic or pest comes directly from air corrupted in its substance.” The solution, therefore, was to use incense or perfume, fragrance, which “hampers putrefaction of the air, and removes the stench of the air and the corruption [caused by] the stench” (“A Brief History of Miasmic Theory,” Carl S. Sterner).

Which is to say, in simple terms, that up to the 1890s, people thought disease was caused by bad smells. If we did not know this already, from our reading of history, it is fairly clear from his own journal that Ecuyer, commander at Fort Pitt, assumed the miasma theory: "We are so crowded in the fort that I fear disease, 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” (Elizabeth Fenn, "Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America," Journal of American History 86:4 (March, 2000), pp. 1552-1580). General dirtiness and smelliness was the cause of disease.

It follows that, for the “smallpox blankets” scheme to work, the blankets given as gifts would have to be so dirty they smelled bad.

Miasma, personified, spreading cholera.

Now, what are the chances of palming any such blankets off on Indians as either proper gifts or acceptable trade goods? Wouldn't they immediately appear, instead, highly suspicious, a deliberate insult, or possibly an attempt to spread disease? Should the Indians actually accept them, wouldn't they be likely to immediately wash them, before use, eliminating, by the traditional theory, their ability to transmit smallpox?

Even given the germ theory, infected clothing, like blankets, is a possible, but not a likely, means for transmitting smallpox. “There is a remote possibility,” writes Robert Boyd, “of acquiring the disease through contact with virus-laden items of clothing, personal possessions, etc.“ (Robert Boyd, “Smallpox in the Pacific Northwest.” BC Studies 101, Spring, 1994, p. 6). Note that word, “remote.” The usual method is by sneezing, and inhaling the resultant particles in the air.

If Amherst suggested it, and/or the commandant tried it, at Fort Pitt in 1763, perhaps then it was a desperate measure called for by a desperate situation. When the context is considered, a case can be made that the smallpox blanket gambit was, in this case at least, as or more justifiable than dropping Little Boy on Hiroshima or Fat Man on Nagasaki. Perhaps wrong, but that is a matter about which reasonable men can reasonably disagree.

First off, the Indians were illegally at war, and had launched the conflict with a sneak attack, like Pearl Harbour. There is a reason why Francis Parkman calls the action “The Conspiracy of Pontiac.” Not the war; not the rebellion: the “conspiracy.” Immediately before the action began, the Indians involved had concluded a peace treaty with the English, and sworn their eternal loyalty. The English had agreed to ban white settlement anywhere west of the Alleghenies. Among other matters, in return, the Indians had expressly consented to the presence of Fort Pitt. Then, without any declaration of hostilities, they descended on several British forts along the frontier, in surprise attacks relying heavily on the British not knowing they were at war. At Michilimackinac, the Indians pretended to play a game of lacrosse before the fort. When the gates were opened to allow them to continue inside, they suddenly pulled out hatchets, attacked and massacred the garrison.

Fort Michilimackinac, as restored.

Not cricket, to the English mind. As Lord Amherst says in correspondence, “they were 'contemptible' for 'violating the most solemn promises of friendship, without the least provocation on our side.'” (Philip Ranlet, “The British, the Indians, and Smallpox: What Actually Happened at Fort Pitt in 1763?” Pennsylvania History 67:3, Summer, 2000, p. 430).

There were, of course, and no doubt, justifications from the Indian point of view. As there were for Pearl Harbour among the Japanese. Or the events of 9/11, among the jihadists. But we need not go into them here. The point to be made is merely that, from the British point of view, these people were not legitimate combatants. They were, to use the modern term, terrorists.

Moreover, surrendering the fort to them under any circumstances probably did not look like an entirely viable option. During the French and Indian War, just concluded, there was a relevant incident, considered at the time a historic atrocity. Montcalm, the French commander, had negotiated the surrender of the British Fort William Henryin upstate New York. The garrison, by the terms of the negotiated surrender, were to be given battle honours and paroled—permitted to leave without their weapons, but unmolested and with their pennants flying. Nevertheless, as soon as they lay down their muskets and passed the safety of the fort's palisades, the English column was fallen upon by Indian allies of the perfidious French. Many were killed. Many were taken to be later tortured to death. Some of them, by French reports, were eaten.

In disturbingly similar fashion, at the siege of Fort Detroit, in the same rebellion under Pontiac, a relief column was ambushed by the Ottawa. According to Parkman, forty-six British soldiers were then tortured and killed, after which the Indians “fell upon their bodies, cut them in pieces, cooked, and ate them” (Parkman, The Conspiracy of Pontiac, p. 202, note).

So this might have been war, Jim, but not war as we know it. The Indians apparently recognized no rules of engagement; letting them take the fort might have had upsetting consequences for the civilians, including women and children, sheltering inside. Perhaps, just this once, despite all the moral and the practical concerns, smallpox blankets might be the way to go.

The use of smallpox blankets in a time of war, even if played by Queensbury rules, is a far cry from the original accusation, that blankets were used to spread smallpox among the Indians as a genocidal measure, to kill them off and take their land. That at least is not demonstrated by the Fort Pitt incident.


Let us accept that all Europeans are rascals. Even if it be so, as a matter of sheer self-interest, would the white men have wanted to wipe out the Indians? Why?


As previously noted, if you farm, the same acreage that previously supported one hunter can now support a hundred straw-chewing gallants. Therefore, from the point of view of the settlers, there was room enough for all in this beautiful new land. There was no cause for them to resent or kill the Indians to confiscate their land. It was a simple matter of teaching the poor savages to farm.

If there was resentment, it logically would have had to come from the Indian side.

Maybe they poisoned the tobacco.

Hey, wait. That fits.

Indian woman wearing Hudson's Bay blanket

On top of this, by the time any settlers had arrived in any part of North America, the pox and other diseases had already been through, and decimated the original hunter-gatherer population. “When Hernando de Soto became the first European conquistador to march through the southeastern United States, in 1540,” Diamond writes, “he came across Indian town sites abandoned two years earlier because the inhabitants had died in epidemics. These epidemics had been transmitted from coastal Indians infected by Spaniards visiting the coast” (Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 498). When Captain Vancouver arrived on the West Coast in 1792, similarly, he found deserted villages. “The houses...did not seem to have been lately the residence of the Indians. The habitations had now fallen into decay, their inside, as well as a small surrounding space that appeared to have been formerly occupied, were overrun with weeds; amongst which were found several human sculls, and other bones, promiscuously scattered about” (Vancouver, Voyages, Vol. 2, pp. 229-230). When Lewis and Clark, relative latecomers, but earliest Americans, went west of the Mississippi in 1806, “the world the explorers described to the American people was one that had already undergone momentous change. As their own journals indicated, Variola's [i.e., smallpox's] transit of the continent had preceded them by a full generation” (Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana, p. 259).

Accordingly, even if the resident hunter-gatherers were perversely bound and determined to cleave to their inefficient traditional way of life, given the dramatic drop in population that had already occurred once they got there, there was no reason for the early settlers to see some advantage in killing off Indians to take their land. Why then, given no intervening untoward incident, would the Europeans feel animosity towards the Indians? Just on the general ethical principle of being villainous?

The first Europeans to contact the Indians almost anywhere, in any case, were not settlers, but either missionaries or fur traders. Fort Clark and Fort Union, for example, where Churchill holds the US Army distributed smallpox blankets, were fur trading posts, with no military presence. The missionaries were there to save Indian souls, a project that would not have been obviously advanced by giving them smallpox. The fur traders were there to do business. It is not in Wal-Mart's interest, nor in Amazon's, to kill either their customers or their suppliers in large numbers.

Accordingly, the interests of the earliest Europeans, contrary to the smallpox blankets belief, were very much on the side of doing whatever they could to keep any Indians alive, happy, and fit. And so indeed they understood. “[T]he Spanish,” says Paul Hackett, “had begun quarantining ships to the New World almost from the start of contact, and by the 1780s had in place a set of regulations designed to prevent the disease from reaching Mexico City from elsewhere “ (Paul Hackett, “Averting Disaster: The Hudson's Bay Company and Smallpox in Western Canada in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, February, 2004, p. 579, p. 584). When Lewis and Clark struck overland in 1804, President Jefferson sent with them the new smallpox vaccine, first demonstrated by Jenner in London in 1796, to vaccinate any Indians they met against the scourge. Unfortunately, their supply of vaccine spoiled (Hackett, p. 589). Still, this was a curious thing to do, if the objective was to wipe them all out.

Edward Jenner demonstrates his cowpox vaccine.

When a smallpox epidemic struck the northern prairies in the 1770s, the Hudson's Bay Company understood their interests well enough. It might be too late for the Indians of the interior, but at least they were going to do their best to protect the Indians nearer the coast. Word came down from head office: “Should you find the disorder has attacked any of them [the local Indians], do all in your power for their preservation” (Hackett, p. 586, quoting HBS records). York Factory immediately imposed a quarantine to protect the Cree Indians they referred to as the “home guard.” Only Europeans were to meet trading parties from the interior, and well away from the fort (Hackett, p. 586). The measure proved effective, too, until the American Revolutionary War interposed. A French fleet appeared in Hudson's Bay, in support of the Americans, and the Company was obliged to abandon its posts for the duration.

When they returned after the war, it was to bleached bones.

York Factory.

Not too many years later, the smallpox epidemic that Ward Churchill traces to Fort Union and Fort Clark, on the upper Missouri, struck the same area. By this time, Jenner had demonstrated vaccination, and over half a continent, the Hudson's Bay Company wheeled into action with near-military precision. Fortunately, London had already shipped and distributed the cowpox-based vaccine against such a contingency.

Dr. Willliam Todd, at Fort Pelly on the Assiniboine, among the first to detect the disease, began vaccinations by September 20. “Thereafter, he dispatched news of the epidemic and fresh supplies of vaccine to other districts including the Carlton, Ile à la Crosse, Chipewyan, and Edmonton Districts” (Hackett, p. 599). At Cumberland House, John Lewis vaccinated every Indian “that would submit to it.” He sent supplies of vaccine onward to Moose Lake and Lac la Ronge. At Fort Francis/Rainy River, factor John Charles did the same, as did York Factory, and Robert Wilson at Fort Severn (Hackett, pp. 600-601).

With these timely interventions, according to Hackett, “the progress of the epidemic was effectively stopped after only a very limited penetration into Canadian territory” (Hackett, p. 601). At the very time Ward Churchill believes fur trading posts in the US were trying to kill the Indians with smallpox, traders beyond the Canadian border were doing everything they could to protect Indians from the disease.

This is embarassing. These Europeans should get together on strategy.

The first claim, though, is undocumented. The latter claim is thoroughly documented in Hudson's Bay Company records of the time. Those English are fierce at accountancy.

And it makes Marianne Corless's claims about Hudson's Bay blankets most cruelly unjust to a company that deserves some recognition for their deeds.

An American fur trader, Edwin Denig, of Astor's American Fur Company, posted at Fort Union, later gave his northern competitors deserved praise: “Another visitation of this malady happened in 1838, but owing to the good management of the Hudson’s Bay Company most of the nation [the Cree] were preserved by introducing vaccine matter and persisting in its application for several years previous” (John C. Ewers, Five Indian Tribes on the Upper Missouri: Sioux, Arickaras, Assiniboines, Crees, Crows [Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961], p. 115); Hackett, p. 595).


Those advocates of the smallpox blanket legend who understand that fur traders, if they spread smallpox to the Indians, would be working against their self-interest, have suggested a counter-claim: that, while Indians in general might have been of some use to the traders, it still made sense for them to kill off local Indians, in order to cut out the middleman. They might then get furs from tribes farther away at lower cost.

This thesis does not work, however, for several reasons. First, there would be no way, once the disease had been unleashed, for the Europeans, at a distance, to arrange to limit it only to the Indians near the posts. By the nature of any trading network, these Indians would soon come in contact with the Indians trading with them from further afield, so that both would be infected. Second, the Hudson's Bay Company was always fully capable of setting up trading posts further inland. They had made a business decision, until challenged in this by the North West Company, to keep their operations mostly at the coast, and leave to the Indians, who were better at it, the task of transporting the furs. It would, in the end, have cost the company more than their markup to do it themselves. Third, the trading posts depended on the local Indians for more than just trade. They were available labourers, security guards, and a source of food and supplies. “[T]he Homeguard Cree, ... helped to supply the posts with provisions, and performed other critical tasks for the traders. The Homeguard Cree ... had a long history of hunting geese and caribou for the English, as well as transporting goods and mail between the posts” (Hackett, p. 580).

The HBC men indeed took special care to ensure the welfare of the Indians they referred to as their “home guard.”


Many of the same considerations would have applied also for the early settlers. John Smith would have been a fool if he indeed wanted to wipe out the local Indians. But in fact, he was not so foolish. His own writings point out the value of Indians as available labourers, for newborn baby colonies that would, necessarily, for some time lack manpower. Who you gonna get to pick that cotton?

And, of course, any settler setting loose smallpox on the nearby Indians would have run a terrible risk of killing his own family. If smallpox was a greater threat to the Indians, an estimated 25% of the European population was also vulnerable at any given time. In Canada's last outbreak, Windsor in 1924, the death rate among the unvaccinated was 71%--all Europeans. This would have been a far greater worry then, when nobody understood well how smallpox was transmitted.

Windsor Ontario, 1924

All this being so, and in the absense of evidence otherwise, Occam's Razor seems to favour urban legend as the most likely source of the smallpox blanket tale. Given that no human agency was required, no human agency need be postulated.


There are, after all, obvious similarities here with known myth.

Note first the apparent unconscious allusion to the Trojan Horse: a pretended gift to destroy an enemy and acquire their land. But Adrienne Mayor points out a closer parallel: the shirt of Nessus, secretly soaked in the poisonous blood of a centaur, given as a gift to his unsuspecting wife, that killed Hercules. And Mayor cites other classical examples. Euripides tells of a poisoned dress sent by Medea to her rival Glauce. Several ancient authors describe a dress fashioned by Hephaestos for Harmonia, the daughter of his unfaithful wife Aphrodite. It brought misfortune to anyone wearing it. And Mayor cites similar tales from India.

Herakles with shirt of Nessus

There is even a well-known urban legend: a girl attends her senior prom in a beautiful new dress. During the dance, she feels faint, and asks to go outside for some fresh air. Gradually she becomes seriously ill, retreats to the toilet, and is later found there dead. It turns out that the dress had belonged to a corpse. It had been used as a funeral dress, then returned to the store for a refund. The formaldehyde the dress had soaked up from the embalming process was enough to kill the new owner.

This suggests that the basic motif of the blanket story resonates in the imagination. It touches upon an archetype of some sort. It is therefore likely to recurrently occur to both Indians and whites even in the absence of anything of the sort ever actually happening. Bernard De Voto remarks that the blanket story “has the quality of legend and reappears at Fort McKenzie and in fact, nearly everywhere else” (De Voto, Across the Wide Missouri, 1947, quoted by Mayor, "The Nessus Shirt," p. 60). Of course, that might be evidence that it actually happened. But urban legends are prolific in just this way.

An Indian author in South America already gives a smallpox-in-a-gift-box story very similar to the Ottawa tale as early as 1613. In it, Spaniards reportedly send a messenger in a black cloak with a gift for the Incan Emperor, a small locked case. He says his orders specify that “only the king should open it.” When it is opened, its contents appear to be scraps of paper that blow away. Within days, multitudes die, covered with burning scabs (reported in Mayor, "The Nessus Shirt," p. 59).

Pandora's box immediately comes to mind. What is more, as we have seen in a previous chapter of our present saga, there was a pre-existing Huron legend very like the Pandora story. The wife of Nanabozho, out of curiosity, opened a sealed box and unleashed death into the world.

Like an urban legend, what seems to have been originally the Fort Pitt story can be readily found here and there misassigned by careless authors instead to the French and Indian War, to New England, to Florida, to Andrew Jackson instead of Amherst—just like an urban legend, always given new relevance by supposedly having happened nearby, or to a friend of a friend of a friend. It happened at some fort, right? What forts do we have around here? As I recollect, that must have been either Fort Clark or Fort Union.

Pandora's box


The true and original Fort Pitt incident was cited, with immediate moral condemnation, by Francis Parkman in his 1851 study The Conspiracy of Pontiac. He called it “shameful” and “detestable” (The Conspiracy of Pontiac, pp. 38-42). Parkman's histories were widely popular and widely influential for about the next century; my grandparents, otherwise not great history buffs, had a copy in their personal library. It could from there have slipped easily into the popular culture, melded in many minds with a pre-existing mythical archetype, and worked its magic on the collective unconscious. So the pervasive legend we know today.

Would Indians too have heard of it? There is no need to suppose so to explain the appearance of the myth motif--but then again, why not? If they did not read the books themselves, they would have been in contact soon with European traders who, as frontiersmen being aficionados of the frontier, would probably have steeped themselves in Parkman's books as a matter of course.

It would not have necessarily hurt their interests, either, to tell the tale to the Indians. While it might discourage trade, it might also be a warning not to trust other traders, or not to cheat that trader. Stearn and Stearn report one apparent instance. Fur trader James McDougall is quoted as saying to a summoned gathering of locals, "You know the smallpox. Listen: I am the smallpox chief. In this bottle I have it confined. All I have to do is to pull the cork, send it forth among you, and you are dead men. But this is for my enemies and not my friends." (Stearn and Stearn, The Effect of Smallpox on the Destiny of the Amerindian; Esther Wagner Stearn, Allen Edwin Stearn; University of Minnesota; 1945; Pgs. 13-20). Another fur trader, the Stearns record, once threatened Pawnee Indians that if they didn't agree to certain conditions, "he would let the smallpox out of a bottle and destroy them" (Stearn and Stearn, pp. 73-94, 97).

This threat of disease is a time-honoured technique of Indian shamans: treat them well, pay their fee, or they will curse you with some pox.

“Hence,” explains Father LeJeune in the Jesuit Relations, “it arises that these sorcerers are greatly feared, and that one would not dare offend them, because they can, the people believe, kill men by their arts” (Relations 12, pp. 5-7).

Such an urban legend, if it is an urban legend—should that be rural legend?--would naturally be given a greater heft among Indians than we would expect among Europeans. And this quite aside from the fact that all their traditions are oral, the medium in which urban legends naturally form. Recall that, after all, Indians considered what is imagined to be real, and what is merely seen by the eyes to be of dubious consequence. Accordingly, if anyone ever dreamt that the Europeans were giving out smallpox blankets, that would be the truth, and be understood as such. If the physical evidence was not there, that was not important. Sooner or later, it would probably show up. If not, so much the worse for physical evidence.

Regarding the myth of the Ojibway on infection by a British flag and other trade goods, quote above, our author discovered they were also aware of a quite independent possible explanation for the epidemic.

“This [the deliberate infection] was a serious charge, and in order to ascertain if it was really entertained by the more enlightened and thinking portions of the tribe, I have made particular inquiries, and flatter myself that I have obtained from the intelligent old chief of the Pillagers, a truthful account of the manner in which the smallpox was, on this occasion, actually introduced among the Ojibways.

“A war party of Kenistenos [Cree], Assineboines [Assiniboines], and Ojibways, was once formed at the great Kenisteno village, which was at this time located on Dead River, near its outlet into the Red River of the North. They proceeded westward to the waters of the Ke-che-pe-gan-o, or Missouri River, till they came to a large village of the Gi-aucth-in-ne-wug (Gros Ventres), which they surrounded and attacked. Through some cause which they could not at first account for, the resistance made to their attack was feeble. This they soon overcame, and the warriors rushing forward to secure their scalps, discovered the lodges filled with dead bodies, and they could not withstand the stench arising therefrom. The party retreated, after securing the scalps of those whom they had killed...

... [O]n the fourth day, one of their number died, they threw away the fearful scalp, and proceeded homeward with quickened speed. Every day, however, their numbers decreased, as they fell sick and died. Out of the party, which must have numbered a considerable body of warriors, but four survived to return home to their village at Dead River. They brought with them the fatal disease that soon depopulated this great village, ... The large village of Sandy Lake suffered severely, and it is said that its inhabitants became reduced to but seven wigwams.” (History of the Ojibways, Based Upon Traditions and Oral Sources, William Warren, 1885, pp. 260-2).

One of the peculiarities of the imagination is that, within its magical realm, two or more contradictory things can both be true at once. As the Red Queen explained to Alice in Wonderland, there it is perfectly simple to believe six impossible things before breakfast. “Truth” has to do with “vividness,” not physical evidence or logical consistency; we are speaking here of dreams. Accordingly, the Ojibway can tell two different stories of the plague's start, both “true.” They prefer the one that makes a better story, that touches more on mythic themes. Our interlocutor, a European, prefers the one that seems more probable. Bit of a dullard, actually.

Alice Liddell being instructed by tribal elder.


Moreover, since all events begin in the imagination, it is impossible to explain any death by natural causes. Father LeJeune writes, “I hardly ever see any of them die who does not think he has been bewitched” (Jesuit Relations 12, p. 155). Someone must be to blame.

Now, given the mass death of so many Indians, and with whites generally not dying, who is obviously to blame?

When smallpox struck Huronia in the 1630s, this assumption was an immediate problem for Brebeuf and the Jesuit legions. “The second obstacle arose from the tales spread among the people by followers of the devil,—that our Frenchmen, and we in particular, were the cause of this pestilence, and that our sole purpose in coming to their country was to compass their destruction” (Brebeuf, Jesuit Relations 11, p. 11).

We have seen this tendency in Europe too. When the plague arrived in a Medieval town, the obvious cause was Jews poisoning the wells.

Do we now believe it? After all, historical records show that wells were, indeed, sometimes poisoned, at least in times of war.

If not, should we believe this legend of the smallpox blankets?

Pandora. Waterhouse.



There is another incident in the Jesuit Relations: the French overhear charges by an Algonquin that “the French had bewitched a cloak.” Challenged, the man tells the French that he had heard it from the Hurons. Among the Hurons, when challenged, “those of one village accused the inhabitants of another of originating these reports.” Eventually, they all agree that it was the Innu, not present, who initiated the rumour. Moreover, it was the Innu who were trading in poisoned clothing (Relations 12, p. 245).

When a bad thing happens, it is the natural tendency to find someone else to blame. Hence there was a vast conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy. Hence AIDS came originally from a secret CIA lab in Africa, intended to wipe out all members of the negroid race. And the convenient people to blame are always those not present at the table or council fire: the other guy. The Jews, classically; here the Innu; or, most naturally, for any North American Indians, the Europeans.

There are other similar stories in the Jesuit Relations:

“On the 3rd of the same month [May], some Savages who came to see us said they had been told that a European of Acadia had asserted that word would be sent to the French who are in this country, that they should bewitch all the rivers and the waters of these regions, in order to kill off all the original Savages. 'In fact,' said they, 'we already perceive that the waters taste bitter.' They entreated me earnestly, if the ships brought such a message, to prevent this misfortune, and to warn them of it. These poor people do not know to what cause to attribute the mortality among them” (Relations 12, p. 167).

“These tribes believe that we poison and bewitch them, carrying this so far that some of them no longer use the kettles of the French. They say that we have infected the waters, and that the mists which issue thence kill them [it appears that the Indians, like the Europeans, and for that matter the Chinese, the Turks, and the Indians of India, assumed the miasma theory of disease. Meaning, not incidentally, that they would have refused or carefully cleaned any offered dirty blankets]; that our houses are fatal to them; that we have with us a dead body, which serves us as black magic; that, to kill their children, some Frenchmen penetrated the horrid depths of the woods, taking with them the picture of a little child which we had pricked with the points of awls, and that therein lay the exact cause of their death” (Relations 12, p. 235).


The report on Ward Churchill's research misconduct puts it well: “We understand the grief and anger that have long led some people to see the outbreak as deliberate and to want to pin blame for the tragedy upon a particular group. Professor Churchill forms part of that tradition” (“Report of the Investigative Committee of the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct at the University of Colorado at Boulder concerning Allegations of Academic Misconduct against Professor Ward Churchill” May 9, 2006).

Frankly, I blame the Jews. And the bicycle riders.


Frankly, I blame the goat.

Again, any natural human tendency to scapegoat the “other” for misfortune is amplified in the native context. As we have seen, these were very xenophobic cultures. They were at almost constant war with their neighbours, and usually did not see them as human.

Xenophobia also makes the image of “contamination” by newcomers both powerful and inevitable in the mind's eye; if in this case also largely true (in that the disease did come, inadvertently, from the foreigners). Hence, by a natural association, there is contamination by Western trade goods. Hence, contamination by probably the most ubiquitous Western trade good, the blanket. It was the one most basic need of every trading Canadian Indian, in terms of what the foreigners had on offer—bedding and clothing against the cold.

Sproat, reporting from among the Salish of Vancouver Island in the latter nineteenth century, remarks on the inevitable suspicion of the Indians towards anyone not a member of their tribe. And they had good reason of course, to be cautious, given the political situation, the aforementioned war of all against all, in which they were obliged to live. “[H]is eye is ever on the watch against the hostility of others,” Sproat observes. “His thought, when he comes in contact with any but the few who are within the circle of his bosom friends, is, 'How can I turn this person to my own account, and how can I defend myself from his design against me?' …. [H]e does not for a moment believe that he is sacrificing a confiding or honest person, but sets down all appearance of unguardedness either to folly or simulation” (Sproat, Scenes and Studies of Savage Life, p. 161).

Trading for furs. Seems to work better with live Indians.

And now you want him to believe that, given the opportunity, the whites are not trying to kill him? Please. What kind of sucker do you take him for?

“The Indian's suspicion,” Sproat mentions later, “prevents a ready gratitude, as he is prone to see, in apparent kindness extended to him, some under-current of selfish motive” (Sproat, p. 165).

Beware, in other words, of Greeks, or any Europeans, bearing gifts.

On top of all this, tragically, it is in the interest of both corrupt Indian leaders and leaders of the modern political left to encourage the legend of the smallpox blanket. It keeps their clients, so to speak, on the reservation. It perhaps convinces them that it is a cruel, dangerous, world out there, and so they need the continued services of their known and trusted leaders to protect them from the evil other. Nor should they interact with such outlanders, and perhaps learn otherwise from them.

Hence identity politics. It works for the worst Third World leaders. It works for many immigrant groups, herded to the polls. It works for many naive Indians in Canada.

It is probably true, in the end, that Indians have been and are being offered an apparent gift intended instead to do them mortal harm. It is probably true that someone is pulling some sort of wool over their eyes.

It is just that it is not smallpox blankets, and it is not coming from The Bay.


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