Over the years, I have come across numerous references to an insidious form of germ warfare that some Europeans employed to defeat Native Americans: smallpox blankets. Historians suggest that the practice may have begun as early as the 1530s, when Spanish conquistador Francesco Pizarro handed out bedding of smallpox victims to the Inca inhabitants of Peru, believing that the “miasma” that caused the disease still clung to the fabric.
One of the most clearly documented conspiracies to employ this weapon comes from the letters and papers of Lord Jeffery Amherst, the British commander-in-chief for America in 1763. His hardliner policies against Native Americans in the Great Lakes region had sparked Pontiac, the chief of the Ottawa tribe, to rise up against the British troops. Amherst wanted victory at any cost. To defeat the tribes, he approved the use of smallpox blankets to, as he said, “Extirpate this Execrable Race.”
Some historians have questioned whether smallpox can indeed be spread from blankets. But some studies clearly suggest that it can. In Vectors of Death: The Archaeology of European Contact, University of New Mexico anthropologist Ann Ramenofsky notes that “although the virus is most frequently transmitted through droplet infection, it can survive a number of years outside human hosts in a dried state.”
All this comes to mind thanks to a fascinating recent post on the Northwest Coast Archaeology blog. There you will find a partial transcript of an interview that CBC radio interviewer Imbert Orchard conducted in 1969 with Solomon Wilson, a Haida elder from Maude Island Village on Haida Gwaii in northern British Columbia. In this interview, Mr. Wilson recounts a story he had heard from an elder about smallpox blankets and the spread of disease on the Northwest Coast. It’s definitely worth checking out.