Amherst College: Time to Dump the Smallpox General

The latest example of the name and mascot wars is at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

The college was named after the town, which was named after the British general, Lord Jeffery Amherst, who oversaw smallpox blanket distribution to the Indians at Fort Pitt in 1763, during what the British called “Pontiac’s Rebellion.”

The New York Times reported on October 31, 2015: “The push to replace Lord Jeff with a new mascot — like the moose, a dragon or even a purple squirrel — appears to be gaining momentum… But it has left some Amherst graduates and current athletes seething, affronted by what they see as a rejection of a campus tradition.”

The controversy at Amherst College offers yet another opportunity to understand that though a name change doesn’t change the past, it ends a celebration of that past.

At the time the town of Amherst was named, Lord Jeff was “the most glamorous military hero in the New World.” He might have been famous to the invaders of this “new world,” but for the indigenous peoples whom he was attacking, he was infamous.

Pontiac and his fellow Indians were resisting the British invasion of their homelands, and they were doing pretty well. In fact, Colonel Henry Bouquet, the officer whose exchange of letters with Amherst formulates the smallpox plan, described an atmosphere of terror among the colonizing settlers. On June 29, 1763, about two weeks before broaching the infected blanket scheme, Bouquet wrote Amherst that the settlers were so afraid of the Indians that “every tree is become an Indian.”

The invader settlers saw Indians as part of the “wilderness” they perceived around themselves: Indian warriors didn’t follow English rules. They didn’t stand in ordered ranks. They fell back into the forests to emerge again in renewed attack. They defied British logic and proved effective against a string of British forts. They nearly succeeded in driving the British out. They became the target for British genocide.

On July 13, 1763, Colonel Bouquet wrote to General Amherst, with a suggestion: “I will try to inocculate the Indians by means of Blankets that may fall in their hands, taking care however not to get the disease myself.”

Bouquet added, “As it is pity to oppose good men against them, I wish we could make use of the Spaniard’s Method, and hunt them with English Dogs. Supported by Rangers, and some Light Horse, who would I think effectively extirpate or remove that Vermine.”

Three days later, Amherst replied: “You will Do well to try to Innoculate the Indians by means of Blankets, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race. I should be very glad your Scheme for Hunting them Down by Dogs could take Effect, but England is at too great a Distance to think of that at present.”

On July 26, 1763, ten days after Amherst’s approval of the suggestion to use germ warfare and “every other method” to get rid of the Indians, Bouquet sent a follow-up: ” I received yesterday your Excellency’s letters of 16th with their Inclosures. … all your Directions will be observed.”

The depiction of Indians as wild beasts was common among early American leaders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. David E. Stannard wrote: “As is so often the case, it was New England’s religious elite who made the point more graphically than anyone. Referring to some Indians who had given offense to the colonists, the Reverend Cotton Mather wrote: ‘Once you have but got the Track of those Ravenous howling Wolves, then pursue them vigourously; Turn not back till they are consumed… Beat them small as the Dust before the Wind.’ Lest this be regarded as mere rhetoric, empty of literal intent, consider that another of New England’s most esteemed religious leaders, the Reverend Solomon Stoddard, as late as 1703 formally proposed to the Massachusetts Governor that the colonists be given the financial wherewithal to purchase and train large packs of dogs ‘to hunt Indians as they do bears.'”

Over the years, as the historical record was forgotten and ignored, some people doubted these stories. Other people knew the stories, but nevertheless asserted that the infected blankets were not intentionally distributed to the Indians, or that Lord Jeff himself was not to blame for germ warfare.

Fortunately for the truth, Amherst’s correspondence was microfilmed as part of the British Manuscript Project, 1941-1945, which was undertaken by the United States Library of Congress during World War II to preserve British historical documents from possible war damage. There are almost three hundred reels of microfilm on Amherst alone.

In 2000, at the urging of Floyd Westerman, I took on the task of searching the archive of Amherst’s documents, looking for proof of the smallpox story. The microfilm is difficult to read, but after some days scanning item-by-item, I found the trail. I made copies. Then I built a website to make the historical record available on the Internet. I gave copyright permission for educational use.

The New York Times reporter did a pretty good job reporting the controversy at Amherst College, until this line: “Some graduates and current students…have pointed out that there is no conclusive proof that General Amherst ever ordered that Native Americans be given infected blankets….” Pointed out there is no proof? The reporter had already quoted from the historical letters! The disgruntled voices weren’t “pointing out” anything. They were denying the record.

Lord Jeffrey Amherst was an Indian hater and a proponent of germ warfare. His views were made clear not only in correspondence with Colonel Henry Bouquet, but with other officials. In a letter of July 9, 1763, to Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of the British Northern Indian Department, Amherst referred to “such Measures to be taken as would Bring about the Total Extirpation of those Indian Nations.”

On August 7, 1763, Amherst wrote to George Croghan, Deputy Agent for Indian Affairs, “their Total Extirpation is scarce sufficient Attonement for the Bloody and Inhuman deeds they have Committed.”

On August 27, 1763, the general wrote again to Sir William Johnson, saying “the Whole Race of Indians [should] Beware…the Consequence [of fighting the English] will most certainly occasion measures to be taken, that, in the End will put a most Effectual Stop to their very Being. The emphasis is in the original.

We do not pretend that changing a name or a mascot changes the historical past. In fact, we might want to keep some villains’ names to contemplate past villainy and help us avoid villainy in the present. But at Amherst, Lord Jeff’s name is not invoked as a reminder of villainy. Rather, it is sung and shouted at games and other events, to celebrate, rather than to contemplate.

Amherst College replaced its Lord-Jeff-chasing-Indians dining hall plates in the 1970s. Now, forty years later, it’s time to dump the general as a mascot. Or, to use his own words, to Bring about the Total Extirpation of any celebration of his name.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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