Cherokee Registry

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Smallpox blankets

In 1738, a major disaster struck the Cherokee when their towns were swept by an epidemic of smallpox. The Cherokee Chief Oconostota, accused the British of deliberately planting smallpox germs in the trade goods, they had shipped to the Cherokees.

The desire of Whites to occupy Indian lands, and the rivalry between French and English for control of the fur trade conducted through Indians, led to the French and Indian War of 1763. In the summer of 1763, attacks by Native Americans against colonists on the western frontier seriously challenged British military control. Lord Jeffery Amherst (who commanded the British military forces stationed in North American during this time), discussed with his troops the advantages of hunting down Indians with dogs, versus infecting them with smallpox.

In a letter to Colonel Henry Bouquet dated July 7, 1763, Amherst writes "Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians?" In a later letter to Bouquet Amherst repeats the idea: "You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race."

Bouquet wrote back, "I will try to innoculate [them] with some blankets that may fall in their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself."  There is evidence that the Captain at Fort Pitt (outside Pittsburgh, PA -- then the western frontier) did give two infected blankets and one infected handkerchief to Indians in June of 1763. This action happened before Amherst mentioned the idea in his correspondence.

It proved particularly effective because the Ohio tribes had little immunity having missed the 1757-58 epidemic among the French allies contracted during the capture of Fort William Henry (New York). The Shawnee were fighting the Cherokee in Tennessee at the time, and they carried the disease to them, and then the Shawnee living with the Creek Confederacy. From there it spread to the Chickasaw and Choctaw, and finally the entire southeast. Before it had run its course, the epidemic had killed thousands, including British colonists.

There is an often repeated story that the Cherokee were given blankets infected with smallpox from a hospital in Tennessee during the Cherokee removal (Trail of Tears). We have found no historical basis for this story. Though thousands died during the removal west, there is no evidence of a major smallpox outbreak along the trail. In fact, the Cherokee population had been greatly reduced by several epidemics in the previous hundred years.

It is possible that the Trail of Tears story of smallpox blankets was adapted from writings of Ward Churchill, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado. Churchhill fabricated a story in which the commander of Fort Clark North Dakota ordered a boatload of blankets shipped from a military smallpox infirmary in St. Louis. These were supposedly distributed to the Mandan Indians causing the very real high plains epedimic of 1837, the year before the Cherokee removal.

In reality the disease Churchill referred to was carried by a number of sick passengers on board the steamboat "St. Peter's" as it delivered supplies along the Missouri river. William Fulkerson, an Indian agent onboard, and Francis Chardon, a fur trader, both tell a story about an Indian sneaking aboard the steamboat and stealing an infested blanket from a sick passenger. Chardon relates that he attempted to retrieve the infested blanket by offering to exchange it for a new one. Upon William Fulkerson's return from the steamboat trip, he warned that: "the small pox has broke out in this country and is sweeping all before it—unless it be checked in its mad career I would not be surprised if it wiped the Mandan and Rickaree [Arikara]Tribes of Indians clean from the face of the earth."