Thanksgiving-appropriate History

Today in class I overheard one of my classmates attempting to jokingly explain the holiday of Thanksgiving to our Persian teacher, a young woman from Herat, Afghanistan.  The sentence that raised my ire was something to this effect.

They gave us corn, turkeys, and pumpkins, and we gave them smallpox blankets and whiskey.

More depressing is that it turns out she was only quoting this cute little video.  I’m not sure if she knew she was quoting it, but still.  This caused me to stop working with my conversation partner and snap out the words, “That’s a hoax.  Maybe you don’t know, but that never happened.”  And I realize that this is one of those things that most people are happy to accept without critical analysis of the proof.  Should someone show me proof counter to what I’m about to share with you, I will happily recant.

First, let me state my hypothesis.

The Smallpox Blanket method of germ warfare is a hoax, supported by desires but not facts.

Yes, the indigenous population of the Americas was largely wiped out by European action, both conscious and accidental.  Disease was, by most accounts, the most lethal of those things brought from Europe.  It’s a very modern, and I would suggest anachronistic [ie inappropriate for the time period], idea that these actions can be termed “germ warfare” or even “genocide.”  It’s more realistic to consider the sad trudge of history as a series of nonsensical actions accomplished by people living the best they can with very incomplete information.  In hindsight, historians have a nasty habit of infusing reason and forethought into the heads of those people living in the moment, but anachronistically.  We long to see logic and continuity where little or none, in reality, actually exists.  The Russian Empire is a fantastic example, where historians assume some kind of continuity from one tsar to the next.  In reality, just like in our crazy day-to-day lives, most people are just making it up as they go along, albeit to the best of their ability, and within the realm of precedents and norms they have accepted.

The depopulation of the Americas happened.  The Native Americans were on the receiving end of centuries of war and political maneuvering for the gain and profit of incoming populations from the Old World, and then for the gain and profit of their now native-sons, the inhabitants of the United States and other territories, colonies,  and independent states of the Americas.

But was it engineered?  Was it a genocide?  I’d argue that no, it wasn’t.  Genocide and ethnic cleansing are phrases tossed around easily.  Rather like blaming the Black Death on the Jews of Medieval Europe, it is putting agency and motive retroactively in the hands of the population that seemed to gain by the death of the unfortunates.  Complicating matters, at least in the case of the indigenous population of the Americas, was the lack of substitute animal milk, which had a profound negative impact on the growth and recuperative abilities of their populations in difficult times. [1]

Now, did the incoming Europeans know about the Smallpox contagion and its ability to live outside the body?  Not really, though their is proof that at least some British officers wanted to somehow pass the disease on to their native adversaries.  You can read the exchange, out of context, at the Straight Dope.  It involves two different exchanges – that between General Amherst and Colonel Bouquet during the Siege of Fort Pitt, as well as a journal entry from the militia leader of the city around Fort Pitt, Pittsburgh.  This occurred during the French and Indian War.  The British colonists were attempting to fight incoming French soldiers and their Indian allies, some of whom had recently been allied to the British.  It was the recent switching of sides, accompanied by the slaughter of unarmed settlers, that so upset the General.  He viewed the traitorous Indians as subhuman, and wanted to construct a way to give the Indians smallpox without putting his own men at risk.  This is the age-old problem of smallpox and similar germ warfare – the boomerang effect.

However, the same sources utilized by the Straight Dope version of the story have been also put to work in a defense[2], pointing out that while blankets were given by the militia leader to visiting natives, the journal points out that it was out of concern for the cold weather, and that they were “good” Indians still allied with Fort Pitt, people the British colonists would want to stay healthy.

It should also be mentioned that Bouqet was not certain whether the blankets would succeed in spreading smallpox.  Blankets are not traditionally considered  a path of contagion.  This is actually understandable, as medical tests have shown cloth is a very poor vector.  Smallpox is caught, like the common cold, through the nose, and even sleeping with the blankets would not necessitate infection.

According to the U.S. Government’s book Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare, the smallpox EEV is highly stable and can retain its infectivity for long periods outside the host; however, sunlight and air greatly reduce the viability of virus particles. Smallpox is highly infectious when spread by aerosol, but infectivity from contaminated cotton bedding is infrequent (Bull. WHO 1957, 16:247-254), because the virus must enter through the nose to create infection. Thus, although it is certainly not impossible for a blanket to carry smallpox, transmission by blankets would be inefficient at best.[3]

Thus, it is much more likely that smallpox spread through human contact.

One epedemiologist has even suggested that an unknown, but probably large, portion of the death of indigenous populations during the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica was a native strain of hemorrhagic fever. [4]  This is controversial, considering it is only a few years old and flies in the face of the standard interpretation of 80% fatality at the hands of Spanish-born smallpox and other diseases.

So, where did all the madness about genocidal US leadership making it Army policy to hand out smallpox blankets to Native Americans in the Western territories?  It has actually been part of oral history in the area that smallpox was brought to the West by white settlers, not at the hands of army agents.  However, starting in the early 1990s, Ward Churchill, former professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, began publishing articles, first under pen names, and then under his own name, claiming that the 1836 smallpox epidemic of the Plains Indians was a planned genocide controlled by the Army.  Mr. Churchill made a splash in the national press after 2001 with a paper claiming that 9-11 was a response in kind from the world in return for the injustice of American foreign politics.[5]

As an aside, allow me to quote the Wikipedia article on Mr. Churchill, pointing that this is a man of conflicted personal identity with little continuity in his personal claims.  He is either unconcerned with the facts in the face of his political arguments, or deeply troubled and unstable.

In 2003, Churchill stated, “I am myself of Muscogee and Creek descent on my father’s side, Cherokee on my mother’s, and am an enrolled member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.” In 1992, Churchill wrote elsewhere that he is one-eighth Creek and one-sixteenth Cherokee. In 1993, Churchill told the Colorado Daily that, “he was one-sixteenth Creek and Cherokee.” Churchill told the Denver Post in February 2005 that he is three-sixteenths Cherokee.

The United Keetoowah Band clarified that Churchill was never an enrolled member, but was awarded an honorary associate membership in May 1994, as were Bill Clinton and others;  honorary associate membership recognizes assistance to the tribe, but does not indicate Indian ancestry or enrollment. The Keetoowah Band states that Churchill still holds the honorary associate membership, that it hasn’t been rescinded, and that the Keetoowah Band stopped recognizing such memberships in 1994.

The Rocky Mountain News, in 2005, published a genealogy of Churchill, and reported “no evidence of a single Indian ancestor” [of Churchill's]. The News reported that both of Churchill’s birth parents were listed as white on the 1930 census, as were all of his other known ancestors on previous censuses and other official documents.  However, it confirmed that there had been a longstanding belief in Indian ancestry in Churchill’s family[6].

To finish this article, let me point you to a brilliant essay that reads like a polemic, but is really nothing more than a point-by-point refutation of every assertion ever made by Churchill in the way of Native American genocide.  The author, Thomas Brown, had been the recipient of professional attacks by Mr. Churchill, and was publishing a public account of the claims made by Churchill, while checking Churchill’s sources and debunking his arguments.  Thomas Brown is a professor of sociology.

In this analysis of the genocide rhetoric em- ployed over the years by Ward Churchill, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado, a “distressing” conclusion is reached: Churchill has habitually committed multiple counts of research misconduct–specifically, fabrication and falsifica- tion. While acknowledging the “politicization” of the topic and evidence of other outrages committed against Native American tribes in times past, this study examines the different versions of the “smallpox blankets” episode published by Churchill between 1994 and 2003. The “preponderance of evidence” standard of proof strongly indicates that Churchill fabricated events that never occurred– namely the U.S. Army’s alleged distribution of small- pox infested blankets to the Mandan Indians in 1837. The analysis additionally reveals that Chur- chill falsified sources to support his fabricated ver- sion of events, and also concealed evidence in his cited sources that actually disconfirms, rather than substantiates, his allegations of genocide[7].


1. Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, New York: Harper & Row, 1981; 36. See also: Jared Diamond, Germs, Guns, and Steel.

2.T.J. Nelson (July 27, 2003). “Smallpox, Indians, and Germ Warfare“.

3. Ibid.

4. Rodolfo Acuna-Soto; David W. Stahle, Malcolm K. Cleaveland, and Matthew D. Therrell (April 2002). “Megadrought and Megadeath in 16th Century Mexico“.

5. Churchill, Ward.  Some People Push Back.

6. See the Article: Ward Churchill

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About Michael Hancock-Parmer

PhD Student, Russian History, Central Eurasian Studies
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2 Responses to Thanksgiving-appropriate History

  1. AJK says:

    “In reality, just like in our crazy day-to-day lives, most people are just making it up as they go along, albeit to the best of their ability, and within the realm of precedents and norms they have accepted.”

    That is the short version of why I am such a history nerd. The past is confusing, and was lived by real human beings with flaws, senses of humor, and deeply-felt inadequacies. It’s unfair to judge them by any standard other than how we would judge our peers, sure.

    I think it may be a bit unfair to use Churchill as a symbol of the Indian Genocide claim, the whole issue is, obviously, entirely too complex to be characterized by an admitted rabblerouser. At the same time, he presents a cute, snarky, story that can be picked up by disaffected college kids (of which I was one not a long time ago) pretty easily. Complex issues don’t have a chance in the real world.

  2. Iroquois says:

    Amherst on June 29, 1763: “Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.”

    Bouquet on July 13, 1763: “I will try to inoculate the bastards with some blankets that may fall into their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself.”

    Amherst on July 16, 1763: “You will do well to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”

    Looks like perfect reason and forethought, logic and continuity. The intent to exterminate the Indians as a race is clearly articulated. This is what genocide is, in its strictest sense.

    Also, you would do well to address Mr. Churchill’s arguments directly, instead of attacking his character. The truth is the truth, even if written by the most conflicted, troubled, and unstable man.

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