Skip to main content

Bioterrorism new to Native Americans?

The bioterrorist attacks on the East Coast aren't the first seen by residents of Indian country. From the first contact with Europeans, Native Americans have been besieged by disease, sometimes unintentionally but at other times on purpose, to rid Europeans of what they considered pests.

Using a disease to conquer an enemy is not a new idea. The Romans were the first to use biological agents against their enemies, using dead animals to foul water supplies. The whole idea was to weaken the enemy, making them easier to defeat.

The Tartars catapulted bodies infected with bubonic plague over the walls of the city of Kaffa, possibly causing the epidemic of the Black Plague that killed 25 million people in medieval Europe.

The European use of biological weapons wasn't left behind when they came to the shores of the "New World." During the French and Indian War, British troops gave blankets to the Indians from a hospital that was treating smallpox victims, devastating Native populations.

The now infamous letters from Lord Jeffery Amherst, commanding general of British forces in North America, to Colonel Henry Bouquet discusses not only the futility of trying to use dogs to hunt American Indians but also the possibility of germ warfare.

In a postscript from an earlier letter from Amherst to Bouquet, the question of using smallpox against the American Indians comes up: "Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them."

Further correspondence between Amherst and others in the British military damn him in the eyes of historians when a smallpox epidemic literally wiped out tribes in the area of Fort Pitt.

But use of smallpox in later years in the West as a weapon to kill American Indian populations is not as clear as the plans Amherst laid out. Yet the disease decimated populations of American Indian people along the trading routes on the Great Plains.

In looking at smallpox epidemics, it is necessary to look at the disease itself and the efforts of various nations throughout the world as they tried to fight the dreaded disease.

As early as 300 BC, the Chinese used a type of inoculation against smallpox, far ahead of medical discoveries in Europe. Inoculation cannot be confused with vaccination. In an inoculation, "doctors" collected scabs from people who survived smallpox, ground them up and then had uninfected people sniff up the powdery scabs through a straw.

If the scabs had weakened enough, the inoculations helped the uninfected persons fight off smallpox. But, if the scabs were still very virile, the chances of survival of the formerly uninfected person were small.

There are instances of inoculation tried on Indian tribes in North America with disastrous results because of the lack of understanding of most people in the medical field regarding spread of disease and their inability to know the strength of the ground up scabs.

The Mandan, Assiniboine and Blackfeet tribes were nearly annihilated by smallpox, yet no direct proof appears to be available that the disease was purposely spread among the tribes other than a statement by a Captain Ecuyer of the Royal Americans: "Out of our regard for them (i.e. two Indian chiefs) we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect."

A boat, the St. Peter, hired by the American Fur Co., is considered to be responsible for spreading smallpox to tribes along the Missouri River and appears to be the one Ecuyer was on or talking about. When the boat left Fort Clark on its way to Fort Union, one crewmember was carrying the smallpox virus. It is here that attempts supposedly were made by the crew to keep the man onboard the boat. Yet 30 people, whites as well as Assiniboine, became infected.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Scholars question Ecuyer's statement because they don't believe it made sense for the fur traders to essentially kill off their livelihood by killing off the tribes they traded with.

"There is a lot of debate on whether or not bioterrorism was used on Indians," University of Kansas professor Paul Kelton said. "I do know that smallpox can be transmitted through smallpox infected blankets, but it is very difficult to do, especially when the people who were doing it didn't even understand the germ theory. Certainly sometimes the will and intent were there, but the capabilities weren't -- that parallels today."

At Fort Union, officials attempted inoculation to stop the spread of the disease. It didn't work and instead infected the population. A shopkeeper at Fort Union described those who survived the inoculation: "Some were half eaten by maggots, and some, in their delirium were so crazed that they had to be locked in."

The remaining members of the Assiniboine tribe were told to stay away from the fort, but they demanded to see relatives being treated. Their lack of understanding of the disease of smallpox may have been what brought about their demise. It was reported that the officials of the fort brought out a sick boy to show them, but the short exposure was enough.

The Assiniboine believed officials at the fort had purposely exposed them when they began contracting the disease and dying at a rate of 50 to100 each day. The short exposure cost them dearly when the mortality rate of more than 90 percent destroyed their tribe.

After reaching Fort Clark in June of 1837, crewmembers aboard the St. Peter were sick with smallpox, but were not removed from the boat. Mandan tribal members met with them and traded for supplies. Supposedly F.A. Chardon, in charge of the fort, tried to explain to a Mandan chief that the blanket he had stolen was infected with the disease and tried to get it back.

Whether the account is accurate or not, the Mandan began dying by the second week in July, from smallpox. What is different with the Mandan epidemic is that there are journal entries in existence regarding the outbreak.

The suffering was so horrific it was recorded by Chardon and others that some Mandans actually took their own lives rather than face the disease. Chardon wrote: "A Mandan and his wife killed themselves yesterday, to not outlive their relations that are dead ? the wife of a young Mandan that caught the disease was suffering from the pain, her husband looked at her and held down his head. He jumped up, and said to his wife; no I will go with you. He took up his gun and shot her in the head and with his knife ripped open his own belly."

It is said that Chief Ma-to-toh-pah blamed traders for the disease he and his tribe had contracted. The final speech he gave to his people has survived him either by oral history or by the journal entries of Chardon: "I have never called a white man a dog, but today I do pronounce them to be a set of black hearted dogs, they have deceived me, them that I always considered as brothers, has turned out to be my worst enemies?I do not fear death, my friends. You know it, but to die with my face rotten, that even the wolves will shirk with horror at seeing me, and say to themselves, that is the Four Bears, the friend of the Whites."

So few Mandan were left there were literally none to bury the dead. It was reported that by September an estimated 1,563 Mandan had died of smallpox.

Despite the ravages already inflicted on Native populations, the disease was allowed to continue its devastating route when a keel boat filled with goods from Fort Union left for Fort McKenzie, six miles north of a tributary of the Yellowstone River.

When a member of the boat's crew came down with smallpox, the boat stopped short of its destination. Supposedly warnings were sent out to the American Indians at the fort letting them know the boat had the smallpox virus, but Blackfeet leaders believed they were being cheated and demanded the boat be brought to the fort.

The boat came on to the fort and trading took place, but by the end of autumn, soldiers were sent out looking for the Blackfeet. The tribe had not been back to the fort, but the soldiers soon found out why, in the Piegan Village, the lodges were deserted and dead bodies were everywhere. It was estimated that more than 700 Blackfeet had succumbed to smallpox.

Kevin Gover, former assistant secretary, Indian affairs, reflected on the history of bioterrorism in Indian country. "I saw Greg Bourland's piece in Indian Country Today," Gover said. "I agree with him. I said the same thing last year after the 'apology speech'. Look, we've had biological warfare, chemical warfare in the use of alcohol against Indians, total war in the burning of villages and the killing of women and children.

"We have pretty much seen the whole gamut of how bad a country can be toward another. There is actually acknowledgement of the fact that smallpox was used against us."