February 09, 2005

Ward Churchill's claims

On a tangent to a tangent, Ward Churchill's 2001 remarks about Sept. 11 have brought to light his earlier accusations of American military intentional depopulation of the Dakota Territory with smallpox-infected blankets, which he specifically identifies as intentionally distributed at Fort Clark by the army in 1837. Churchill claims, "The result was a pandemic among the Plains Indian nations which claimed at least 125,000 lives, and may have reached a toll several times that number."

The evidence for any intentional distribution of smallpox at that time and place is extremely sketchy, and Churchill hasn't come anywhere near making his case. Part of the proof is reminding people of the documented distribution of blankets at Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh) by the fort commander, Capt. Simon Ecuyer, during the 1764 Pontiac Rebellion, and the after-the-fact authorization by British North American commander-in-chief Jeffrey Amherst. We discussed that incident on Flit a couple years back.

Some important things to note about the "Amherst incident" are:

1) There were lots of vectors other than blankets that could have been responsible for smallpox transmission in both 1764 and 1837, with smallpox hospitalizations already prevalent in the local white population... otherwise they'd have had no hospital blankets to give, obviously. The unmodified variola virus only remains infectious when outside the body for 48 hours, less if exposed to sunlight... while it can certainly be spread by blankets, in all cases the person that infected that blanket likely wasn't that far away at the time.

2) In the Pittsburgh incident, it's likely Ecuyer's intent was assassination/incapacitation of local Indian leaders and/or their close families (he only gave two blankets, to two specific Indians), rather than sparking an epidemic. Also, the epidemic that did start likely did not do so quickly enough to have a material impact (in terms of incapacitating large numbers of Indians) to aid in the relief of Fort Pitt.

3) While Amherst had, far from Ecuyer's location, authorized the spreading of smallpox among the Indians he was fighting, it has not been established how word of that order could have reached Ecuyer (trapped in a besieged fort) before he had acted, also indicating this may have been an independent decision by Ecuyer. There is also no evidence that Amherst's order (which showed up with the relief force) actually led to any further blanket-spreading after the siege was lifted.

The analogy might be to a mob boss leaving a message on the phone machine of one of his hit men to whack a rival group of gangsters, an order which the hit man received only AFTER he'd already killed one of the guys for reasons of his own, without knowing the mob boss' wishes. If he doesn't go on to kill anyone else, would the post facto approval make the mob boss responsible for the first murder?

4) Ecuyer, a Swiss mercenary who was already dealing with the disease inside the besieged fort, may have only been following standard military practice, going back to medieval times of spreading disease to his besiegers. Sieges for centuries had been frequently won or lost depending on the variable effects of disease (which inevitably showed up in some form) on either side of a fort wall... the blanket subterfuge is novel, but in a military sense was just an evolutionary development from the earlier practice of whatever side was sicklier using catapults to throw dead carcasses over the walls to try and try and accelerate incapacitation amongst the other side's troops. This is a significantly different act from Churchill's accusation, of intentionally spreading diseased trade goods among a native population then on their home territory and at peace.

5) It's hard to defend Amherst, who frequently made negative racial characterizations of Indians in his writings. So did most American and British men in this time period, but Amherst will always to some extent stand condemned by his own choice of words. But whether he was a bad man or a prisoner of his times, it's inconceivable he would have done what we might see today as the right thing and start a program of variolation for Indians, tribes he was then at war with, to save their lives (Variolation was a primitive and not particularly effective precursor to vaccination then known in Europe: Jenner's first mass smallpox inoculation campaign in Britain would not be for another 40 years). But the American government surely deserves some comparable measure of credit for its commitment to the smallpox inoculation of Indians, beginning with the passage of an Act of Congress to that effect in 1832, five years before Churchill's alleged intentional act of genocide.

That inoculation campaign may have been underfunded, ineffective, even a cause of disease itself (inoculation was still very much in its infancy, and all methods in use at the time did lead to some deaths among the inoculated; a British epidemic in 1839 among a by-then largely inoculated population still killed 22,000) but Churchill and his supporters surely have to at least try to explain the logic of why the government was devoting funds to an inoculation campaign while it was simultaneously allegedly spreading the same disease.

6) There is absolutely no doubt that many North American Indian tribal areas were deeply depopulated by smallpox and other diseases, and that this materially helped the American (and Canadian) conquest of their territories. Trading contacts (possibly involving trade goods bearing the smallpox infection although the face-to-face contacts, cohabitation, intermarriages, etc. would probably have been sufficient) are the most likely vector into the Northwest and Plains Indian populations that were decimated by this disease starting in the 1830s. But as I said in a Crooked Timber thread, that cannot and should not be the end of historical inquiry into the subject. Many questions of intentionality, mechanism, and effect are still open, and saying it's somehow unscholarly to demand at least some accuracy in the details is to leave the field open to untruthful and unsupportable work like Churchill's.

UPDATE: Inside Higher Ed writes: "Brown's article [criticizing Churchill] also notes that at other times, U.S. and English military leaders did use biowarfare against Indian groups in genocidal ways." What Brown actually said: "Few historians would dispute that during the Plains Indian wars, selected U.S. military forces did perpetuate massacres that can easily be construed as genocidal in intent. Furthermore, it is well-established that the British general Lord Amherst at least considered distributing smallpox-infected goods to Indians in 1763—with explicitly genocidal intent—and that his plan was carried out independently by his subordinates." Note the differences:

a) Brown ascribes genocidal massacres to American soldiers on the American plains, not "biowarfare."
b) Brown tags only the British Amherst, not anyone from the U.S., with "genocidal biowarfare."
c) As stated above, even Brown may go too far when he says Amherst's plan of genocide was actually carried out by subordinates. What we can firmly establish is that a single British commander in a besieged fort gave two diseased blankets to two specific Indians among the besiegers, without orders or Amherst's prior knowledge, and that this act may possibly have led or contributed to a localized outbreak of smallpox among local natives in the following year. Amherst's declared intent to subsequently use wide-scale smallpox infection against his enemies in the Pontiac War may never have been acted on outside this single incident.

Note how these known facts morph into a firm allegation of an executed act of genocidal intent by one British commander in Brown, and then into multiple acts of "biowarfare" by both British and Americans in the synopsis of Brown. Churchill's outlandish claim is born of the same error, just taken to the next step along.

Final aside: Amherst was no infectious disease expert. While it was known in 1764 that smallpox could be spread by blankets, he had no way of knowing that the viral life outside the body was measured in hours, not days. How exactly he would have conducted his proposed widescale blanket infection campaign, and whether it would even have had an impact over and above the baseline infection rate due to increasing white-native contact, seems somewhat unclear.

Posted by BruceR at 01:18 PM