“Smallpox in the French and Indian War” By Sara Stidstone Gronim

By George Kirtland

By George Kirtland

In August 1757 an army of some 6,000 French and Canadian troops with 2,000 of their Native American allies advanced on Fort William Henry at the southern end of Lake George. In and around the fort were about 1,500 British and colonial troops, along with some soldiers’ families and camp followers. On August 9, after six days bombardment and with its forces greatly outnumbered, the fort surrendered. The terms the French offered were generous: the British and colonial soldiers with their dependents would be allowed to evacuate on the promise that they would desist from fighting against the French for eighteen months. The surrender terms, however, gave nothing to the Native Americans who had fought alongside the French, some of whom had traveled from as far away as present day Wisconsin. Native American warriors would have expected scalps, captives, and booty in the wake of victory. And so on the afternoon of the surrender, the French-allied Native Americans began to seize what they believed they were owed: entering the fort’s hospital, they killed the sick and wounded, taking scalps and possessions, and they dug up the recently buried and took their scalps, too, along with whatever clothing and blankets had been buried with the corpses. The next day they launched an attack on the departing evacuees, taking captives, more scalps, and more goods. (Anderson, 187-89)

Then the Native American warriors departed, for across the arc of North America from the maritime coast to deep in the interior winter was the time for hunting. Too, in the eighteenth century military actions stopped once the snows came. But some of those who had lain ill in Fort William Henry’s hospital and some of those whose corpses had been scalped had had smallpox. Consequently, the warriors carried more than scalps, captives, and booty with them; they also carried the deadly smallpox virus. Some warriors became ill en route, and halted to die at Fort Niagara; others reached their villages only to spread it to kin and neighbors. The death toll will never be known, but the Ottawas remembered the catastrophic smallpox epidemic of the winter of 1757-58 into the nineteenth century, and a French observer commented that the Potawatomis “perished almost completely.” (McLeod, 49)

Before the twentieth century, warfare was virtually always accompanied by disease, and the French and Indian War was no different. Modern medicine is certainly a major reason why this is no longer so, but there were other reasons beyond the absence of antibiotics for the strikingly high incidence of disease in eighteenth century armies. Camps were disorderly with little attention to cleanliness; at Fort William Henry, for example, there was no separation of latrines, cooking fires, and the corpses of the newly buried. (Williams, 102) Soldiers, whether professional or militia, paid little heed to personal cleanliness. One British officer at Fort William Henry described the men under him as “extremely indolent and dirty to a degree [that] the fort stinks enough to cause infection.” (Starbuck, 8) And even without the filth, simple crowding made it easy for a disease like smallpox to spread. Smallpox didn’t change the course of the war but it made it significantly more miserable.

Smallpox is a terrible disease. While it was only one of a number of epidemic diseases that circulated around the rim of the Atlantic and deep into North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was the one people feared most. Partly this was because of its toll: perhaps 30% of those who became infected would die, and sometimes more. The disease could leave survivors blind, render men sterile, and cause pregnant women to miscarry. And it scarred them all. It was also fearsome because it caused such suffering. The initial flu-like symptoms of fever and body aches gave way to the eruption through the skin of small, fluid-filled pox which were extremely painful and made every position one could lie in difficult. The pox often erupted in the mouth and throat, too, making it excruciating to swallow. In the worst cases, the pox were so numerous that they ran altogether, the skin sheeting from the body; in these cases death came rapidly. Smallpox was also terrible because it spread relatively easily. Airborne droplets from coughing or sneezing, urine, and exudate from the pox all transmitted the disease to those nearby. Moreover, dried exudate lingering in clothing, linen, dust, and hair could transmit the disease weeks later, as it had with the Native Americans at Fort William Henry. And the incubation period before symptoms appeared was about twelve days, which allowed infected people to spread it before they or anyone else knew they had the disease.

Native Americans were particularly vulnerable to such epidemic diseases. Before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, few epidemic diseases had developed in the Western Hemisphere, for such diseases can be propagated only when there are relatively dense human populations. Smallpox, while it had high mortality rates, also left survivors with lifelong immunity. Thus in Europe, Africa, and Asia, where smallpox epidemics had long circulated along trade routes, immune survivors of previous outbreaks could care for the sick. But when smallpox arrived in the Americas—in the 1500s in areas colonized by Spain and in the 1600s in areas colonized by the French, Dutch, and English—no Native American had ever been exposed to smallpox and so no one had immunity. Consequently, the initial epidemics were “virgin soil” epidemics in which everyone fell ill at the same time. With no one to prepare food or nurse the sufferers, the death toll was particularly high. The first smallpox epidemic to course through northeastern North America occurred in the 1630s.(Richter, 59) Thereafter it returned at roughly ten to twenty year intervals. By and large, people concentrated on dealing with smallpox by avoiding areas where it was known to have broken out, and because most colonists and Native Americans lived in dispersed communities, this sometimes worked. But times of war are always times of the movement of people and of their concentration in armies. Soldiers on both sides, their Native American allies, and civilians along their routes were all vulnerable if they had not previously survived the disease.

About thirty-five years before the outbreak of the French and Indian War, some colonists had learned of a different way of coping with the threat of smallpox. News came from the Ottoman Empire via London of a procedure called “inoculation” that had long been practiced in the eastern Mediterranean as well as western Africa. A bit of dried smallpox exudate was inserted into a cut in a person who had not yet had the disease. This gave the person a case of genuine smallpox but (for reasons that are still not understood) this case was almost always mild. The inoculee almost always survived and then had the benefit of being immune for the rest of his or her life. In the British colonies, people first tried inoculation during an outbreak in Massachusetts in 1721 and found a dramatic difference between the death rate of those who had caught smallpox in the usual way and those whose smallpox had been deliberately induced.

Despite the clear advantages of inoculation, colonists adopted it slowly and unevenly. For one thing, it was difficult to understand why smallpox brought on by inoculation would be so much safer than smallpox caught “naturally.” Many people hoped to avoid smallpox altogether rather than run the risk (which, while slight, was real) of dying. Also, because of eighteenth-century beliefs about health and illness that focused on balancing bodily fluids called “humors,” inoculation soon came to be accompanied by an elaborate regimen of preparing the body to take the infection. People preparing to be inoculated underwent several weeks of purging and a light diet to bring their humors into optimum balance. Not everyone could spare the time or the respite from work to do this kind of bodily preparation. And some argued that inoculation was impious, for God sent epidemics as chastisement for people’s sins, and so avoiding such chastisement through inoculation was to deny God’s providence. Outbreaks of smallpox, such people thought, would be better dealt with by widespread repentance and reform. For all of these reasons, among some colonists inoculation was well accepted and among others it was much less so. Colonists in the ports of Philadelphia and New York and their fairly densely populated hinterlands seemed more likely to seek out inoculation by the eve of the French and Indian War, while the widely dispersed colonists of the southern colonies and New England colonists seemed less inclined to do so. (Gronim)

As the French and Indian War began, however, while some colonial, French, and British soldiers might have undergone inoculation, none of the Native American fighters would have been so protected. Native Americans either did not know about inoculation or were uninterested in it, for there are no recorded instances in which they took advantage of it. Native Americans largely attributed illness to an imbalance of spiritual forces, whether because of the afflicted one’s actions or inaction, because of a thwarted wish or dream fulfillment or because of the use of witchcraft by an enemy. (Herrick) Indeed, the devastating epidemic of the winter of 1757-58 generated much bitterness among Native Americans because many believed that it had been caused deliberately. The Potawatomie blamed the British for giving them the smallpox, a returning captive reported, “for which they owe them everlasting ill will.” (Fenn, 1566) An Ottawa oral history blamed the French in Montreal, describing the epidemic as having been “sold to them shut up in a tin box.” After the return to the village the box was opened and “soon [there] burst out a terrible sickness among them.” In the spring of 1758 the French had to disburse nearly one million livres of gifts in their efforts to repair the damage to their alliances. (MacLeod, 50-51) As historian D. Peter MacLeod has demonstrated, the presence or absence of smallpox was crucial to Native American decisions to engage, or to refuse to engage, in the battles of the French and Indian War.

Smallpox dogged the military on both sides throughout the French and Indian War. In the fall and winter of 1755, smallpox swept through the St. Lawrence valley, affecting settlers, mission Native Americans, and soldiers alike. Because of the outbreak, Governor-General Vaudreuil had to cancel plans to attack northern British posts like Oswego because he simply didn’t have the manpower. (MacLeod, 47) When British troops disembarked in Philadelphia in December 1756 at the onset of the war, they apparently brought smallpox with them. The Pennsylvania Assembly initially resisted taking responsibility for quartering the soldiers. But in the face of threats to quarter soldiers in people’s homes, soldiers who might be incubating smallpox, it hastily offered Pennsylvania’s newly built hospital for a barracks. (Anderson, 166) During the epidemic of 1757-1758, smallpox spread far and wide, not only throughout Canada but along the Mohawk Valley of New York and down the Hudson to New York City and surrounding areas. (Gronim) While it died down thereafter, it did not entirely disappear. In early 1760 it appeared in the backcountry of South Carolina, where the Cherokees were engaged in a war with the British, and in November 1760 it rebounded on the St. Lawrence, afflicting the British and British colonials who now held Montreal after the French surrender. (Anderson, 413, 461)

But while smallpox most commonly experienced as a grim and inevitable concomitant of war, familiarity with it also allow it to become a weapon of war. The most famous such use of smallpox came during Pontiac’s Rebellion at the end of the French and Indian War. When the French surrendered their claims to North America to the British in the Treaty of Paris in 1763, many Native Americans throughout the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes region denied that they had been conquered and refused to recognize Britain’s new territorial claims. In July, 1763, Native Americans besieged the British inside Fort Pitt at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegany rivers. At a parlay Native American leaders were given gifts including, reported a trader inside the fort, “two Blankets and an (sic) Handkerchief out of the Small Pox hospital.” The trader added, “I hope it will have the desired effect.” (Fenn, 1554) And indeed it did. Smallpox devastated Native Americans in the surrounding areas of the Ohio Valley and beyond, an epidemic that lasted into 1764. A Virginian who witnessed the toll of the epidemic among the Shawnees observed sympathetically, “Ye poor Rascals are Dieing very fast with ye small pox, they can make but Lettle (sic) Resistance and when Routed must parish (sic) in great Numbers by ye Disordere (sic).” (Fenn 1557) While responsibility for this instance of the deliberate spread of smallpox to an enemy can be laid to the British commander in the fort, Simeon Ecuyer (though it is not clear who actually did the deed), his military superiors were in accord with this action. In the same month that smallpox-infected blankets were handed over from Fort Pitt, the commander of British forces in North America, Jeffrey Amherst, wrote one of his lieutenants, “You will do well to try to Innoculate (sic) the Indians by means of Blanketts (sic), as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.” (Fenn, 1556-7) As historian Elizabeth Fenn has shown, European militaries by the eighteenth century had developed rules of honorable conduct in wartime that included such standards as avoiding harm to women and children, but such rules explicitly did not apply in cases like rebellion or to wars against “savages.” When it could be done, the British military had no compunctions about using smallpox as a weapon of biological warfare; indeed, it was a highly desirable way, as Amherst wrote at another point, to attain the “Total Extirpation” of Native Americans. (Fenn, 1574)

When the fighting at last died away, smallpox did not disappear. The outbreaks during the French and Indian War do seem to have furthered the embrace of inoculation, as fragmentary evidence points to more colonists seeking it out. At least one British military surgeon, a Mr. Latham, stayed on after the peace to promote a new, less time-consuming method of inoculation, the so-called “Suttonian” method. Mr. Latham apparently had considerable success, for by 1773 he had both a thriving practice of his own and partners in towns throughout New York, and in Connecticut and Massachusetts. (Gronim) Yet when the Revolutionary War erupted, smallpox again resurged. Smallpox bedeviled both the British and the Continental armies, although Washington effectively dealt with it by ordering the entire Continental army inoculated in 1777. (Becker, 422-428) The war years were ones in which smallpox swept throughout North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Mexico to Canada. (Fenn) And well into the nineteenth century, the “smallpox blanket” would be a potent symbol of the harshness of relations between Native Americans and whites, a weapon in the drawn-out war of American expansion. (Mayor)


Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York, 2000)

Ann M. Becker, “Smallpox in Washington’s Army: Strategic Implications of the Disease During the American Revolutionary War,” The Journal of Military History, 68 (2004): 381-430.

Elizabeth A. Fenn, “Biological Warfare in the Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffrey Amherst,” Journal of American History, 86 (2000): 1552-1580.

Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-`782 (New York, 2001)

Sara Stidstone Gronim, “Imagining Inoculation: Smallpox, the Body, and Social Relations of Healing in the Eighteenth Century,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 80 (2006): 247-268.

James W. Herrick, Iroquois Medical Botany, ed. Dean R. Snow (Syracuse, 1995)

R. Peter MacLeod, “Microbes and Muskets: Smallpox and the Participation of the Amerindian Allies of New France in the Seven Years War,” Ethnohistory, 39 (1992): 42-64.

Adrienne Mayor, “The Nessus Shirt in the New World: Smallpox Blankets in History and Legend,” Journal of American Folklore, 108 (1995): 54-77.

Daniel K. Richter, Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Durham, NC, 1992)

David R. Starbuck, Massacre at Fort William Henry (Hanover, NH, 2002)

Noel St. John Williams, Redcoats Along the Hudson: The Struggle for North America, 1754-1763 (London, 1997)