Smallpox Blankets during the French Indian War

Smallpox Blankets during the French Indian War

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A different perspective on a smallpox epidemic during the French and Indian War appears in Andrew J. Blackbird's History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan. Blackbird, Chief Mack-e-te-be-nessy, was a member of a distinguished Ottawa family from the northwest shore of the Michigan lower peninsula. He wrote his History late in life, after a long career in education, politics, and public service.

Blackbird's book, like many similar autoethnographic texts, is a combination of autobiography, history, ethnography, and polemic. He opens with a conventional reference to inaccuracy in current histories. In the course of correcting the record he relates the story, preserved by elders of his nation, of a smallpox epidemic during the height of the French and Indian War, about 1757. Blackbird's story is unique because of the unusual disease vector.

It was a notable fact that by this time [1763] the Ottawas were greatly reduced in numbers from what they were in former times, on account of the small-pox which they brought from Montreal during the French war with Great Britain. This small pox was sold to them shut up in a tin box, with the strict injunction not to open the box on their way homeward, but only when they should reach their country; and that this box contained something that would do them great good, and their people! The foolish people believed really there was something in the box supernatural, that would do them great good. Accordingly, after they reached home they opened the box; but behold there was another tin box inside, smaller. They took it out and opened the second box, and behold, still there was another box inside of the second box, smaller yet. So they kept on this way till they came to a very small box, which was not more than an inch long; and when they opened the last one they found nothing but mouldy particles in this last little box! They wondered very much what it was, and a great many closely inspected to try to find out what it meant. But alas, alas! pretty soon burst out a terrible sickness among them. The great Indian doctors themselves were taken sick and died. The tradition says it was indeed awful and terrible. Every one taken with it was sure to die.

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Lodge after lodge was totally vacated - nothing but the dead bodies lying here and there in their lodges - entire families being swept off with the ravages of this terrible disease. The whole coast of Arbor Croche... was entirely depopulated.... It is generally believed among the Indians of Arbor Croche that this wholesale murder of the Ottawas by this terrible disease sent by the British people, was actuated through hatred, and expressly to kill off the Ottawas and Chippewas because they were friends of the French Government or French King. (9-10)

[pp. 141-142]


The practice of smallpox inoculation is dated to the eleventh century in China and was known in Africa and the Middle East. Translations of Chinese medical treatises were a major means of promoting smallpox inoculation in eighteenth-century Europe and the Americas.1 The "mouldy particles" that Andrew Blackbird says caused an infection among the Ottawa Indians sound remarkably like the infectious matter introduced in the process of inoculation. Chinese medical textbooks offer descriptions of classic inoculation procedures. The Golden Mirror of Medicine, for instance, describes four methods of smallpox inoculation; two of them are as follows:

(1) The nose is plugged with powdered smallpox scabs laid on cotton wool... (2) ... The powdered scabs are put into the end of a silver tube which is about six or seven inches long and curved at the end. The scabs are blown into the nose. (Hume 140)

[pp. 144-145]

Footnote (renumbered from original)

1. Several accounts point out that African slaves taught European colonizers in the Western Hemisphere how to inoculate for smallpox. Catholic missionaries carried out inoculation campaigns among Indians in Latin America, which were moderately successful when they were accepted, although not as effective as among Europeans. British colonists evidently did not attempt to inoculate Indians to prevent smallpox. Later, with the introduction of Jenner's vaccination method, Jefferson promoted the first of a number of U.S. government campaigns to immunize Indian populations against smallpox (Duffy; Sheehan; Stearn and Stearn).
Works Cited

Blackbird, Andrew J. History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan. Ypsilanti, MI: Ypsilantian Job Printing House, 1887. Rpt. Petoskey, MI: Little Traverse Regional Historical Society, 1977.

Duffy, John. "Smallpox and the Indians in the American Colonies." Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Vol. 25. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1951.

Sheehan, Bernard. Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973.

Stearn, E. Wagner, and Allen E. Steam. The Effect of Smallpox on the Destiny of the Amerindian. Boston: Bruce Humphries, 1945.
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