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Friday, February 28, 2020

Colonial Germ Warfare - Who Struck First?

Many of us have heard the stories of blankets infected by smallpox victims that were given to the Indians as a first venture into using germ warfare during battle. In research for the novel I'm currently writing, I found a reference to just such a thing happening. It led me on a rabbit trail of investigation.

During the siege of Fort Pitt - part of Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763 - a man named William Trent kept a detailed journal. Trent was in command of the militia forces at the fort. Much of what we know about that fort and other forts that were attacked during the rebellion we owe to his journal.

There was a smallpox outbreak inside the fort when it was crowded past twice its intended occupation due to the number of British settlers who took refuge there. At one point, well into the siege, Trent made the decision to gift two Indian chiefs with blankets from the smallpox victims. He then wrote in his journal, "I hope it will have the desired effect."

Lest we come down too hard on Trent and his fellow officers, it's right to point out that the fort was surrounded by a much larger fighting force, was crammed to the rafters with people, was low on food and gun powder, and had no immediate hope for any relief. In short, they needed to lessen the numbers of their opponents. Militarily speaking, this was a prudent move on their part.

But the British were not the first to incorporate germ warfare tactics. In 1761, it was the Indians who tried to poison the well at Fort Ligonier to kill off the soldiers stationed there. It was discovered before any soldiers were poisoned.

As far as the smallpox blankets and their effectiveness, both of the Indian Chiefs are recorded as having returned to the fort weeks after receiving the blankets and with no visible signs of illness. Smallpox did run rampant that summer, but any linkage to the blankets having participated in the spreading of the disease has been deemed highly unlikely.

Pegg Thomas - Writing History with a Touch of Humor


  1. Such a timely post, Pegg, with concerns about the corona virus being "weaponized".

  2. Interesting. You took this farther than the 'blanket statement' about the act. War stinks and involves fighting to the death. I expect it was an act Trent pondered before acting. What happened after that will never be known. Smallpox virus has to have special conditions to survive for long on blankets, so I expect it was more likely person to person exposure. Thanks Pegg!

  3. I had read, too, that the blankets didn't seem to have the "desired effect", which is a footnote kind of hard to find in history these days. Most articles just leave it at the point where they sent the blankets. Good piece.

  4. Interesting read. Thank you for sharing.


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