Thursday, February 28, 2008

Fort Pitt & Biological Warfare

"A Plan of the New Fort at Pitts-Burgh"
(click image to enlarge)
In May and June of 1763, a loose confederation of tribes inspired by the Ottawa war leader Pontiac launched attacks on British-held posts throughout the Great Lakes and Midwest. On May 29, 1763, they began a siege of Fort Pitt, located in western Pennsylvania at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. The officer in charge at Fort Pitt was Swiss-born captain Simeon Ecuyer. On June 16, 1763, Captain Ecuyer reported to Colonel Henry Bouquet at Philadelphia that the frontier outpost's situation had taken a turn for the worse. Local Indians had escalated the hostilities, burning nearby houses and attempting to lure Ecuyer into an engagement beyond the walls of the well-protected post, where traders and colonists had taken refuge. "We are so crowded in the fort that I fear disease," wrote Ecuyer, "for in spite of all my care I cannot keep the place as clean as I should like; moreover, the small pox is among us. For this reason I have had a hospital built under the bridge beyond musket-fire." Henry Bouquet, in a letter dated June 23, passed the news on to Jeffery Amherst, the British commander-in-chief, at New York. "Fort Pitt is in good State of Defence against all attempts from Savages," Bouquet reported, but "Unluckily the small Pox has broken out in the Garrison." By June 16, then, smallpox had already established itself inside Fort Pitt.
General Amherst subsequently suggested using smallpox as a weapon for ending the siege of Fort Pitt. In a series of letters exchanged with Bouquet, the two men discussed the possibility of infecting the attacking tribes with smallpox through gifts of blankets exposed to the disease. Reportedly, unknown to Amherst and Bouquet, Ecuyer had already attempted this very tactic. Although Amherst's name is usually connected with this incident, because he was overall commander and because of his correspondence with Bouquet, evidence appears to indicate that the attempt was made without Amherst's prior knowledge. The success or failure of Ecuyer's attempt is unknown.

(Source: Journal of American History, "Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffery Amherst", by Elizabeth A. Fenn; also, Wikipedia)