On Nov. 9, Williams sports teams will travel to Amherst, Mass., to participate in a rivalry that has lasted since Williams President Zephaniah Swift Moore defected in 1821 to establish a new college halfway across the state. After almost 200 years, the Williams community has established a working relationship with its peer institution.
Aggression between the two colleges now manifests itself mainly on the football field, but a short history lesson may perhaps reveal the roots of the Williams-Amherst rivalry. The truth is that Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the town and College’s namesake, is suspected of participating in germ warfare, infecting segments of the Indian population with smallpox in order to weaken his opposition. At the very least, understanding his story may create a more meaningful and more interesting competition this year.
Like Ephraim Williams, the founder of this College, Lord Jeffrey Amherst fought in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), serving as commander of the British forces in the final years of the war. His glorious feats on the battlefield earned him the admiration of men of his day and recognition by future generations with the decision that a town should be named after him.
The French and Indian War was a tricky one for the British to fight; the British, who were accustomed to a certain type of combat, found those tribes which opposed them to be a difficult enemy. Indians massacred British soldiers during surprise attacks and raids, and this engendered British hatred of the Indians, leading to their designation as “savages.”
Amherst’s accomplishments are such that his treatment of the Indians is a piece of history that is easily ignored. Historian J.C. Long notes that Amherst respected the French and considered them to be fit competition for his men. His attitude toward the French soldiers’ Indian allies, however, was the opposite: he reacted to them with disgust.
In a letter written to Amherst by Colonel Henry Bouquet in 1763, Bouquet suggested spreading smallpox to the Indian population as a means of destroying what seemed to him to be an unnecessary threat to the British army. Amherst responded with enthusiasm for the idea, citing his preference for punishment over bribery and his desire to “extirpate them root and branch.” Both letters also discussed the use of hunting the Indians with English dogs as a second method of extermination. Before moving his men to Fort Pitt that same year to join Captain Simeon Ecuyer in the battle against the forces of Ottawa Chief Pontiac, Bouquet sent another letter to Amherst, stating his intent to use germ warfare.
Historians agree that there were definite outbreaks of smallpox in the Indian populations surrounding Fort Pitt; speculation still exists as to whether or not the outbreaks were directly connected to the actions of Amherst.
The journal of William Trent, commander of the militia of the townspeople of Pittsburgh, states that the infection of the Indian population was deliberate: his journal documents the distribution of blankets and handkerchiefs exposed to the virus to the Indians by the soldiers at Fort Pitt. The soldiers presumably had the permission of Captain Ecuyer to make this distribution, an act that was almost certainly condoned by Amherst.
Despite the lack of agreement among historians surrounding Amherst’s actual participation in germ warfare, evidence of his intent, as well as his racism, exists in the letters he sent while serving as commander. Of course, the reputation of Lord Jeffrey Amherst cannot be connected with that of his namesake; it is merely entertaining to discover holes in the character of the man affiliated with Williams’s rival, Amherst College.
What happened centuries ago will obviously have no bearing on next week’s competition. Still, Nov. 9 will probably be a chilly day, and those students planning on attending should be advised that it might be best to bring their own blankets to the game.
For more information on Amherst’s alleged use of germ warfare , visit http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/amherst/lord_jeff.html.