How did Americans know that Native Americans would be infected with smallpox, from smallpox infected blankets, hundreds of years before germ theory?

  • 8
    The same way that people knew that objects fall downwards long before Newton explained gravity. They knew the effects even if they didn't understand the underlying mechanism of transmission.
    – Steve Bird
    Jun 29, 2016 at 17:48
  • Blame the British - see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Fort_Pitt Jun 29, 2016 at 18:00
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    Important to distinguish the accidental spread of smallpox when the Spanish first showed up and the intentional spread of smallpox in the 18th century mentioned above. By the 18th century, while "germ theory" didn't exist, it was very close, and this was just around the time Jenner was figuring out vaccination. Jun 29, 2016 at 19:44

2 Answers 2


Before germ theory, there were similar concepts of infectious disease- bad humors, bad air, etc. Miasma theory held that decaying organic matter transmitted infectious fumes to other organic matter. Girolamo Fracastoro went further and developed a proto-germ theory in the 1500s. So people got the idea.


How did Americans know that Native Americans would be infected with smallpox, from smallpox infected blankets, hundreds of years before germ theory?

Did Americans know or merely hope that Native Americans would be infected with smallpox, from smallpox infected blankets?

Apparently smallpox can be spread by infected objects even though it usually spreads by airborn viruses from infected persons.

Certainly British commander in North America Lord Jefffrey Amherst hoped that giving Native Americans blankets from smallpox victims would infect them.

But wiser persons might have warned him that his evil and genocidal plan was highly flawed and would probably not work well enough to make any difference.

Certainly Native American populations had been decimated by infectious diseases many times in the last few centuries and their numbers had been greatly reduced. But Amherst still had a terrible problem with hostile Native Americans. It was wishful thinking to hope that a new epidemic would be enough to end troubles with the Native Americans during his time in command. Especially since simply reversing Amherst's own polices toward the Native Americans and granting them what they wanted would have ended the trouble much faster.

But at least Amherst's evil and over optimistic plan contributed to reducing the numbers of the eastern tribes so that after a few years they were no longer any trouble, as Richard Butler and Francis Dade could testify. Correct?



Much later many plains Indian tribes were devastated by a smallpox epidemic in 1837. And after that the plains Indians tribes were never numerous enough to fight the US government, right? That is the reason why in the year 1890 such old soldiers as John Lawrence Grattan, William Judd Fetterman, and George Armstrong Custer said that the peaceful history of the plains since about 1840 had been caused by that great smallpox epidemic in 1837, and without it many brave soldiers would have died fighting the plains Indians. Correct?




  • George Armstrong Custer was dead long before 1890! Jul 2, 2016 at 17:26
  • @Peter Diehr Lieutenant John L. Grattan was killed in the Grattan Massacre August 19, 1854, Captain William Fetterman was killed in the Fetterman Massacre December 21, 1866, and George Custe was killed at his Last Stand on June 25, 1876. My last paragraph was an example of sarcasm.
    – MAGolding
    Jul 1, 2019 at 15:14
  • @ Peter Diehr And I may add that Major General Richard Butler was killed in St. Clair's Defeat November 4, 1791 and Captain Francis Dade was killed in the Dade Massacre December 28, 1835. I added more sarcasm.
    – MAGolding
    Jul 1, 2019 at 15:22
  • I'm happy to announce that Amherst street in Montreal was renamed Atataken ("group of persons or peoples with whom we share values") one week ago.
    – MasB
    Jul 1, 2019 at 20:35

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