Carl Hammer: More thoughts on Lord Jeff

  • Lord Jeffery Amherst.

Published: 8/4/2020 3:16:02 PM

The July 20 edition featured a Lord Jeff twofer: an opinion piece by Harvey Wasserman on renaming the college and a letter by Will Van Heuvelen on renaming the town.

When the college’s teams were renamed several years ago, I pointed out in a letter to the paper that the college’s founders had no intention of honoring Jeffery Amherst and that he himself would have been deeply offended by the appropriation of his identity as a sports mascot. So now we have the Mammoths.

The former and current objections to the continued use of his name both result from two brief afterthoughts in Amherst’s voluminous correspondence. They were made by Amherst in letters to his ablest field officer, Col. Henry Bouquet, then on his way to relieve Fort Pitt, which was under siege by warriors allied with Pontiac. Amherst conjectured wishfully that blankets infected with smallpox might be used against the Natives. The letters were printed over a century and a half ago by Francis Parkman in the second volume of his “The Conspiracy of Pontiac” (1870 edn, pp. 39-40, available on the Internet Archive).

They have been the object of extensive historical examination over a long period. It is notable that Parkman, who characterized Amherst’s response to the rebellion as “a certain thick-headed, blustering arrogance, worthy of the successor of Braddock,” first denounced Amherst’s reference to smallpox as a “detestable suggestion.” But it is also the case that Amherst’s intemperate remarks were outbursts of desperate exasperation by a man under tremendous pressure who saw his professional reputation and his aspirations under imminent threat.

To my knowledge, they were never repeated or elaborated, much less acted upon. The actual (and evidently ineffectual) attempt to distribute infected blankets was made at Fort Pitt, probably by Captain Simon Ecuyer with the militia officer, William Trent, acting on their own initiative and certainly not under orders from Amherst. Nor is there evidence that Amherst ever signed off or subsequently approved the attempt.

There is no doubt that Amherst had a low opinion of Native Americans — as he did of the English colonists. But there is also no doubt that the people who separated the town of Amherst from Hadley were intensely grateful to Amherst for securing their safety from the French and their Native allies after a full century of military threat. Just before the Pontiac Rebellion, in December 1762, the leaders of Hampshire County even attempted unsuccessfully to enlist Amherst’s assistance in founding a college there to be named Queens College. Had they succeeded, it is unlikely that either Amherst College or Williams College would exist, and there would probably be no cause for indignant controversy.

Carl Hammer lives in Easthampton and Pittsburgh.

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