French and Indian War
During the siege of Fort William Henry, later chronicled by James Fenimore Cooper in his novel, The Last of the Mohicans, the English and American defenders of the post suffered a recurrence of smallpox. Many Americans had been inoculated against the disease, and many more had survived it after contracting it at an age in which they were strong enough to survive its symptoms.
George Washington, who was not present at the siege of William Henry, was one such survivor of smallpox and bore the pockmark scars on his face for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, smallpox was one of the terrors of 18th century life and frequently fatal, especially when children or the elderly became afflicted.
When the fort was surrendered to the French Army and its Native American allies, many of them from the Abenaki and Huron tribes, the English and Americans left behind their sick and wounded to French care. The native Americans, not considering themselves party to the arrangements made by the English and French leaders, massacred the helpless and looted the encampments taking whatever caught their eye but especially blankets, always useful on the frontier.
Many of these items were infested with smallpox which had sickened their previous owners. According to Major Robert Rogers of Roger’s Rangers fame, the Huron even dug up some of the graves to obtain scalps for which they would be paid a bounty by their French allies. In doing so they further exposed themselves to smallpox for which they had no natural immunity and the idea of inoculation was to them totally unknown.
The French, English, and Americans had limited immunity to smallpox but the natives did not. By the following winter, after many of the warriors had returned to their villages, smallpox ran rampant through the tribes. The distance to the encampment of their French ally precluded the natives from reaching help in time. Whole villages were wiped out by the disease before it ran its course, and those that did survive were severely weakened, less able to resist the raiding parties dispatched against them by Ranger companies and the American militia. Although there is no evidence of an organized effort at William Henry to cause smallpox infestation, the Americans were certainly aware of the potential havoc it would cause and did nothing to stop it. They and their allies also took note of its effect for future use against their enemies.